See also, The Power of the Machine (Hornborg) and The McDonaldization of Society (Ritzer). See also, Taylorism. See also, the difference between optimising and satisficing. This is a deep, deep subject; it not only touches on personality, OCD tendencies etc, but also as a cultural trend predates electronic technology by centuries, going right back to the roots of the Industrial Revolution… and even further back into the history of toolmaking and handicrafts.

The urge to find easier and quicker ways to do tedious, repetitive or strenuous things is only human :-) But the industrial revolution and specifically Taylorism — early C20 “scientific management” — is where it really shifts into high gear… and acquires some significant internal contradictions. Taylorism, for example, breaks down a complex craft process — in which a worker might do many different things and exercise many different skills over the course of a week or month — into… tedious repetitive and boring tasks that can be done by unskilled labour. The “efficiency” gain benefits the factory owner far more than the workforce. Taylorism is the codification, and apparently final victory, of the process that begins (some would say) with the automation of weaving and the destruction of the skilled weavers’ trade.

Kunstler is only one of many critical voices challenging this “industrial efficiency” paradigm/mindset that governs almost all aspects of first-world life today. The application of Taylorism and the “factory floor model” to agriculture has given us the factory farm and CAFO; to education, the centralised mega-school with standardised curriculum and machine-graded testing; to architecture, the cookie-cutter suburb based on modular construction; to fishing, the factory trawler; to forestry, the feller-buncher and related machines; to coal mining, MTR… and so on. The relentless quest for “efficiency” has led not only to a tremendous acceleration in the stripmining of planetary resources (a dubious gain) but also to a wholesale cultural adoption of the obsessive “streamlining” mindset of engineers as described (and very well too) by the authors of this excellent article.

The fundamental problem for us as an historical epoch is that “efficiency” is the opposite of resilience, and often the opposite of happiness. What makes people happy is variety, creativity, individual recognition, a sense of achievement and purpose, etc. Workers whose sole contribution to a finished product is to install one part (the same part) in one chassis (the same chassis) all day, all week, all year, understandably feel alienated from the production process. The deskilling of the production process undermines both the cost and the bargaining power of labour, driving down wages and disempowering the working class. (One of the side “benefits” of automating the textile production process in C17 England was the creation of a large class of unemployed, hungry, exploitable labourers.)

The animals kept in a “scientific” CAFO engineered for maximum “productivity” are by and large miserable and diseased, requiring escalating inputs of antibiotics and other pharma products to keep them alive long enough to fatten for slaughter; CAFO “farmed” fish similarly suffer from diseases and parasites due to overcrowding; the “factory school” system is not, by and large, producing well-educated citizens; the factory trawler has temporarily increased “throughput” of fish products, while actually decimating every large fish species in our oceans; the factory farm is sucking up more calories in fossil inputs than it is producing in food; and so on. There’s a level of dysfunction in so-called “maximum efficiency” operations that is usually swept under the rug as externalised costs, or simply ignored.

“Efficiency” means investing as little as possible (care, time, thought, money) in any given process, while attempting to reap as much as possible from it. In the final analysis, the most “efficient” source of wealth is always theft, because holding a gun to someone’s head and taking their wallet requires only a few minutes and may earn several hundred dollars, whereas working for that same money requires time and effort.

Advances in efficiency up to a point (see Illich on watersheds) have been beneficial in reducing suffering, injury, and boredom in the workplace or the home. I for one would be unwilling to give up the domestic washing machine and dryer, which reduced the time needed to maintain clean clothing from two or more days a week to a few minutes! But Efficiency as a fetish, as a cult, taken to its logical conclusions… is a form of laziness or cheating, of trying to game the world by taking out more than we put in. We have been cheating for two centuries now, treating every human activity as some kind of mining operation, trying to “extract maximum value with minimum input”. As a result… well, for a start, we are staring biotic bankruptcy in the face…

Long ago I learned that a tremendously important unasked question lurks behind almost every statement, claim, slogan, etc. That question could be summarised as “who and what”: when we say that industrialism is “efficient,” we need to ask “efficient at what” and “efficient for whom.” A favourite thought experiment of mine is the apple orchard in fall, where an efficiency expert is appalled by the incredibly time consuming process of climbing ladders, picking fruit, moving ladders, etc. So he cuts all the trees down, so the workforce can easily walk through and gather the fruit without climbing. Essentially, that’s the story of industrial Efficiency and the biosphere over the last couple of hundred years. We are told that the Taylorist mindset is tremendously efficient at producing applesauce, when it might be just as accurate to say that it is tremendously efficient at cutting down mature orchards. If this seems an extreme metaphor, consider the potential downside of pesticides so “efficient” and “effective” that they destroy pollinator species like apis mellifera. Or agricultural irrigation methods so “efficient” and “effective” that they drain million-year-old aquifers in a few short decades.

Perhaps we can add emotional bankruptcy to the list of externalised costs of the Taylorist Era? If the time we spend in caring about, or being patient with, other people is seen as merely “wasted,” then inevitably we become less caring and less patient. When we begin to believe in our hearts that “time is money,” then we start to hoard it, to be unwilling to share it, to resent “spending” it, to expect a “return” on it. We begin to think of people as like products or machines, valuable only insofar as they are convenient or productive or useful. Surely it is “inefficient” for any society to care for its injured, its sick, its elderly? Absolute Efficiency would require euthanasia of unproductive persons. If that sounds uncomfortably familiar, then let it serve as a warning: the search for a Frictionless and ultimately Efficient world can get as delusional as the search for perpetual motion: taken too seriously, it can lead us toward various forms of the Hell that Kunstler refers to. In a frictionless world, there are no brakes :-)

Let us then defend and celebrate Inefficiency, where inefficiency is a good thing: the sheer wonderful inefficiency of diversity, kindness, patience, playfulness, whimsicality, art, handicraft, honest effort, hard-won achievement, and the perennial, deeply human pleasure of making things and finding things out with no anticipated profit margin.

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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