Cover image for The efficiency paradox : what big data can't do / Edward Tenner.
The efficiency paradox : what big data can't do / Edward Tenner.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.

Physical Description:
xxxi, 282 pages ; 25 cm
"A bold challenge to our obsession with efficiency--and a new understanding of how to benefit from the powerful potential of serendipity Algorithms, multitasking, sharing economy, life hacks: our culture can't get enough of efficiency. One of the great promises of the Internet and big data revolutions is the idea that we can improve the processes and routines of our work and personal lives to get more done in less time than ever before. There is no doubt that we're performing at higher scales and going faster than ever, but what if we're headed in the wrong direction? The Efficiency Paradox questions our ingrained assumptions about efficiency, persuasively showing how relying on the algorithms of platforms can in fact lead to wasted efforts, missed opportunities, and above all an inability to break out of established patterns. Edward Tenner offers a smarter way to think about efficiency, showing how we can combine artificial intelligence and our own intuition, leaving ourselves and our institutions open to learning from the random and unexpected"-- Provided by publisher.

"Bold challenge to our obsession with efficiency--and a new understanding of how to benefit from the powerful potential of serendipity"-- Provided by publisher.


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A bold challenge to our obsession with efficiency--and a new understanding of how to benefit from the powerful potential of serendipity.

Algorithms, multitasking, the sharing economy, life hacks: our culture can't get enough of efficiency. One of the great promises of the Internet and big data revolutions is the idea that we can improve the processes and routines of our work and personal lives to get more done in less time than we ever have before. There is no doubt that we're performing at higher levels and moving at unprecedented speed, but what if we're headed in the wrong direction?

Melding the long-term history of technology with the latest headlines and findings of computer science and social science, The Efficiency Paradox questions our ingrained assumptions about efficiency, persuasively showing how relying on the algorithms of digital platforms can in fact lead to wasted efforts, missed opportunities, and, above all, an inability to break out of established patterns. Edward Tenner offers a smarter way of thinking about efficiency, revealing what we and our institutions, when equipped with an astute combination of artificial intelligence and trained intuition, can learn from the random and unexpected.

Author Notes

EDWARD TENNER is a distinguished scholar of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and a visiting scholar in the Rutgers University Department of History. He was a visiting lecturer at the Humanities Council at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study and the University of Pennsylvania. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times , The Washington Post , The Wall Street Journal , The Atlantic , The Wilson Quarterly , and, and he has given talks for many organizations, including Microsoft, AT&T, the National Institute on White Collar Crime, the Smithsonian Associates, and TED. His book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences , written in part with a Guggenheim Fellowship, has been translated into German, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, and Czech.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Historian Tenner (Why Things Bite Back) argues that supposed advances in technological efficiency can actually be self-subverting in this reasoned antidote to a culture increasingly obsessed with doing more with less. He starts by examining the history of innovations premised on efficiency, first seen in continuous production models such as Ford's assembly line, and more recently in the rise of digital platform companies, which are "based less on the organization of machines and human labor than the gathering, analysis, and exchange of data." The book then segues into hot topics such as rideshare apps, GPS, and self-driving cars. Tenner demonstrates how systems such as these, which are premised on efficiency, reduce serendipity, stifle learning, and limit humans' ability to respond when malfunction occurs; they also, he argues, create substantial lost opportunity cost in the long term. Tenner also addresses the fallacies of big data and how random initial advantages from algorithms (such as Google's PageRank, which attempts to deliver information that people want rather than what they asked for) can hide the long-term codification of systemic bias. Tenner is no luddite; he evaluates the positives and negatives of technology through a strong base of evidence rather than nostalgia or personal anecdote, and debunks some of the most popular concerns about automation. Tenner's insightful study of the effects of information technology on society warrants close attention. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

