Efficiency is our god

Rethinking technology’s ends.

Clare Rahner

December 1, 2023

The New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently promised to phase out MetroCards by April 2024 thanks to a newcomer that graciously introduced itself on the subway banner ads a few years ago: yet another contactless payment system, OMNY. It requires no swiping and no MetroCard; it simply deducts fare from passengers’ mobile bank accounts by way of a phone tap (or hover, rather). It is no far jump from the simple fact of cashless money, which we are all used to by now. Nevertheless, it represents a striking move toward what futuristic writers fifty years ago may have imagined the world of 2023 to be. Frankly, it is relieving that the physical train still exists as a mode of transportation at all, although it, too, is under siege. Older subway car models are being systematically replaced by the newer ones with long, sleek benches, eliminating the classic L-shaped seating configuration, which is orange, yellow, and pleasant. And Big Brother has boarded the buses, announcing at intervals that “this bus will go even faster” once everyone adopts OMNY as their mode of payment. Cheerful marketing makes changes like these seem favorable. I beg to know the real purpose they are serving.

“Human-centered design”—the notion of placing humans and their needs at the center of the development process to design products, services, and spaces—is increasingly in vogue as Big Tech gropes around for self-justification. But those marketing human-centered design must have an understanding of it that is diametrically different from what it actually is; its focus seems to remain on optimization, not people. Case in point: the irony of so-called human-centered artificial intelligence, or HCAI. Human-centered AI, as pitched by Ben Shneiderman in his book of the same name, is AI as it can be applied to real human needs. HCAI is optimistic, but impossible by definition, as long as AI is actively replacing the very subjects it proposes to serve. And one must ask: if HCAI merits distinction from AI to specify its service to human needs, isn’t that alarming? Design should be human-centered from the outset. But the MTA fails to improve quality of life if, even when I am running late, I have an aversion to the souped-up, digitized 2 express train, and choose instead to take the 1, which makes all local stops. I am more likely to opt for speed when it’s the express 3, one of the trains that still sports retro seats and softer lighting—and will soon be decommissioned. One must admit that it’s probably the minority of commuters who let aesthetics conduct their commute; most go for brevity. Easy and fast are good, but what I term “efficiencism” is the idea that easier and faster are always best. To put it polemically, efficiencism is an epidemic. Eager as we are to decry its evils, we are still children of Industry.

When speaking of technology, one has to distinguish between that which is integral to the human experience (e.g., a table) and that which is supplementary to make things more efficient. Innovation is a human asset; let us not, though, innovate things right out of our hands. Is all technology morally neutral, or is it possible that some forms of it are insidious in themselves (or, at least, insidious in their immediate effects)? This question will be left here, as it is so overasked, to make way for its sequel.

That sequel is this: what should be the goal of technology? Certainly not efficiency in itself—technology must effect efficiency for some end. What does one plan to reap from the time or energy saved? This is not a rhetorical quip, but an honest question, and no doubt the response will vary based on the person answering. It would follow that anyone’s goal would be some version of life improvement—after all, man desires what he perceives to be good, according to the Thomistic understanding of natural law. But the objects of efficiency naturally differ in worthiness. Is an earlier arrival worth taking the expressway? It could be, especially if you are going to see people you sincerely like. Is watching one more episode of your vacuous show of choice worth a microwave dinner? That might merit examination. 

Very often, technological advancements are marketed to man’s natural aversion to labor. Easing the burden of work is all well and good, but as with many good things, it should be sought in moderation. Genuine work is integral to the full human experience; even the quality of its counterpart, leisure, is lost without it. More specifically, physical work is healthy. There is something deeply human about doing things with your hands. Last week at the office, I found myself tasked with stuffing envelopes, and it was a welcome severance from my computer. Indeed, I relish every piece of mail that I address and send. It is one of the only opportunities I have to write with my hand and a pen at my job.

It would be one thing if relegating all of these tasks to computerized machines meant going home early and having more time for leisure. But it usually makes way for more work, more production. And it has stripped the work of its dignity in the process. Somehow, addressing all of those envelopes by hand was a huge improvement to my afternoon. So when is the shortcut worth it? If I had to make a guess, it is when the analog counterpart is sacrificed for something that will better the human experience even more than the shortcut by itself will, however one might qualify that. 

Efficiencism has somehow crept into the world of leisure, too: the very place that is meant to be free of the quantitative. Recently, I was asked whether I made a cake “from scratch” and was met with astonishment when I answered in the affirmative. Leisure has become lazy. We have devolved according to progress, to advancements that promise ease and often eliminate interaction with the world and with other humans. Grocery shopping from the couch is unnatural; more extreme examples verge on unnerving. There truly is an app for everything. Any machine that was once mechanical has gone electronic. Watches have touch screens, and refrigerators are computers. The impulse to e-update every possible gadget so that each one can do more is a logical progression, but when the fridge is writing your grocery list, you’ve lost some agency. An increase in digital possessions also often leads to an increase in headache, thereby defeating their own efficiency. Electronics are rarely described as “trusty.” They are more prone to glitching than their mechanical predecessors and much less able to be fiddled with by your ordinary user, real downsides that are excused by the products’ mystique. When the problem is invisible, it’s remarkably harder to fix. (There is admittedly a glaring leak in this line of accusation, and that is GPS. At this point, I know no one who doesn’t take advantage of it. I still say we should bring back paper maps, but I would be loath to dispose of GPS entirely.)

At present, these efficient phenomena still feel innocuous by virtue of their novelty. But like a frog in a warming pot of water, the danger is in the gradual nature of their introduction. I don’t know of many people who actively fear the inevitable extinction of mundanities like physically addressing envelopes, but analogous things have happened. Who of us doesn’t think of pressing real buttons to dial a friend with anything but fondness and nostalgia (or wonder and curiosity, if too young to remember)? 

Let me deny neither the convenience of the interstate nor the joys of premade Toll House cookie dough. These are but two of the blessings brought to us by the twentieth century. But the fact that a process or a product is efficient does not necessarily demonstrate its goodness. While the efficiency of a highway is good in its ability to get you home faster, no one would deny that the scenic route adds beauty to the evening and is the better choice when one can afford the time. What memories are ever made by efficiency alone?

Reality on earth is often slow and difficult. To improve upon it is good and just, but to escape it entirely would be a brave new world. May we choose our efficiencies intentionally and be all the more delighted when speed and ease surprise us. 

Clare Rahner is a recent graduate from Columbia University, where she received a master’s degree in English literature.