No one knows how to make a pencil: Globalization and interdependence

Consider the following question:

If you…wanted to…go into the forest naked and create something from scratch, anything, what do you think you could pull off?

The latest Freakonomics podcast points out something very unexpected; no individual knows how to create a pencil.  While it may seem unimportant that we won’t have artisanal pencils in the future, it raises some interesting questions about globalization and the interdependence that it has created in the production processes of even simple goods.

We have evolved into a highly specialized and widely globalized society.  Each piece of a pencil, for example, is made in different places and then shipped to a factory where it is all pieced together.  It happens not only with physical goods, but also with information; we can share a book, document, photo or song file at the click of a button.

So what are the implications of globalization?  There are more opportunities to be involved in a production process, certainly.  However, it also indicates that we are headed down a path of global interdependence that may be hard to come back from.  In some cases we may be sacrificing knowledge for convenience and efficiency, which may or may not be worth it.

One closely related example was discussed another Freakonomics article on handwriting.  More and more students are taking notes on tablets and computers instead of handwriting them.  Some studies show that we actually retain more information if we write it down; will the use of technology in schools lead us to retain less and less of what we are there to learn?  If that is the case, it seems rather counterproductive to allow students to use laptops or tablets instead of pen and paper.

Could you survive on your own and produce for yourself if you had to?  If you were placed in a room with all the necessary materials to make a pencil, could you?  Maybe there is more value in pen and paper than it seems.

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