Art Carden  

But Did it Toast?

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Yesterday, I offered a few thoughts on "I, Pencil" and related projects with a link to Thomas Thwaites' "Toaster Project" TED Talk. In evaluating students' essays on this, I was struck by how many people wrote that Thwaites "succeeded" in making a toaster. Many students pointed out (correctly) that Thwaites didn't really build the toaster from scratch because he bought a lot of materials, rode on trains he didn't build to get some of his raw materials, and ultimately used a microwave in his makeshift smelting process. He finished with something that worked for about five seconds before it stopped.

This was an incredible undertaking, and it's a fascinating video. However, I think it's a mistake to say that Thwaites "succeeded" in making a toaster. Why? Because I think people are asking the wrong question.

If we're building a toaster, the right question isn't "does this look like a toaster?" It's not "does this contain the same elements as a toaster?" It's not even "does this conduct electricity and turn on in some sense?"

The right question is "did it toast?" In Thwaites's case, the answer was "no."

In addition to being a great complement to Leonard Read's "I, Pencil," I think the Toaster Project helps illustrate a few additional and important points. First, labor doesn't produce value. Value encourages labor. That Thwaites worked hard doesn't mean he produced anything useful.

Second, I think we have a tendency to redefine success, sometimes without knowing it. We're sometimes like the marksman who fired and then drew the bullseye around where his bullet struck. As an art project, Thwaites's Toaster Project was a smashing success, and our world is much richer for it. He made it much farther than most people would, to be sure. If the goal was to toast bread--and yes, I realize that wasn't actually the goal--it could only be considered a failure.



COMMENTS (2 to date)
guthrie writes:

'...labor doesn't produce value. Value encourages labor.'

I'm a neophyte when it comes to economics so I'm sure this is rote to many, but this is a dazzling insight to me. Thank you, Art!

Sam Roberts writes:

If his goal had been merely to toast bread, this would have been an absurd way to do it.

Most people could toast bread using only their own raw materials and labour. All one needs is seed, soil and sunlight to grow it, a stone to mill it into flour, some water to make dough, and a fire to cook it. If you also had a source of yeast, with a little practice the result would be pretty much as good as regular toast.

It wouldn't be "easy" (in that there would be a lot of labour involved), but it's relatively "simple" (in that it doesn't require the expertise of a billion different helpers, as does the making of a toaster).

Similarly, if the goal is 'make a marking on a surface', you don't need to make a pencil, just use a burnt stick.

It's making these processes quick, convenient and scalable that requires all the billion helpers.

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