Remixing the Toaster

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” – Carl Sagan

In Thomas Thwaites’ The Toaster Project, the author describes his attempts to fabricate a working toaster entirely from scratch. Thwaites, for his own thoroughly impractical purposes, interprets “from scratch” as requiring him to personally mine the raw iron ore, smelt that iron into steel and so on for all of the necessary materials. He has a number of rationale for his endeavor, citing in particular the above Carl Sagan quote, as well as a passage from Douglas Adams’ Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Writes Adams, “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.”

Ultimately, Thwaites is writing about his investigative process, but his thesis aligns with Kirby Ferguson’s thoughts in his “Embrace the Remix” TED Talk. Essentially, both argue, all knowledge is cumulative, and there is no such thing as a wholly original work. Every innovation or creative work derives from another source – ultimately, even at our most inventive, we are remixing the works of others, taking their collective accomplishments and transmuting them for our own purposes.

Ferguson questions the notion of intellectual property, arguing that it may be inappropriate to classify ideas as property at all. This seems like overly idealistic notion – the concept of an idea economy is perhaps a byproduct of a society that allows for ownership of ideas, but it’s also the reality of contemporary western culture, so dispelling entirely with protections on intellectual property is essentially impossible and broadly unjust to those who don’t abuse existing copyright law. It is increasingly apparent, however, that as the Internet continues to revolutionize how we disseminate ideas, intellectual property laws and protections are long overdue for a wholesale revamping.