The Efficiency Delusion

Optimizing how we live, work, and play is embedded deep in the psyche of coders and American culture. But how much efficiency is too much?

Evan Selinger
OneZero
Published in
8 min readApr 9, 2019

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Credit: Patrick Llewyn-Davies/OJO Images/Getty

Co-authored with Clive Thompson

TThis year began with the writer David Pogue identifying six important lessons that he’s learned from observing how tech companies behave. One of them is this: “Frictionless always wins.”

“If you want to place bets on the success of new technologies, examine how much ‘friction’ they eliminate: effort, steps and hassle,” Pogue wrote in Scientific American. “The remote control; microwave meals; e-mail; text messages; the iPod; Google Maps; Amazon.com; Siri and Alexa; and, yeah, self-driving cars — each, in its way, introduced a new way to let us be lazier.”

The drive to remove friction in the digital technology space permeates everything from social interactions to business transactions, from Facebook bombarding us with notifications about what our friends are saying and doing to millions of people around the world ordering Uber rides on their phones instead of standing on street corners to hail cabs.

It’s not hard to see why removing friction works as a business model. Reducing transaction costs has regularly proven to be a powerful way to influence behavior. And it’s also not hard to see why we, the users, go for it: It’s often genuinely useful when someone automates a difficult or boring task for us.

But efficiency isn’t always value neutral. Placing efficiency over other values can be a mistake — a lapse in ethical, political, personal, or professional judgment. Some human or civic interactions thrive when they’re deliberate and erode when they’re sped up. There’s a great quote that’s been attributed to Virginia Woolf — “Efficiency cuts the grass of the mind to its roots” — though, alas, we can’t find any evidence that it was Woolf who actually said this. But the sentiment rings true and the expression is so beautiful that we wish she did put things this way.

We believe that if technology can make some aspect of our lives more efficient, we’ll get back free time. Instead, we often to have to…

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Evan Selinger
OneZero
Writer for

Prof. Philosophy at RIT. Latest book: “Re-Engineering Humanity.” Bylines everywhere. http://eselinger.org/