The optimism that greeted the dawn of the digital era was not lost on journalist and historian Edward Tenner. 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 recognized early in the 1990s that access to information online and the time saving advantages of word processing over laborious typing was enabling him to research and write more easily than ever.
Yet a decade ago, Tenner began to rethink his digital enthusiasm. Since 2008, as the smartphone and the Great Recession both took hold around the globe, Tenner started to consider the cost to our culture, and to our personal freedom, from the relentless drive for efficiency. In his latest book, The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can't Do ( Knopf), which earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, he documents how the futurist’s dream of a friction-free world has dimmed considerably.
“The modern idea of efficiency evolved since the early 19th Century with the Industrial Revolution. The great contribution of industrialization was a continuous process. Paper mills, instead of having a single sheet at a time, made possible newspapers and books and mass literacy. Steel mills, glass works, and so many other factories turned out things in continuous streams,” Tenner told me in an interview for Copyright Clearance Center’s Beyond the Book podcast series.
“More recently, especially since the late 20th Century, we’ve had another kind of efficiency,” he noted. “It’s what Bill Gates described as friction-free. These are the platforms [and] online services that, in principle, reduce the cost of doing everything and make possible, again in principle, an extremely efficient way of life.”
Handheld devices, mushrooming amounts of computing power, and algorithms able to digest data like digital whales have all brought improvements in commerce and communication, Tenner concedes. However, he raises troubling concerns about the way those advancements are increasingly overshadowed by anxiety over security and privacy as well as a decline in civil society.
A self-described skeptic, though hardly an alarmist, Tenner first detailed the so-called “revenge effects” of technological advancements in Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Knopf, 1997). His TED Talk on unintended consequences has seen nearly 800,000 views. And even in the Digital Age, Tenner maintains, the rule of unintended consequences has yet to be broken.
“One of my favorites example comes from that same TED meeting at which I spoke,” he recalled. “Another speaker, from Uber, was talking about a future Utopia in which there would be fewer cars and in which people could get from place to place more easily in a customized way, and in which pollution would be eliminated.
“But according to a number of studies, the opposite has been happening,” Tenner said. “People are using ride-sharing services to take more and more rides than ever before. In fact, they’re having more journeys than they did, and there is more pollution, there’s more congestion, and there’s also a problem for public transportation systems. So environmentally, it’s turning out to be a minus.”
At the heart of the dilemma, he says is data—or, more precisely, an almost religious reliance on data as the cure for every ill. Tenner identifies the dangers of putting too much confidence in the power of bits and bytes.
“If people are too dependent on the efficient systems that they’re using, they’re not going to be able to respond efficiently when something goes wrong and they need to rely on what really should be reflexes,” he explained. “We still don’t have fully automated aircraft because people reasonably believe that pilots should be able to—in an emergency, if the systems fail—execute the maneuvers that they’ve been trained to do.”
Of course, as the publishing industry knows well, algorithms underlie many more activities than those we immediately associate with purely technical functions, including everything from online advertising, to book recommendations, and streaming music platforms. For example, text mining within resumes is often harnessed to identify among hundreds of candidates who maybe most successful in a job.
“You can use big data to show who are the best salespeople, or, in publishing, to say who are the best acquisition editors. As a result, and based on your recent experience, you can have a team that is very, very effective at what they do,” Tenner observed. “However, reality is always changing. The person who is really effective in a given environment may be less effective as the environment changes. So, it’s much better to have a staff of people with diverse backgrounds, with diverse ways of thinking,” he continued. “Even though in the short run, that might be a little less efficient, in the long run, it’s going to be protection against a disaster that comes when everybody on your staff is unprepared for a new environment.”
As an antidote to a toxic monoculture dependent on data, Tenner argues for a new approach to building algorithms that allows greater information diversity and leaves room for just plain luck. He cites recent research appearing to show that the more time given an online search, the higher results.
“Of course, people really want efficient search in the sense that everything should be available in a fraction of a second,” Tenner said. “But even though in one sense that’s more efficient, it’s also less efficient or effective in finding the best results that you’re looking for.”
Christopher Kenneally is Director, Relationship Marketing, for Copyright Clearance Center and host of CCC’s podcast series Beyond the Book. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org