This Efficiency Is Killing Me

Efficiency (noun) \i-ˈfi-shən-sē\

(1) : effective operation as measured by a comparison of production with cost (as in energy, time, and money)

(2) : the ratio of the useful energy delivered by a dynamic system to the energy supplied to it

(from Mirriam-Webster’s)

Has modern efficiency created the capability to attain levels of perfectionism such that their attainment leads to more hours working than had we not been enabled by the efficiencies to begin with? And is attention to detail in a world of intricacies a new form of artisanship or just the new tediousness of production line work?

I think we could all agree that many processes have become much more efficient over the span of our lifetimes. Not all… it’s true that now we ship food from one side of the country to another to feed cows whose milk and beef we ship back across the country to feed people, and whose manure we ship to other parts of the country to grow food that gets shipped back to where the manure came from. The government subsidizes any number of things to create artificial efficiencies in the market as well, for example driving corn syrup into so much of our food supply. In that sense inefficiencies abound. It’s clear.

However, in another sense it is impossible to deny the progress. Mechanical processes. Fabrication. Design. Communication. By definition all of these things have become much more efficient. Consider a paper – a text document, that is. When it was printed on paper an edit meant White-Out at the very least, and potentially having to retype the entire paper. If a section needed to be added in a way such that the whole paper shifted down and reset the page breaks through to the final page, then the whole document from the point of the edit onward required retyping. Today it is a few clicks of the mouse, and it probably won’t get printed anyway, so that’s all it takes.

Video (or audio) editing has evolved in a similar manner. Those of us who learned to edit video on analog decks recall the wince of pain upon realizing something had to be inserted early on in a sequence that had already been nearly completed, thus requiring that every edit be recut and shifted back to accommodate. Sharing music illustrates it as well. First it was impossible, then it had to be copied from one tape to another, more or less in real time, and now we can dump gigabytes and gigabytes of music onto thumb drives in seconds – or better yet, just share a link to the media in the cloud so that we don’t have to share hardly any data at all; just an address of where that data can be found!

So why are we working so much more than people used to? What is it about this efficiency that ends up taking up so much more of our time rather than liberating us to run through the hills like Julie Andrews or sit in coffee shops all day long pondering life. (Disclaimer – I live in Portland, so there are actually a lot of people around me who manage to do that.)

What happened to the halcyon days… ok, ok there was a lot of misogyny, alcoholism and general myopia… so let’s just say, what happened to the days when you could have a whiskey midday at work, brainstorm for a while and then call it a day? What happened to easily taking the afternoon off for a ballgame with your son, or even to not needing both parents of a household working to make ends meet. I’m not so concerned with the economics of it for the purposes of this particular thought exercise – but instead the time it takes to do things to a point where people agree that they are finished.

The efficiency garnered from things like digital editing and mobile communication are effectively enabling us to create works that are more detailed, intricate, exact and perfect than we could have imagined previously. We’re producing “better” things in many ways. Not that we didn’t produce things of “quality” before, but it seems like the intricacy of that quality is increasing at a frightening pace. There are the obvious intricate productions, such as the entire internet and the intricacies of the code-based wonders that have come from there. Consider the code behind the compendium of Google services and the algorithmic complexity behind their rankings, or that of a relative newcomer like Facebook with all of its relational dependency, rankings and realtime sharing capabilities. Or even consider something much younger like Square that as a “small” startup company must achieve competency in terms of transactions with traditional financial institutions, fraud prevention and actuarial calculations for earning a profit and hardware production – all in parallel.

In design and creative fields the same can be seen as more and more intricate projects begin to cost less and less. To a certain degree this is because they can be built on existing platforms and accomplishments of others – like how creating a blog for a client can be built upon WordPress or any number of other blogging platforms without having to code the core functionality from scratch. But all wiggle room has been lost, in some cases because the expectations of clients has grown to the point of expecting the impossible while our capabilities of production have expanded to be able to nearly achieve the impossible.

And beyond the mere production and revision of whatever one does for a living now there is an added burden of more precise tracking. Everyone can track everything, and they can do it “easily,” and in addition to that they can compare these tracked figures to other options. Everyone’s finances are tracked and recorded, so you can drive down the margins of your providers against their competitors over time for everything but the very newest and most innovative services. Moreover, you can sue if you’re not happy, which means that everyone else is forced to efficiently organize and track in ways to protect themselves in case they end up with differing opinions from the client with regards to what the finished deliverable was supposed to be.

There’s an argument to be made that we have moved from a place where artisanship meant to do things the slow way to a new paradigm – maybe one that includes managing a vast multitude of small things and making sure that they all are correct and stay correct over time? Thinking about the existence of find/replace functions in text editors makes it easy to request of people that they make tedious but necessary changes to bring a document from “pretty close” to a state of perfection. The tediousness grows with the scope and complexity of the project until managing all of the details and intricacies, as enabled by the efficiency of our modern tools, is an artisanship of detail oriented-ness that is new to our generation.

But what are we truly creating? Which of these are masterpieces, and how do these works serve as baselines for the even more intricate works of tomorrow? New artisans of modern intricacy do exist, but there is a great deal of intricate mediocrity being swept along in the same tide. But it’s a shame that so many nights and weekends are being sacrificed by worker bees to accommodate a need for intricacy because of the trend of modern artisanship or perhaps just the perception thereof.

I wish I had more time to put toward this, but I have a very intricate project that needs to be  perfected finished. :) …but I am interested in thoughts on this if you’ve got them.

One thought on “This Efficiency Is Killing Me

  1. …and how do we enable/ encourage/ coerce people to use the well thought out, better designed, full of GOOD content websites to their own advantage?

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