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The Question of Efficiency (2018-08-05)

Gear image from the northjersey.com website, associated with a notion of efficiency. Gear image from the northjersey.com website, associated with a notion of efficiency.
Gear image from the northjersey.com website, associated with a notion of efficiency, circa june 2018

Here is another word exploration thoughtpiece, which I thought would end up being quite short. Except as it turns out, the insistent visual association between interlocking gears and the terms "efficient" and "efficiency" surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn't have, because of the current fetishization of fuel efficiency in machinery. Gears commonly serve as metonyms for machines, especially ones now considered rather old-fashioned because they don't have a computer shoehorned into them somehow. On the other hand, I can say honestly that my surprise reflects the fact that in my more immediate experience, "efficiency" and "efficient" are invoked in relation to human behaviour and that other new age shibboleth, "productivity." Both terms are, alas, problematic, even more so than they might otherwise be because language never stops changing because they are encoded with such powerful and destructive presuppositions. In the efficiency-efficient dyad, the definition and application of the term now depends on a demand that we accept that humans and machines not only can be made equivalent, but that it is morally right that they should be. That demand is no longer covert for anyone, although I doubt it was ever covert for anyone working in so-called blue collar and pink collar jobs.

Still, let's drop back to the information in the trusty OED, which is trusty because it is written on historical principles and that means the compilers are making an effort to reflect the real world usage of english words. "Efficient" has three senses in the standard edition of the dictionary I have, "achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense; a well-organized person; preventing the wasteful use of a particular resource." This all sounds quite dry and clinical, right? Except, wait a moment. Productivity of what? Whose effort and whose expense? How are any of those things measured? A person well-organized for what? What makes the use of a resource – whatever we may think that is – wasteful?

These aren't intended as rhetorical or disingenuous questions. Each one is intended to draw out the presuppositions in these definitions. They are certainly rooted in the late 18th century as my OED also notes, and that is the all too familiar era of early capitalist expansion based in the use of machinery to replace skilled labour and drive people out of subsistence work into the working class. I have already written in a previous thoughtpiece called Mixed Bag about one aspect of this period, the development of engineering as a profession and its pessimistic (at best) view of human nature. The engineering and management expectation that machines obey and workers ought to behave like machines truly comes from this period, even though it is also in many ways a modernized version of Aristotle's wishful thinking definition of slaves as tools that can think, but preferably not too much. If the image associations I found while looking for a bit of clip art for this thoughtpiece are any indication, this disrespectful view of human beings has been propagandized all too well.

To me at least, the question of efficiency goes right back to efficiency in what. The conglomeration of economic structures and jobs right now that practically all humans are caught up in right now is remarkably good at producing toxic waste and not much else. Lots of plastic and related hydrocarbon products, waste heat, released carbon dioxide, excessively concentrated chemicals, and all manner of pointless tchotchkes that find their way to the garbage in days if not hours. Fidget spinners are a perfect example right now, as the fad for them blows wider and they go on sale three for a dollar. Right now there are factories that are perfectly tooled to switch to producing thousands of little things of that nature because they have been caught up in a fad and so will temporarily be highly lucrative. Adult equivalents hide behind lots of fig leaves, although there is an argument for the successive waves of cell phones, phablets, tablets, and netbooks being one. I think it is fair to ask whether that is actually an expression of efficiency that we want a significant portion of human imagination and effort to go into. If stripped to its barest minimum being efficient means doing whatever activity with the least amount of energy and stuff used up possible, the possibilities for what we could be efficient at are much wider than the usual connotations of the word suggest.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23