Homage to the essay "I, Pencil" by Leonard Read

I am a website--an ordinary website familiar to all boys and girls and adults who surf the Worldwide Web (technically, what you are seeing is just a web page, but the collection of pages around me form the website). My vocation and avocation is to inform those who visit me.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, a web spider came to visit and she told me about this page "I, Pencil" written in 1958 by a fellow named Leonard Read. So, it got me thinking and made me realize I'm even more of a mystery than the pencil in that story.

You see, the pencil had a small inscription on it, whereas my pages have thousands of words. The pencil's label had to identify its type but my words convey much more than that. They may communicate or inform, they may persuade or entertain. The words are put together according to rules that were developed through hundreds of years by people speaking English. The words themselves are made of letters which are put together following another set of rules. However, as in the case of the pencil, no master mind dictated or forced these rules on the rest of the people. Oh sure, some kings, presidents and the like have tried to control or distort the language, but for the most part, it was developed by ordinary people trying to communicate with each other.

But the content of a web page reflects much more than the grammar and spelling rules of the language. More importantly, it results from the amalgamation of thoughts and accumulated experiences of the page's creator: his upbringing, the subjects in school that attracted his interest, the books he found compelled to read, the activities he engaged in on his own, with his friends or family, or at work or other settings, and conversely, the disappointments or challenges that he faced and how he dealt with them. Likewise, the books he read, the discussions he had with others and similar interactions were distillations of the thoughts and experiences of those other men and women. The only "master mind" that directed all this was the consciousness of each individual involved.

The pencil in the story was not able "to name and explain all [his] antecedents." I am afraid that not even by pointing you at an encyclopedia (wouldn't you know it? another website! and it even "speaks" different languagues), would I be able to convey the richness and complexity of what has made it possible for you to read these words on your screen. But allow me to give you a flavor of the major components.

Ask an electrical engineer and he'll tell you that none of it would be possible without the "hardware" powering the website and of the computer on which you are reading this. He may tell you about the Intel CPU acting as the "brain" of the web server, and the several other "chips" (integrated circuits) that assist or control other hardware such as the disks where my pages are stored. He may explain that the chips are made out of millions of transistors. If he is fond of history, he may bring up the names of Gordon Moore, Jack Kilby, William Shockley and other semiconductor pioneers. Maybe he'll tell you that early computers used vacuum tubes, as did old radios. He may be able to trace back other significant contributors to using and understanding electricity such as Thomas Edison, Alessandro Volta, Benjamin Franklin, Charles de Coulomb, and possibly the ancient Greeks that experimented with amber.

A software engineer would remark instead that all the hardware would be "lifeless" without the web server, operating system and other computer programs. Indeed, these words are coming to you courtesy of an Nginx Server (originally an Apache Server) and were first written on a system running Debian GNU Linux, both examples of collaborative efforts of hundreds or even thousands of free and open software enthusiasts. Maybe you are reading this on a Mac running OS X, a Dell PC running Windows or a smartphone running iOS or Android, other examples of software (and hardware) jointly developed by multiple individuals. In some instances, some person may have "masterminded" a project by directing the software design, but the ultimate test came when the programs were downloaded or purchased and put to use, and kept or discarded, depending on whether the software satisfied the needs and wants of the consumer.

A network or communications engineer might object, saying that the hardware and software are insufficient without the wired and wireless means of interconnecting the computers. The electrical engineer would have to agree, perhaps citing the work of Alexander Graham Bell, Guglielmo Marconi, James Clerk Maxwell, and again going back to the ancient Greeks and magnetite. The software engineer would concur, reminding the others of the work of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) and the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) in developing "protocols" by which programs can "talk" to each other.

A web designer would emphasize the elements of style, navigation, design, art, aesthetics and human communication, relevant to getting the message across to my readers. An advertising agent would point to the presence or lack of ads on my pages. An entrepreneur would remind the engineers that hardware must be manufactured, raw materials must be mined and so forth.

An economics professor, like the pencil in the story, would highlight that "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." And what is even more remarkable is that only a handful had the goal of creating this website in mind. The Apache Server came much earlier and is used to run millions of other sites. When Linus Torvalds announced his project via Usenet on 25 August 1991, Tim Berners-Lee's first website was barely operational, yet Linux now powers millions of computers and not only for the purpose of hosting a website. When Jack Kilby came up with the concepts that enabled him to create the first integrated circuit, it would have been hard for him to imagine that ICs would become ubiquitous in so many uses 50 years later.

The professor would also reflect that when an individual, maybe you the reader, decides to save some of his or her earnings, perhaps for retirement, and invests in a company in the technology industry, he or she is making a contribution, even if small, to keep the company and the industry moving forward. Conversely, when an individual "consumes" by acquiring a product or service available on the web, even if the item is "free of charge," he or she indicates a preference that tells web entrepreneurs to direct more of their resources towards that area.

On the other hand, the professor would say, when a government entity interferes in any of these processes, its results are less than satisfactory. This is easy to see in direct interventions such as taxation of transactions or regulations that restrict investment or commerce. It is less obvious in other instances, even when governments are purportedly acting with "good intentions." For example, the U.S. Constitution states that "To promote the Progress of Science" Congress may grant an "exclusive Right" to inventors for a limited time. Jack Kilby was one who availed himself of this "right," but imagine what could have happened if some of his inventions had been freely available as much of the web software is freely available today.

So I must say I agree with Pencil's concluding remarks: "The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson."

19 Jun 2014 (original 22 Jun 2008)