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22 Apr

On living with wonder

As I write this piece, I'm sitting on this modest bean chair I ordered from Amazon.

I, for one, was early to realize that all those gaming chairs, no matter how expensive, never seemed to adapt to the contours of my body. And sitting long hours becomes painful when pressure is unevenly distributed along the body, with some unsupported bits taking all of the load. I realized a bean chair that fluidly adjusted to my shape and sitting style would be much better at supporting me evenly, for long hours of work. Slouching doesn't seem so bad after all.

Beside me, a window features a collection of potted plants perched on the sill. I purchased them from a nearby nursery shortly after settling into my new home. Their pink terracotta pots, also from Amazon, only make me wonder about all the work that went behind producing them, let alone the world they saw on their way to finding a home in my house. The plants themselves have seen a lot of churn over the past year, as I quickly realized that some plants can be terribly nitpicky in their watering and nutrition requirements while others are more resilient and find the Bengaluru's weather conducive.

Illuminating my workspace is a tripod lamp with polished wooden legs, and to my left is a Wakefit bed that offers nightly refuge. And in front of me, this magnificently engineered and elegantly machined beast of a MacBook I'm typing away on. The aluminum chassis it is housed in, the matte black finish on the motherboard along with all its intricate circuitry, the snappy keyboard, the retina display, the operating system — all of these are entire worlds in themselves, rich with detail. If I chose to explore them from scratch, it would probably take me lifetimes to understand how this marvel of technology comes together to serve me.

And speaking of things coming together, I'm now reminded of this beautiful letter written by Leonard E. Read, titled ‘I, Pencil’.

“What have economists contributed to human knowledge? Plenty, but the magical, beautiful idea of the division of labor might rank as the most important insight. "I, Pencil" explains we create so much more wealth as a community than we ever could alone — in fact, even the simplest item cannot be made without a complex division of labor.”

— Jeffrey A. Tucker

The book starts in first person, as a pencil takes you through its origins — where it came from, what it took to produce it, and the sheer number of diverse people in the economy that helped it come together. I will link this letter at the end of the piece, but for now, I will share some excerpts that describe the journey the pencil took before it found its way to a desk in some home or office in the USA.

“I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me — no, that's too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because — well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year.”

The pencil then goes on to describe the entire process through which it takes its final form.

“My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods.”
“Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill's power!”
“Once in the pencil factory — $4,000,000 in machinery and building, all capital accumulated by thrifty and saving parents of mine — each slat is given eight grooves by a complex machine, after which another machine lays leads in every other slat, applies glue, and places another slat atop — a lead sandwich, so to speak. Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved from this "woodclinched" sandwich.”
“The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which ammonium hydroxide is used in the refining process. Then wetting agents are added such as sulfonated tallow-animal fats chemically reacted with sulfuric acid. After passing through numerous machines, the mixture finally appears as endless extrusions-as from a sausage grinder — cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then treated with a hot mixture which includes candelilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural fats.”
“My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They are. How do you make resins and what, pray, is carbon black? Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involve the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!”
“My bit of metal-the ferrule-is brass. Think of all the persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of why the center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to explain. Then there's my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in the trade as "the plug," the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with me. An ingredient called "factice" is what does the erasing. It is a rubber-like product made by reacting rapeseed oil from the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia] with sulfur chloride. Rubber, contrary to the common notion, is only for binding purposes. Then, too, there are numerous vulcanizing and accelerating agents. The pumice comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives "the plug" its color is cadmium sulfide.”

The pencil ends its story with a monologue that would give any smart individual a reason for pause.

“Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me? Actually, 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.”

“Too much detail Aditya, too much detail. I almost lost track and interest.”

If a thought like this ran through your mind while reading these dense excerpts rich with detail, well, that is exactly the point I'm trying to make with this essay.

That as the convenience economy has come along — and I would place this right around the time the personal computer came along —as a people, we slowly started losing our appreciation for all the detail involved in reality.

The earliest computers were used by the engineers who made them; these people knew what was going on inside at the level of transistors, let alone bits or logic gates. Naturally, if the computer was to be used by everyone, all this messy detail going on had to be abstracted away with cleanly designed graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that anyone could use.

These GUIs, along with the computer mouse, is when we slowly began our departure from interacting with the code that made our machine run and everything now was a convenient and navigable skeuomorphism of the work desk. We called it the ‘desktop’, and all that was left to us as consumers was to click on folders to open them.

