3 min read
There's been a slew of recent good pieces coming from Aeon's partnership with The Maintainers, and this one by Patrick McCray is a doozy. Read the whole thing; I'm mostly putting these quotes here for my own ease of access, rather than trying to distill the essay.
Efficiency, therefore, is not some timeless universal value but something grounded deeply in particular historical circumstances. At various times, efficiency was a way of quantifying machine performance – think: steam engines – and an accounting principle coupled to the new applied sciences of mechanics and thermodynamics. It was also about conservation and stability. By the early 20th century – the apogee of Taylorism – experts argued that increases in efficiency would realise the full potential of individuals and industries. Dynamism and conservatism worked together in the pursuit of ever-greater efficiency.
But a broad look at the history of technology plainly shows that other values often take precedence over efficiency, even in the modern era. It would, for example, offer several advantages in efficiency if, instead of every apartment or home having its own kitchen, multiple families shared a communal kitchen, and indeed in some parts of the world they do. But in the prevalent ideology of domesticity, every family or even single person must have their own kitchen, and so it is.
Nor, despite what Silicon Valley-based techno-libertarians might argue, does technological change automatically translate to increased efficiency. Sometimes, efficiency – like the lone eccentric innovator – is not wanted. In the 1960s, for instance, the US military encouraged metal-working firms, via its contracting process, to adopt expensive numerically controlled machine tools. The lavish funding the Department of Defense devoted to promoting the technology didn’t automatically yield clear economic advantages. However, the new machines – ones that smaller firms were hard-pressed to adopt – increased centralisation of the metalworking industry and, arguably, diminished economic competition. Meanwhile, on the shop floor, the new manufacturing innovations gave supervisors greater oversight over production. At one large manufacturing company, numerical control was referred to as a ‘management system’, not a new tool for cutting metal. Imperatives besides efficiency drove technological change.
Our prevailing focus on the shock of the technological new often obscures or distorts how we see the old and the preexisting. It’s common to hear how the 19th-century telegraph was the equivalent of today’s internet. In fact, there’s a bestseller about it, The Victorian Internet (1998) by Tom Standage. Except this isn’t true. Sending telegrams 100 years ago was too expensive for most people. For decades, the telegraph was a pricey, elite technology. However, what was innovative for the majority of people c1900 was cheap postage.