I spent the weekend at the Aspen Environmental Forums, and one of the presenters I got to see there as Thomas Thwaites—a man who built a toaster from scratch. As a project for his design degree, Thwaites reverse-engineered a cheap toaster from the British equivalent of Wal-Mart and used it as a blueprint to build his own. The catch: Thwaites made everything that went into the toaster. He mined the metal. He drew out the wires on jewelry-making equipment. He even found a way to make the plastic casing.
The point of this project wasn't to suggest that everybody ought to be capable of DIY-ing up their own toaster. (Really, if you wanted toast in a post-apocalyptic world, you'd really just be better off with an old-fashioned, pre-electric toaster, which held bread in a metal grille so you could toast it over the fire). Rather, Thwaites was trying shine a light on how much we rely on other people, on their skill sets that we don't necessarily share, and on centuries of technological advance. It takes a village to make a toaster. Or, rather, in this modern world, it takes lots of villages, all over the planet.
Thwaites' project was also an interesting perspective on industrialization. There are drawbacks to producing goods this way. But there are benefits, too. And when we have the necessary conversations about how to make our world more sustainable, we need to consider both sides of the coin ... and how we can get the benefits for less risk.
Cory wrote about this project back in 2009, when it was still a work in progress. The video above provides a short summary of the entire Toaster Project, including an amazing shot of the finished product which did (very briefly) work.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.