the hidden cost of the magical egg

the world has gotten pretty interconnected, and i think pretty clearly evident by the extended supply-chain issues in the wake of covid-19's effect on the global economy. we take it for granted that the grocery store has eggs from who knows where, bananas probably shipped from afar, and peanut butter that's spent who knows how long in processing and storage, until it's made its way to the shelf for your perusal. sure, the egg came from a chicken somewhere, the bananas were grown on a tree somewhere, peanuts processed somewhere, but it's become so second nature that we might not stop to think about this arrangement until something gives us pause.

having an interconnected network of free trade has definitely given us many benefits in technological progress and standard of living in spite of popular critics like kaczynski (better known for other work) et al. and yet, in spite of the grand achievement of getting to pick between 18 slightly different formulations of ketchup at the grocery store, it does feel like we've lost something, hasn't it? this isn't as sarcastic of a question as you might think, there are many people who don't particularly care or believe that it's necessary for everyone know exactly where their egg came from.

i was having an interesting conversation with someone with a strong self-professed love of communism and labor theory, and i'm going to attempt to recreate their argument as accurately as possible, but most likely completely butcher it 😩. much of modern day technology, such as vaccines or semiconductors, is so complex that it necessarily requires extensive and highly reliant supply chains to be viable. by objective metrics, this has proven to substantially increase quality of life, and regression from this ideal, as suggested by critics such as kaczynski (again, better known for other work) is either malicious or misguided at best. instead, efforts should be made towards improving overall system trust, efficiency and resiliency; just because a system grows beyond a single person's scale doesn't make it inherently bad, there just needs more work to be done.

i can appreciate this argument, but as you can guess, i beg to differ: supply chains need to be community-sized because the egg matters, for several reasons:

so how do we do this? it's easy, and doesn't require changing how technological progress occurs, only where we apply it. instead of only applying technological improvements to the total efficiency of production, we can target towards a combined heuristic of efficiency given scope. while this may decrease total efficiency on paper, i believe that the listed benefits will greatly reduce consumption, waste, impact and emissions more than any marginal increase in efficiency could ever bring.

however, there's one final benefit that i believe might be one of the most valuable of all. as focus shifts from incremental improvements in efficiency to that of self-sufficiency and versatility, singular technological advancements can be applied exponentially through decentralized supply chains, resulting in massive improvements to overall production that aren't even possible with marginal efficiency increases of conventional supply chains. (computer scientists will groan as i reference big o notation. don't lie, you were thinking of it)

3d printing is a good example of this in action in recent history. on the surface, it may seem like a less efficient method of production that generally results in weaker materials than an equivalent one milled from metal or wood. however, where before you might have had to ship materials out to a dedicated milling facility where they used incredibly expensive and complicated machines to create custom objects, or buy lots of specialized tooling to carve things out of wood, things can now can be flexibly and easily printed with the touch of a button. far from being useless or simple toys, i think the ingenuity of the 3d printing community can speak for itself, as they've found so many ways to produce replacement parts for complex machinery like tractors, or even full, resilient tools like guns. the value of technological advances like 3d printing doesn't just come from easier creation of individual bespoke components, but instead from allowing these previously-prohibitive production chains to become more accessible, since one object no longer requires expensive/special machinery which all have their own dependency chains on their own.

there's a lot to be gained from shorter supply chains and luckily, each of us has the power to make this a reality by buying locally, or from companies committed to keeping their production as local as possible. as you might begin to think about the production chains in your life, i urge you to consider not just total efficiency, but overall scale and structure as well. and then you might agree with me, that those eggs could be so much more valuable if they just had a little less magic.

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