21.1. Vacant Efficiency

There are countless avenues of critical approach to the Internet society. The two issues I would like to comment on at the moment are so evident, so clearly there in front of us, that they can all too easily become invisible. One of them has to do with the Internet as a transactional medium famed for its efficiency. Many of you will recall that the praises for this efficiency were from the beginning so extreme, so exhilarated, so full of revolutionary expectation ("frictionless capitalism"!) and, in their own narrow terms, so undeniably justified that we should have been alarmed.

It is not hard to see that a single-minded drive toward transactional efficiency always puts the meaning and value of the transactions at risk. Not that efficiency and meaning are brutely opposed to each other. Rather, they stand in necessary creative tension with one another. This prevents us from making a goal of efficiency. If we have no aim separate from efficiency, we have no way to tell whether we are going in the right or wrong direction, and nothing by which to gauge our efficiency. So considerations of efficiency must always be linked to our goals and values. We can only be efficient if we have something to be efficient about.

The concern with efficiency alone reminds me of the airline pilot who announced to the passengers, "I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that our electronic instruments have failed, there's solid cloud cover beneath us, and we have no idea where we're headed. But the good news is that we're making record time."

Anyone who says "efficiency is everything" is saying "there are no goals and values in this enterprise (and therefore no meaningful efficiency either)." And anyone who does have goals and values must recognize that they necessarily lead away from perfect efficiency. Perfect efficiency would reflect the fact that there is no resistance to be overcome, no work to be done and therefore no meaningful goal to be attained. In sum: we cannot achieve efficiency by aiming for it, but only by being as clearly focused on our goals as we can possibly be. At the same time, such a focus will always lead us to do things that look inefficient to a more narrowly calculating mentality.

So trying to be efficient is rather like trying to be happy. If you aim for happiness, you will be disappointed. But if instead you take on some worthwhile task in the world a task that will doubtless require you at times to assume burdens you are not particularly happy about you may be surprised to discover in your work and sacrifice and achievement a degree of happiness. In the same way, efficiency is an elusive, indirect, and never absolute consequence of keeping your eyes on an intrinsically meaningful goal that may demand many "inefficiencies" of you.

In more concrete terms: any two spouses and any two friends can testify that the drive for mere efficiency is the quickest way to dissolve a worthwhile human bond. If you make a goal of efficiency, people will have the unpleasant habit of distracting you and getting in your way.

This is trite. Everyone knows it. Everyone already knew it when the Net was coming along and being celebrated for its efficiency. So why were the praises of efficiency not more effectively counterbalanced by expressions of concern for the "inefficient" goals and values that might be lost sight of? It appears there are some dots we just prefer not to connect.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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