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Efficiency – A species extinction signal?

Life-death balance

An increasing number of societies today have deified efficiency. Efficiency makes sense. A fundamental driver of any living organisation is to do what is necessary with the minimum expenditure of energy. For most of our time on the planet, nutrition was not just a click away. Thus each day was a balancing act in finding food without emptying our energy reserves in the process.

Greed is good?

This has wired us to be both greedy (who knows when the next meal might show up) and lazy (how do we get the maximum return on a burnt calorie). In the developed world at least, we have tackled the first challenge to the point where we can not only predict when we will eat, but also where.

The agricultural revolution made great strides in diminishing the extent to which these considerations were central to our existence. The industrial era model took this even further and applied the conservation or energy principle to the business model. The factory is thus perhaps a church built to glorify ‘Efficiency’.

Where do we put them?

Thus in recent years we have developed ceremonies to appease Efficiency that go by arcane names, including Total Quality Management, Business Process Engineering, Lean and Six Sigma. Maximising the returns on the factory inputs and the banishment of failure underpinned these ceremonies.

As time passed, some churches became cathedrals and by necessity developed a creed-compatible society optimised for the cathedral’s business model. Waterways, roads and railways were constructed to support goods in and out. Humans were a regretful necessity to making the factory work. Unlike machines, they were often needy, prone to sickness and had a tendency to be curious and thus deviate from the operations manual. Thus urban planning needed to factor in housing the workers such that they could readily attend work.

That’s entertainment

The inhumane nature of the work necessitated need to provide diversions in the periods between working and sleeping. Thus the leisure and entertainment industry was created. This turned villages into cities and caused rural folk to up-sticks and head to the bright lights in search of their fortune.

The burgeoning city population joined the factory owners, in their pursuit of efficiency. To some extent they had no choice. With only a few hours to call their own, they wanted to be as productive as possible. The convenience movement emerged to address the pursuit of efficiency. Thus today you can:

  • Do your banking on the train to work.

  • Buy a pre-digested meal on the way home that simply requires you to agitate it with electromagnetic radiation.

  • Outsource walking your dog.

  • Use no more than your thumb to find true love or its denatured equivalent.

Keeping up with the Walking Dead

In fact, many of these ‘mod cons’ have spirited away the essence of what it means to be alive. Paradoxically, many are choosing to use the associated ‘time gains’ to work for longer. Thus they are in a better position to afford more sophisticated convenience appliances. And on it goes.

The challenge we face today is that our pursuit of efficiency has removed spontaneity and civility. It has dampened our connection with our environment and the people/living organisms that we share it with. We have become so preoccupied with efficiency that our ability to detect anything that is not on our overambitious ‘to do’ list is muted. This includes brewing tension in a crowded bar, significant relationship decay and being caught on the hop because the world has changed and you didn’t move with it.

Don’t blame efficiency

So am I suggesting that we pursue inefficiency? In some cases, yes. Walking through a park might be considered less of an exercise in getting to work faster and more of an opportunity to appreciate nature. Talking to strangers could be seen less as an exercise in establishing their utility and more an opportunity to connect. Preparing a meal from first principles, rather than gulping down some sludge that meets your dietary vitamin and BCAA intake.

Efficiency is not the problem. And productivity is no bad thing. However efficiency is ultimately an exercise in failure elimination. Unfortunately failure is how we innovate and thus adapt to a changing landscape. Our pursuit of efficiency has left us vulnerable and dehumanised.

It might require more than a wellness app and hybrid working to wake us up from this stupor.

And what if we don’t wake up?


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