hypocrisy thrives at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in the heart of Silicon Valley. This is where Google executives send their children to learn how to knit, write with chalk on blackboards, practice new words by playing catch with a beanbag and fractions by cutting up quesadillas and apples. There are no screens - not a single piece of interactive, multimedia, educational content. The kids don't even take standardized tests. While Silicon Valley's raison d'etre is making platforms, apps and algorithms to create maximum efficiency in life and work (a "friction-free" world, as Bill Gates once put it), when it comes to their own families (and developing their own businesses, too), the new masters of the universe have a different sense of what it takes to learn and innovate - it's a slow, indirect process, meandering not running, allowing for failure and serendipity, even boredom. Back in 1911, the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that "civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them." By that metric, Uber and Google and Amazon Prime have given us a whole lot of civilization. And there's no doubt our lives are better for it. (Ordering Chinese takeout in 30 seconds on an app might not be up there with Shakespeare or the incandescent light bulb, but it's pretty great.) This unrelenting drive for efficiency has, however, blotted out a few things we all know intuitively but seem to be forgetting. To create a product or service that is truly efficient often involves a lot of inefficiency - more like learning to knit than pressing a button. Likewise, gadgets built with a single-minded focus on efficiency can often backfire, subverting their purpose. Algorithms designed to dish up the news and information we most prefer end up blinkering us to all but a narrow slice of political and social reality. Our smartphones untether us from the office, saving us energy on travel, but also allow our lives to be interrupted nearly 24 hours a day, chewing up any productive idle time. This all seems fairly obvious. But, as Edward Tenner writes in "The Efficiency Paradox," "we sometimes need to be reminded of the obvious." Tenner has made a career worrying about unintended consequences. His 1996 book, "Why Things Bite Back," dealt with phenomena like the overuse of antibiotics leading to resistant bacteria and the introduction of football helmets causing an increase of neck and spine injuries. In 2003, he published "Our Own Devices," in which he turned to what he called body technologies - sandals, office chairs, computer keyboards - and how they had impaired as much as enhanced us. In short, for every three steps forward, he sees the two steps back. With the internet now a dominant social force, Tenner is ready with his wet blanket. But he is not a cyber-pessimist or a fetishizer of the analog. He is, instead, a staunch moderate: "Silicon Valley's mistake is not in developing efficient algorithms from which we all benefit, but in encouraging the illusion that algorithms can and should function in the absence of human skills." The dehumanizing effects of big data are well known and Tenner adds no groundbreaking insight here. (Books like Cathy O'Neil's "Weapons of Math Destruction" and Evgeny Morozov's "To Save Everything, Click Here" were more pioneering on this front.) But what Tenner brings is a new frame. Unlike critiquing the denizens of Silicon Valley for deepening social and economic inequality, destroying our brains or helping to undermine democratic norms (issues that seem to matter to us more than them), questioning efficiency is truly kicking the geeks where it hurts. Drawing on an eclectic bunch of anecdotes and studies, Tenner makes his way through four sectors in which "intuition, skill and experience" have been effectively crushed by "big data, algorithms and efficiency": media and culture, education, transportation and medicine. A few of his examples: Search algorithms have extended the ability to find scientific journal articles and books