An Ode to I, Pencil, Part 2: I, Computer Mouse — Matt Ridley and Leonard Read Sing the Same Tune

In a speech at a 2012 Google Zeitgeist event, British journalist Matt Ridley gave an evocative illustration of the power of connectivity, reminiscent of CEI’s short film version of Leonard Read’s classic essay, I, Pencil.

“Counter-intuitively,” he said, “we’ve become more prosperous as we’ve moved away from self-sufficiency. The more we work for each other, the better off we are. The more we rely on our own efforts, the poorer we are. That’s why we call it subsistence. Self-sufficiency is indeed another word for poverty.”

In his talk, Ridley, the 2012 winner of CEI’s Julian L. Simon Memorial Award, exalts human progress by contrasting a computer mouse with a primitive weapon used by homo erectus. Both tools are the same size, built to fit snugly in the human hand. The difference, besides hundreds of thousands of years and the Industrial Revolution, is that many parties made the computer mouse while only one hand molded the primitive weapon.

And that’s precisely the point. No one person can make a computer mouse. No omniscient brain determines where technology or industry may go, as the invisible hand of the market guides where a single brain does not. Technology is brilliant because of the many hands that mold the parts, not because of some guiding master mind.

Of course, in an age of paleo diets and buying local, a primitive weapon screams CHARM! and BRING WEAPONS BACK TO OUR ROOTS! Equally charming, though, is clicking on that perfect Etsy item or finding the newest episode of Portlandia with a computer mouse made by many hands.