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?

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 recalibrate what we do.

Both of us wrote books that discuss why the efficiency mindset is seductive and what can go wrong when it goes too far. Evan, a philosophy professor, did a deep dive with Brett Frischmann in Re-Engineering Humanity. Clive, a longtime writer for Wired and the New York Times Magazine, gets to the bottom of things in his new book, Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World. The following edited excerpt between us captures the flavor of a recent conversation.

Life is a spreadsheet

Evan Selinger: While you were writing Coders, you talked about your research to my students — many of whom are engineering and science majors. What really resonated is that some of the engineers you interviewed described experiencing inefficient situations as really troubling, like smelling something awful or tasting something gross. Can you elaborate on this visceral sense of how engineers tick, reflect their sensibilities into products, and project an impatient worldview onto the rest of us?

Clive Thompson: If you’d asked me what are some of the typical traits of the people who tend to find coding fun before I started working on the book, I would have made rather obvious observations. Programmers are good at thinking logically. They enjoy solving puzzles and breaking down complicated things.

What I didn’t expect to routinely hear from people who became programmers is that, early on, they appreciated that machines are really good at things that humans are bad at. They’re amazing at taking any process that’s a boring slog and making it faster and more efficient through automation.

Different coders often told me the same story from school, a moment when the efficiency lightbulb went off. As kids, they’d be in math class, hating to have to show all their work. It was always some boring question they knew the answer to at a glance but were forced to write up in multiple steps. So, they all were like, “Let me just write a solver,” in whatever language they were using. They’d type in the equation and, boom, a machine outputs all the different steps without them having to do all of the work.

After this success, a realization set in: “Wow, my life is filled with dull, repetitive tasks. And I now know how to instruct a machine to do boring chores. So, I should hand them over.” A kind of thrill in optimizing is born.

Since computers are functional machines that can do lots of different things, these coders would very quickly start developing a type of X-ray vision about the world itself. They’d just keep on thinking, “Wow, I could automate that. I could make this more efficient. I could automate this other thing, too.”

Can you think of any examples from the classroom that fit this pattern?

Selinger: Yes. In philosophy classes, we ask students to present respectful and rational criticisms of other people’s ideas. Don’t just say someone is wrong; instead, give the best interpretation of an argument that you disagree with and carefully explain where it goes astray. This approach to speaking and thinking takes time. It’s much slower than verbally kneecapping someone and stating a contrary opinion. But the lack of efficiency is a feature of the system, not a bug.

“We believe that if technology can make some aspect of our lives more efficient, we’ll get back free time to do the things we actually find meaningful. Instead, we often have to recalibrate what we do.”

I’ve noticed some students initially find this type of interaction strange, and I’ve been told that things work differently in engineering classes — at least some of them, anyway. Apparently, some instructors get straight to the point when criticizing their assignments. Being downright brutal in this context is viewed as a sign of respect, not rudeness. It’s seen as a way of recognizing a student’s ability to learn quickly and quickly fix mistakes — mistakes that, say, could have terrible real-world consequences, like accidents happening on a structurally unsound bridge. Coming from this background, what philosophers call “discourse ethics” can seem like unnecessary flattery that wastes precious time.

In your experience, what’s a good example that illustrates how hard it is for programmers to stop thinking about the world as an efficiency problem?

Thompson: I’ve got two for you. The first is about a fairly senior engineer who was probably a project manager. At some point, he got very angry at the number of jokes that were being told in meetings, because he was like, “Well, this is a waste of time, and our time is precious.” He literally calculated what he estimated to be the number of jokes told over one year and worked out how many personal hours he felt were being wasted on this.

Of course, the surreal thing about that is anyone who actually knows how organizations work will tell you that little bits of joking in a meeting might be the most important thing being done there. They provide unit cohesion. They’re moments of levity that allow people to continue working under frustrating deadlines and stuff like that. But this guy just couldn’t get past seeing life as a spreadsheet.

A woman who works for Trulia once told me, “I’ll be walking to work, and I’ll literally be standing there at the corner watching people cross the street and think, ‘Oh my god, they’re doing this in a completely inefficient fashion. I wish I could get everyone to walk in a more optimized way.’” And she’s sort of laughing, because she knows it sounds crazy. But she also realizes that the instinct is hard to turn off.

Selinger: I love this story, because the second chapter of Re-Engineering Humanity is titled “Cogs in the Machine of Our Own Lives.” It presents a series of thought experiments to help readers critically consider an important question: What behavior shouldn’t you outsource to machines?

For example, if a GPS-like technology could safely direct your body in the direction that you wanted to walk, would you use it so you could free up your mind? Instead of paying attention to your surroundings, you could watch a video streaming online. If so, why wouldn’t you go further? What about a machine that could move your mouth and chew your food for you? Or one that could adjust your face so you never missed a chance to smile at the right occasion?

Ultimately, these examples point in the direction of a frightening future that some people are really excited about. If you think the transhumanist vision of someday ditching your body altogether and downloading your consciousness is a bad idea, what arguments against it are you willing to make, and what values do you, no pun intended, stand for?

The Efficiency Delusion

Selinger: Why do you think so many of us keep making the same mistake over and over again? We believe that if technology can make some aspect of our lives more efficient, we’ll get back free time to do the things we actually find meaningful. Instead, we often have to recalibrate what we do. And that’s because expectations change along with shifts in the technological landscape.

Take the myth that once self-driving cars spare people from the burden of needing to drive to work and pay attention to the road, they’ll be able to focus their attention on invigorating and rewarding activities, like reading for pleasure during the commute. More likely, employers will expect the workday to begin the second you enter the vehicle. Instead of being disburdened, more productivity will be ratcheted out of us.

Thompson: The majority of software developers still espouse the idea that when they make something more efficient, it will have the positive effect of freeing up more time somewhere else. And I can understand why they see things that way. Coders keep their noses down when solving an onerous problem. When they’re done, they feel good. And when they see people using the software they created, it feels enormously satisfying.

“Unfortunately, once something is no longer novel and the change in tempo or style stops feeling fresh, the effect fades.”

Part of the issue is that American culture has long been entranced by the idea that speed is good and that getting more is good. It goes back to guys like Benjamin Franklin who were obsessed with trying to pack more into life. He invented bifocals because he was sick of swapping one pair of glasses for another. So, in many respects, we’re particularly susceptible to the vision of efficiency as a way of life because it’s woven into the spirit that governs the country.

Why are consumers so eager to find a new app that we hope will speed up our lives or give us more free time? I think this has to do with the novelty effect. When we change something in our environment, we sometimes discover that we’re temporarily more productive and creative. Unfortunately, once something is no longer novel and the change in tempo or style stops feeling fresh, the effect fades.

Selinger: That’s a great diagnosis. While our Virginia Woolf quote is probably spurious, I hope others embrace the actual language I’m going to use to characterize this problem. This fetish with frictionlessness should be seen as the efficiency delusion.

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

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