dating to the 19 th century. In principle, this means scholars may encounter a broad range of research and discovery, dredge up forgotten work and possibly connect important dots. But in reality, as one sociologist found after studying citations in 35 million scientific journal articles from before and after the invention of the internet, researchers, beholden to search algorithms' tendency to generate self-reinforcing feedback loops, are now paying more attention to fewer papers, and in general to the more recent and popular ones - actually strengthening rather than bucking prevailing trends. GPS is great for getting from one point to another, but if you need more context for understanding your surroundings, it's fairly useless. We've all had experiences in which the shortest distance, as calculated by the app, can also be the most dangerous or traffic-clogged. Compare the efficiency of GPS with the three years aspiring London cabdrivers typically spend preparing for the arduous examination they must pass in order to receive their license. They learn to build a mental map of the entire city, to navigate under any circumstance, to find shortcuts and avoid risky situations - all without any external, possibly fallible, help. Which is the more efficient, ultimately, the cabby or Google Maps? In the early 2000s, electronic medical records and electronic prescribing appeared to solve the lethal problem of sloppy handwriting. The United States Institute of Medicine estimated in 1999 that 7,000 patients in the United States were dying annually because of errors in reading prescriptions. But the electronic record that has emerged to answer this problem, and to help insurers manage payments, is full of detailed codes and seemingly endless categories and subcategories. Doctors now have to spend an inordinate amount of time on data entry. One 2016 study found that for every hour doctors spent with patients, two hours were given over to filling out paperwork, leaving much less time to listen to patients, arguably the best way to avoid misdiagnoses. Faced with all these "inefficiently efficient" technologies, what should we do? Tenner wants more balance. Let's not put the brakes on the drive for efficiency. These tools are good. But they should give way a bit to human sensibility, to our own instincts and insights, which could help them work even better. "Analog experience can enhance digital efficacy," he writes. "Digital tools can improve analog access. We don't have to choose between the two." his recommendations are sensible, if hard to imagine actually coming to pass. He wants us to spend more time in the physical world, in the "terrain" of our cities or between the paragraphs of a printed book. We need to get a little lost, pursue "productive and instructive disorientation, distraction, wild-goose chases, dead ends." He likes the idea of systematically educating high school students in the skill of online searching, so they can make the algorithms work for them rather than slavishly accepting their results. He wouldn't mind if we returned to the days of the dial-up modem, when we waited patiently for the pixels to materialize on the screen one by one. Instant gratification has dulled our senses. He'd put us all in Waldorf schools if he could. If this sounds like Tenner is a man impassioned, I should be clearer: This is no manifesto. There is not much blood flowing through this book, which reads more like a report issued by a concerned think tank. Maybe it's just that preaching moderation doesn't lend itself to writing that pulls your face to the page. But it would be unfortunate if Tenner were dismissed as just a cranky man in his 70s who thinks we spend too much time on our phones. What he is asserting is something we all know to be true. It's bigger than the tyranny of efficiency. What he's really asking is that we remember that the tools we've invented to improve our lives are just that, tools, to be picked up and put down. We wield them. ? gal beckerman is an editor at the Book Review.

