Book Review: The Efficiency Paradox

The theme of Edward Tenner’s The Efficiency Paradox is succinctly expressed in its final sentences wherein the author bemoans the modern-day preference for digital tools to the exclusion of analog experience. In his view, overall efficiency and effectiveness can be increased with a blend of the digital and analog. As he puts it, “Analog experience can enhance digital efficacy . . . We don’t have to choose between the two.”

In the tradition of similar works by Nicholas Carr, Evgeny Morozov and Cathy O’Neil, this book presents a broad-based and cogent critique of the misuses of technology. But despite its subtitle,” What Big Data Can’t Do,” the author spends little time on the details of big data. Instead, the emphasis is on describing a litany of the ill-effects of big data, as revealed across a wide spectrum of industries and human endeavors. As noted, the money-making potential of big data is based on the premise that customers will freely and willingly create such data without renumeration to themselves. An early version of this phenomena was Amazon’s customer rating system for books it sells.

The book’s theme is elaborated upon through a broad array of technology applications, from education to medicine to GPS systems. In a chapter on education and learning, the author relates a humorous anecdote of Thomas Edison believing that his motion picture technology would allow knowledge to be acquired in one-fiftieth the time of the traditional method of reading stodgy old textbooks, and thus revolutionize the field of education. When it comes to the trade-offs between efficiency and effectiveness in the education realm, it’s noted that that, although inefficient, the old-fashioned method of taking hand-written notes in a classroom lecture is, in fact, often more effective for the learner. Though slower than keyboarding, the process of handwriting forces the student to focus on and discern the main ideas of the lecture. The end result is a more succinct summary and better retention of the material.

One particularly cogent point made is the practical difficulty of obtaining knowledge via search engines. Search results are expected to come back in milliseconds, and people rarely look beyond the first page of results for the answer to their questions. It’s posited that with more context and time, search results could produce more meaningful results for question at hand, even if the process took longer. Comparisons are made between search engines and traditional encyclopedias, the author bemoaning the fact that print encyclopedias no longer exist, the Encyclopedia Britannica having ceased print production in 2012. The modern replacement, Wikipedia, certainly has an abundance of information and is ruthlessly kept up to date but lacks the rigorous editorial oversight that older encyclopedias enjoyed, not to mention the serendipitous experience of flipping through pages.

Despite good intentions, the hyper-efficiency of today’s high-tech world doesn’t necessarily make society more efficient. In some ways, today’s placement of efficiency on the highest altar of our goals is a throwback to the outdated methods of a century ago when Frederick Taylor conducted time and motion studies to wring the last ounce of efficiency from office and factory workers. The Efficiency Paradox is a reminder that the astounding efficiencies achieved by Google, Facebook and Amazon aren’t always optimal for our individual pursuits or for society as a whole.

The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do
by Edward Tenner
Alfred A. Knopf, April 2018
282 pages, $27.95

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