In the middle of a wide-ranging conversation about remote work and creative collaboration, a friend blurted out “The pencil proves remote collaboration works!” It was an esoteric claim but one that makes a strong case. Let’s call it the pencil collaboration.
Way back in 1958, an economist named Leonard Read wrote an essay called ‘I, Pencil’ which points out that no one person knows how to make a pencil. On the surface, the pencil seems like a simple invention. In reality, it is the result of a vast range of specialties which are not centrally coordinated:
I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. […] millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. […] There is a fact still more astounding: the absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being.
The pencil collaboration is a testament to highly-distributed processes in diverse disciplines collaborating to solve problems. Said more simply, it shows that loosely coordinated networks of people can produce concrete results. Here’s an animated film from the Competitive Enterprise Institute which reinforces this point:
Of course, this isn’t limited to a pencil but is true of virtually every invention and of society in general. The Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman used a similar story to illustrate how the free market system promotes cooperation and harmony among those with no common interest. It’s not much of a leap from the pencil collaboration to decentralized autonomous organizations.
The pencil collaboration also reminds us that, no matter how indispensable we think we are, everything we do is dependent on others. The modern version of ‘no one is an island’ might be ‘we are all nodes in the network’.