Library Journal Review

In his newest book, Tenner (Why Things Bite Back) writes about the paradox of efficiency and of technology in general. He begins by defining different types of efficiency and details ways in which scholars and students may use technology inefficiently. Tenner cites studies indicating that note taking with a pen and paper is more beneficial than on a mobile device; that GPS applications take away important navigational skills for hikers and climbers; and that wearing a fitness tracker can cause overjustification, taking interest out of the intended activity. Later chapters explore algorithms that determine the best journals for publishing and the evolution of algorithms that populate results in web-based search engines. Alongside evidence to support his claims, Tenner often writes in first person, adding a personal touch to otherwise academic prose. The paradoxical aspects are sometimes confusing to follow, but they are always thoroughly explained. VERDICT With a focus on information literacy and scholarly publishing as well as health data, this book's main audience are librarians, educators, and medical professionals. This is not for laypersons; readers with a strong interest in the academic and technological aspects of efficiency will enjoy, as will those who wish to learn more about technology and big data.-Natalie Browning, LongwoodUniv. Lib., Farmville, VA © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1 From Mill to Platform: How the Nineteenth Century Redefined Efficiency and the Twenty-First Has Transformed It We are living in a second age of efficiency. Journalists and entrepreneurs do not use that word as often as they used to. We'll see synonyms later. But never far from our minds is consciousness of the value of getting the greatest possible output from available inputs, whether increasing production or profits, or reducing time. My claim that preoccupation with efficiency in the short term may harm efficiency in the long run risks being considered a heresy by some and a truism by others. I hope to show that it is an obvious proposition when one reflects on it. It is also obvious, as I shall suggest in succeeding chapters and in the Conclusion, that combining efficient algorithms with holistic analog understanding can produce far better results than using either strategy alone. But it is not always simple to defend the obvious. It is helpful to see efficiency as a concept that has developed over the past two hundred years or so, and as a set of practices that are much older. The idea of efficiency, as we shall see, emerged in the age of the steam engine and was best expressed not by the eighteenth-century metaphor of a shop's division of labor (essential as that remained) but by the substitution of continuous production for the fabrication of one unit at a time. The greatest enterprises invested vast capital and employed up to a hundred thousand workers or more to keep it in operation. Both classical economic liberalism and rival doctrines like Marxism reflected this model; it should not be so surprising that even communist governments admired Western mass production. The importance of technologies of uninterrupted ("continuous process") as opposed to batch production was first underscored by the Swiss architect and critic Siegfried Giedion and the American historian Daniel J. Boorstin in the mid-twentieth century. Rollers, belts, and other devices changed the nature of consumption as well as production. Cable television programs like How It's Made reveal how much of today's industrial processes are already automated, especially when compared to episodes of the Industry on Parade series broadcast on network television in the 1950s. Today's programs will probably look equally quaint in even less time. But further reducing labor costs on assembly lines is not the kind of efficiency that interests us here. It is a new kind of enterprise that has--unforeseen by even the boldest futurists--taken over what Vladimir Lenin called the commanding heights of the economy, dominating its agendas. "Silicon Valley" evokes the mixture of admiration, fear, and scorn once inspired by the grimy industrial metropolises of the Northeast and Midwest, but while an approach to Chicago or Detroit or Pittsburgh by automobile or train can still be a visually striking experience, nothing on the peninsula south of San Francisco is tall enough to inspire awe, stupendous as its wealth has become. The server complexes of its companies are scattered as inconspicuously as possible around the globe. Yet the giants of Silicon Valley have ideas about social organization as radical in their own way as Lenin's, and they share with classical communism a passionate faith in efficiency. This chapter will investigate the contrast between continuous process efficiency (which fascinated painters as well as photographers and filmmakers in its monumentality and awesome concreteness) and platform efficiency, which is far more profitable but concealed and evanescent and that takes a leap of artistic imagination to dramatize. It will suggest how matchmaking by electronic networks takes advantagenot only of the steady if recently slowed improvement of the efficiency of integrated circuits, but also of the ability of ingenious computational techniques--algorithms--to multiply the speed of these circuits manyfold. This efficiency raises a profound question, the chapter will argue. Why have these platforms apparently had such little effect on the self-perceived satisfaction of the United States and other nations in which they are most advanced? Why are citizens around the world so unhappy with their governments, so ready to look to extreme solutions? One reason may be that the platform revolution has been diverting talent and capital from other technological projects that could be more transformative. I cannot identify them, nor rule out that they are