Over the decades, convenience has just grown in leaps and bounds — to the point where we will soon find that no one knows how to drive a car a few generations down the line. Not only is this possible, I think this is going to happen.

The economy, as a result, has gotten totally skewed in favour of a handful few (relatively speaking, of course) who are creating all the knowledge and engineering modern marvels. These are the engineers and other deep tech folks who deal with the complexity and detail involved.

Naturally, the vast majority today tend to focus on the low-hanging fruit: marketing.

And by marketing, I mean parts of the business that are only responsible for dressing things up trivially, and not responsible for creating new knowledge that moves the world forward. Of course, both marketers and salespersons can create a lot of new knowledge for the business when they interact with the consumer, but as in every domain, the majority are not doing this.

Especially with the arrival of large language models like GPT-n, I see the situation worsening further: where people who have no idea about the sheer detail involved in execution, just get really good at feigning knowledge and know-how.

Before GPT-n, people were at least in the habit of running Google Searches and writing down their thoughts; it didn't matter how superficially they engaged with the exercise, it mattered that they at least did it. But with AI doing almost all of the work these days, people now have an excuse to simply become consumers, losing all engagement with the process of thinking itself.

So, it is a myth that GPT makes creators out of everyone. No, it actually turns most of us into blind consumers, letting us enjoy the illusion that we have created something.

In other words, it's your average MBA grad who knows a lot of words, but missed out on critical thinking.

This is true of almost every field that is slowly getting abstracted away from the physical sciences.

Even with photography, renowned photographers of the 20th century were deeply engaged not just with the act of clicking photographs, but with the process of developing them into beautiful prints as well.

There was so much detail involved at every level of execution — from finding the right lighting, the right scene, the right moment, the right shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings, to finally processing these photos in the red room, following a fine-tuned chemical process that allowed the photographer to develop just as they wanted it to look.

In contrast, today, we have Instagram filters.

I think when they said, “Software will eat the world”, it also ate all our engagement with the physical with it. And no, I'm not saying this only in the sense of getting up from your desk, walking out, and touching grass. I'm also saying this in the context of all the software engineers today who can still code in assembly language. Not many!

For sure, even today we have filmmakers, professional photographers, and cinematographers who know their technology and the art and science of the craft from the inside out. But my hunch is that the number is only dwindling.

Don't get me wrong — abstraction is great. Someone wise and famous once rightly said,

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.”

But while that is true, what is also true is that it strips us of our engagement with the physical world.

As an aside, I also think that many artists don't just hate AI because of issues like plagiarism, or that it will take away their jobs, or because they see themselves in some kind of zero-sum competition with it. I think many artists who are truly passionate about their craft have a reason to dislike AI for a very simple reason:

It erodes people's appreciation for detail and the kind of effort and meticulousness involved in making something great, even further.

And I'm sure that even with AI, it is only those who know the nitty gritty will be able to actually leverage the technology 10x to actually aid them in building their vision. As for the masses, they will be producing stuff almost everyone else is now able to produce.

And you know what happens when something is too abundant in supply? People stop valuing it altogether.

I can easily see a time when people start ignoring written content because most of it is just a lot of words, devoid of any substance. When things become too convenient, not only do they depart from real-world detail, but they also gradually but resolutely strip our psyche of all wonderment and appreciation for the kind of craft and toil building something takes.

And it would be a sheer tragedy.

In a convenience economy where things magically appear at your doorstep with a few taps on a glass screen, people consume everything but appreciate nothing.

AI will help the truly curious and sincere leapfrog their way to what they want out of life, while others will have everything and yet will still be left wanting. The gap between knowledge creators and knowledge consumers will just keep on widening.

And although I know there's no slowing down now, I'm only worried about where this is going to take us as a civilization, where only a handful live with wonder, meaning, and purpose, while the rest are put on a constant dopamine drip, hopping like mindless monkeys from one entertainment to another. We are now at a juncture in our history where reading a slightly long and dense piece of text is also considered a major challenge by many. But if you've read it this far, I have hope for you.

See, I have no affinity for the past, and I'm all for the future. But as we progress along this road, only good judgment and an ability to think about complex systems critically and holistically will be the final arbiter.

Develop good judgment.

Take pride in your craft.

Build appreciation for detail.

Live with curiosity and wonder.

That is all.




Read ‘I, Pencil’ here.

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