Everyone knows it’s a good thing. Economists talk about “productivity” and, more seriously, total factor productivity. When there’s more, wealth generally increases, which is good. Except when it’s bad.

It’s good when I can pick up my rental car without shuffling paper, waiting in line, or standing in front of a counter.

It sucks that the only efficient way to get anywhere and do business, in most of North America, requires the unshared use of a ton or so of fossil-fuel-driven steel.

It’s good when I can read about an interesting book, hit the online bookstore, and either start reading electronically one minute later, or have the more beautiful paper version show up at my door that same week.

It sucks that people are cruelly overworked and underpaid in Dickensian warehouses to bring me the goodies I buy online.

It’s good when my local grocery has a wide selection of fresh fruits, veggies, and meats twelve months of the year, fourteen hours a day; and my local drugstore (almost always open) has reading-glasses, bus-passes, and band-aids.

It sucks that bringing me affordable food year round involves industrial-agriculture practices that are seriously scary and involve what looks like brutally-inhumane treatment of the animals we eat.

It’s good that I can meet with people in Mountain View and Sydney for an hour of real-time video to debug OAuth2 software.

It sucks that the most efficient way to provide reliable energy risks ruining the planet for our grandchildren.

It’s good that our house is supplied with as much water as we need, as much power as we need, as much natural gas as we need, as much cable TV as we need, and as much Internet as we need.

It sucks that most of the service providers running physical or electric pipes into my house don’t want to talk to me when I have a problem, and send me bills that I can’t understand but seem higher than what I thought I signed up for.

It’s good that ordinary people can afford computers that perform magical acts unimagined by those who wrote about Giant Electronic Brains in my sci-fi childhood.

It sucks that they’re built in factories in South China that have to rig anti-suicide nets on their buildings.

It’s good that I and the ones I love are generally untroubled by hunger or thirst or cold or predators.

Conclusion · It’s complicated.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: ssp (Jun 19 2012, at 23:55)

»It’s complicated« may be true, but isn’t exactly helpful. The interesting question seems to be what each of us can do to reduce the »sucks« bits.

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From: Paul Morriss (Jun 20 2012, at 01:59)

These are the best of times, these are the worst of times.

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From: len (Jun 20 2012, at 07:01)

It's not that complicated.

Efficiency vs resilience: as the mass migration into the cities resulted in overspecialization, this resulted in interdependence. Interdependence increases efficiency but reduces resilience (the ability to do more things if not all well, most well enough). The counter movement (out of the cities) is to reduce interdependence at global scales and increase it locally (the local honey bee farmer, farmers markets).

Social co-location: You live online. For you it is constancy and convenience. For others, it is freedom and access to a neighbor's freely offered goods. With the emphasis on efficiency, banks grow bigger, the interlocking corporations and boards gave rise to the elites and the concentration of wealth went off the chart.

At the same time, society has become more vulnerable because “too big to fail” increases risk taking and greed meets incompetence like chocolate and peanut butter. Thus we propped up the banks because we couldn’t afford “inefficiency” and in so doing, robbed individuals except only the ones who could not defend themselves with force of any kind.

Not my thoughts exactly. See

http://unu.edu/articles/global-change-sustainable-development/expanding-our-moral-universe

and

http://unu.edu/articles/global-change-sustainable-development/return-to-rural-communities-resilience-over-efficiency

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From: Peter Phillips (Jun 20 2012, at 08:01)

Ah, so true. No enjoying my coffee this morning.

And sometimes the trade-off is simply mathematically pre-determined: Server utilization of 99% is good but queuing theory says the response time will be bad.

I wonder if economists every consider that?

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From: Jim Ancona (Jun 20 2012, at 09:02)

With respect to third world sweatshops, what sucks is that there are places in the world where people's best option is working in a place like that.

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From: Qai (Jun 20 2012, at 09:30)

Good points, all, except I'd like to point out that "suicide nets" are not unique to Chinese computer factories. Seattle's Aurora Bridge (right over the Adobe campus), for example, also has such protection. For that matter, Foxtron's campus has a lower suicide rate than America.

The weird thing about such barriers is that they work: most people who are so thwarted don't succeed in killing themselves. I don't wonder why Chinese install such barriers; I wonder why Americans install so few.

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From: Adelaide Ungerer (Jun 21 2012, at 00:52)

Tim, is this really on efficiency that you are writing?

We are all part of one system, one immensely complicated system. Even if it doesn't feel like it, we are actually living on the same planet (- no need to say ... one with limited resources).

From that planet perspective it is not efficient the way humans behave.

Back to the personal scale I find that for any convenience I can benefit from usually someone else somewhere on earth is paying the price for it.

On convenience and cruelty, how about that?

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