already well advanced and may flower soon. After all, the U.S. boom after the Second World War was in part based on innovations like broadcast television and dry photocopying that actually were under development during the darkest years of the Great Depression, along with Alan Turing's theoretical work that helped make the platform economy possible. The question, which I don't pretend to resolve, is why the platform corporation, so profitable for its investors so far (especially the early ones), has been such an underachiever. Enthusiasts will insist that major innovations commonly have troughs of disappointment; the best is yet to come. This is especially the viewpoint of Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who in early 2017 published a manifesto acknowledging mistakes and vowing to build better communities and a better planet with the help of Facebook's users. To many adversaries such promises have long been "silicon snake oil" and "future hype"--to quote the titles of 1990s and early 2000s books by disillusioned technologists. To critics on the left in particular, the new bosses are not so different from the old bosses, just equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance and manipulation in place of the goon squads of yore. Some wary journalists see an existential threat to their own profession in declarations like those of Zuckerberg. I am not sure any organization really has such power. I will suggest at the end of this chapter that the most serious unintended consequence of platform efficiency may be its opportunity cost, its claim on resources that would in the long run do more to promote real efficiency. One paradox of the movement for efficiency is that innovations that have promoted efficiency and rationality have arisen in spite of discouraging data, driven by intuition and emotion. That does not mean that gut feelings alone are a more reliable guide than data-based analysis, but only that data, and tools for analyzing it, never can take the place of the imagination in foreseeing future patterns of human behavior. Most such intuitions fail. The exceptions fill inspirational and business books. Venture investment has a high failure rate built into it. Yet out of the inefficient maelstrom emerged some of the world's most efficient technology. *** The history of efficiency should rightly start with nature itself. As biophysicists have discovered, DNA stores energy far more densely than the most advanced technological systems. The control of gene expression allows complex and robust organisms to develop with stunning speed. Tiny variations in the genomes of fruit flies can produce strikingly different behaviors. Evolution has been prodigiously successful in optimizing the flow of information. Leveraging limited resources is our biological heritage. The quest for efficiency seems to be built into human biology as well, as revealed by anthropological and archaeological evidence. There have been tens of thousands of years of innovations in tool making that sometimes reached dead ends but occasionally produced masterpieces of functionality. Think of the Australian Aborigines' boomerang, or the Central Asian steppe nomads' composite bow. Is any cutting tool more efficient than traditionally forged Japanese blades, or sharper than the obsidian knives flaked expertly by pre-Columbian Native Americans? Turning to the West, many ancient Roman medical instruments were so well adapted to their purpose that similar ones are used today, and their quality was not surpassed until modern times. Roman troops were famous for their ability to assemble bridges and fortifications with a speed that dazzled their adversaries. There was even a kind of mass production of oil lamps, stamped and marketed with early trademarks. Recent archaeology has revealed more dynamism and technologicalinnovation in the ancient world than historians of fifty years ago acknowledged. The slave economy, for example, did not rule out labor-saving machines like water wheels, just as steam engines were used on slavery-era sugar plantations in the early nineteenth century. There was a great deal of efficiency in practice. But the concept of efficiency as we know it had no clear place in ancient life. The ancient Greeks and Romans (and other Mediterranean and Near Eastern societies, including Egypt), had administrative and recordkeeping systems that worked for centuries. But they had no doctrine of systematic improvement of output. The classical historian Peter Thonemann has underlined that Roman society in particular was based on principles of patronage, loyalty, and obligation. There was no theory of wages, interest, or productivity. Prestige was often more important than functionality. Books were written and read as rolls that were stored together in chests. Writing was scriptura continua , no space between words, which space would have increased papyrus and parchment use slightly but made reading and education far easier. The difficulties of reading--manipulating the scroll, looking ahead to determine word breaks--were part of the performance skills of an educated person. That kind of inefficiency was a feature, not a bug in today's terms. Europe of the Middle Ages and the early modern era was a time of growing practical efficiency--but also without an underlying theory. The black letter handwriting that seems so quaint and old-fashioned today was actually a relatively rapid and legible style of writing for those accustomed to it. The Romans had the optical knowledge and the glassblowing and metallurgical skills to make eyeglasses, but there was no market for them. Aging literate people had educated slaves to read to them. The Romans made excellent cloth presses (one of which survives at Herculaneum) and could cast bronze letters, but they felt no need for printing. By the eighteenth century, Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie and its Scots imitator, the Encyclopaedia Britannica , summarized the knowledge and improvement in dozens of trades. In The Wealth of Nations , Adam Smith showed how the separation of the making of pins into distinct operations by specialists could multiply the number of pins each worker could make per day. There was an even finer division of labor in the manufacture of needles in medieval Persia. Still, Smith was an exceptional pioneer. The nineteenth-and twentieth-century sense of efficiency was not quite present. A nineteenth-century political economist, whether laissez-faire or socialist, would be deeply interested in measuring just how much more productive a pin workshop would be than a traditional one. Many products were still made according to artisanal tradition and style rather than after systematic study of customer needs. The French technology theorist Jacques Ellul has pointed out that the armorers who made swords for late medieval mercenaries each followed a craft tradition and decorative style without studying the ergonomics of combat. Every soldier had to adapt his fighting style to the instrument. No eighteenth-century figure was more celebrated than Benjamin Franklin for his union of practical ingenuity with investigations of scientific theory, despite or because of the limits of his formal education. The designs of Franklin and his contemporaries--he never patented his inventions and encouraged further adaptation--for fireplace linings significantly improved the efficiency of wasteful conventional fireplaces. But late-eighteenth-century inventors still had no scientific way to quantify savings in heat produced per unit of wood. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did thinkers like the brewer and scientist James Joule develop consistent units to measure heat production: the British thermal unit and the SI (metric) Joule. The two inventions that introduced modern efficiency were the work of other geniuses of the early nineteenth century, now known mainly to specialists: the millwright Oliver Evans and the paper manufacturer Henry Fourdrinier. If we look at plates of Diderot's encyclopedia as edited by Charles Gillispie, many of the workshops were not so different from those of the ages of Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo. Masters, assisted by journeymen and apprentices, made each product, though Smith's principle of the division of labor was beginning to spread. Goods were still fashioned individually or in small batches. Oliver Evans was the founder of continuous process efficiency. He is less well known than Franklin, Eli Whitney, Samuel Morse, or Thomas Edison, but for two centuries he was at least as influential as any of these. As Siegfried Giedion wrote in his classic Mechanization Takes Command , before there was any real American industry, "a solitary and prophetic mind set about devising a system wherein mechanical conveyance from one operation to another might eliminate the labor of human hands." Grain was raised to the top of the mill by a chain of buckets and conveyed by gravity through each of the stages of milling with belts, screws, and other continuous conveyances. Individually these were not entirely new; some had existed since antiquity. The idea of an integrated system that processed raw materialsand semifinished products was still a breathtaking step in efficiency. Evans's system seemed shaky and he lacked Franklin's persuasive powers, but in "the power of his vision," Giedion rightly concluded, "Oliver Evans' invention opens a new chapter in the history of mankind." The second of the landmarks of classic modern efficiency was the Fourdrinier paper mill. Ever since its introduction in China, and to this day in the production of Japanese artisanal papers like washi, paper was made from fibers in individual sheets. Papermakers were highly skilled workers who formed powerful guilds; books and newspapers were still costly. A French printer named Nicolas-Louis Robert was the first to understand the potential of continuous paper production. As the historian Mark Kurlansky has pointed out, Robert's invention of a wire framework used the principle of today's conveyor belts, but actually preceded their invention. (The first use wasby the Royal Navy for the manufacture of ship's biscuits in 1804.) In his machine, a moving screen received the wet fibers and agitated the pulp laterally to distribute it evenly, as sheet paper artisans did. After the water was removed, the semifinished paper was rolled on to a series of drums, the final ones heated, for drying. The paper manufacturers Henry and David Fourdrinier made technical improvements in the Robert process, but not enough to make it practical, and they were forced to declare bankruptcy. It was the engineer Bryan Donkin who finally made usable continuous papermaking machines on the basis of Robert's idea. This complex parentage reveals an important feature of continuous process efficiency: even more than other innovations, it is the drawn-out result of failure, collaboration, and competition. Excerpted from The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can't Do by Edward Tenner All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

The Seven Deadly Sins of Efficiency
Why It Is Still a Work in Progressp. ix
Chapter 1 From Mill to Platform
How the Nineteenth Century Redefined Efficiency and the Twenty-First has Transformed itp. 3
Chapter 2 The Failed Promise of the Information Explosion
How the Quest to Measure Elite Science Empowered Populist Culturep. 47
Chapter 3 The Mirage of the Teaching Machine
Why Learning is Still a Slog After Fifty Years of Moore's Lawp. 92
Chapter 4 Moving Targets
What Geographic Information Can't Dop. 129
Chapter 5 The Managed Body
Why We are Still Waiting for Robodocp. 165
Conclusion Inspired Inefficiency
How to Balance Algorithm and Intuitionp. 202
Acknowledgmentsp. 219
Notesp. 221
Indexp. 265