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  • Reengineering Society for Efficiency

    It is Possible; But Do We Want It?

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    The Internet is, in certain limited respects, a remarkably efficient instrument for business communication and coordination. That is a good reason to detach ourselves from it and take a second, more cautious look before dumping all our human affairs into cyberspace.

    Here is one question we might ask: Does the Net encourage us to substitute empty pursuits -- pursuits which happen to lend themselves to efficiency -- for meaningful ones?

    Efficiency, in its proper place, is a virtue. The violin player, the aspiring naturalist, the participant in a marriage, friendship, or workgroup, the backpacker, the sociologist, the student of meditation -- surely they all want to make effective progress.

    But a one-sided emphasis on speed and efficiency always indicates a loss of attention to the important matters at hand. The violin music begins to count less than the number of exercises we have raced through. "Getting there fast" becomes more important than the "there" we are getting to.

    It is as if, having taken up jogging for my health, I became so fixated upon my "numbers" that I pushed myself to a heart attack. In other words, an undue concern with efficiency turns out to be inefficient: I am distracted from the goals I originally wanted to serve.

    Where do we see the Net at its most efficient? In financial transactions wholly divorced from meaningful human transactions. In sophisticated word processing, where the words are manipulated in a vacuum, their connection to a human speaker having been severed. In quantitative scientific analysis of the sort that leaves no place for consideration of the experimenter, his values, and his conscious activity as knower.

    Most vividly, perhaps, we see efficiency where the Net has been used most successfully for the longest time: in distributed software engineering projects. Here the idea of "working together" gets reduced to strictly technical functions. The "community of workers" comes closest to functioning mechanically.

    This is possible because software has been narrowly conceived by engineering teams as the mere compaction of mechanized logic it essentially is. The social context this logic is meant to serve receives far less consideration than the software itself. We do not train our engineers in the social arts.

    Actually the distributed work group is by no means as efficient as the face-to-face group -- not if all the purposes for which people need to work together are considered. But the distributed work group is fiendishly efficient at encouraging us to reconceive our work -- which is also to say, reconceive society -- in purely technical terms.

    The software engineering team tends to remove from view everything but a certain "objective functioning." Lines of code produced per week, number of bug reports, the logical design of the software -- these are the terms in which the work proceeds. And once the task has been reduced to these terms, every attempt to introduce "a human dimension" to the undertaking inevitably rings artificial and false. The work simply has no intrinsic connection to social concerns.

    What is left out, then, is nothing less than the ultimate reasons for work. When work entails no self-discovery, no inner growth, no service of human rather than technical needs, no necessity of difficult, mutual accommodation in the pursuit of deep conviction, no evident connection to ennobling purposes -- then the work is in fact degrading. It leaves the worker burned out and empty.

    It requires extraordinary effort to recover these goals once the community of workers has been dispersed across the Net. For the Net gives yet greater impetus to social tendencies already pronounced. "A great many people," Langdon Winner has remarked, "seem to have lost the ability to link the specific, concrete conditions of their own work to any reasonable conception of human well-being. The question just never seems to come up."

    The more we distribute our work on the Net, and the more we assign our other social transactions to the Net, the more difficult it will be for the question to come up. For if the Net is rigorously efficient in its own domain, it is precisely because it effectively encourages us to strip "conceptions of human well-being" from our online activities -- so that what is left can be adapted to the Net's efficiency.

    This is not to say that the Net leaves us altogether without choice in the matter. But the choices are neither easily seen nor widely acknowledged. Exactly when does the jogger make that subtle transition from a healthy pursuit to a self-destructive one? It is hard to say.

    But one tell-tale sign occurs when the jogger's concern for his numbers begins to dominate his thoughts. Similarly, on the Net, we should beware whenever the glorification of "efficiency" begins to distract us from the painstaking inner work of our life together.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: Reengineering Society for Efficiency :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/efficiency.2.html

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