Efficiency for Efficiency’s Sake?

We sometimes think technological developments are aimed at improving human life. My reading of Paul Virillo (and Jean-François Lyotard, to some extent) is that we develop technology, ultimately, so that we can develop technology. We make jokes about this idea many ways: “The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy”; “We go to work today so that we can go to work tomorrow.” We make light of the circular nature of our lifestyle and our society. Some argue- and perhaps with some merit- that the story of technology today is the same sort of circular story. Faster computers with more RAM and disk space allow us to conduct the science that will allow us to build still faster computers with more RAM and disk space. I define efficiency as the ratio between a resource and an output—and we usually consider time and money our resources. However, we sometimes care about our output because it affects our pool of resources. My reading of the postmodernists leaves me at least with this question: Have we made efficiency circular (and therefore meaningless)?

I think it’s worth backing up a little bit- at least back to the part about making faster computers so that we can go on to make faster computers. It is true that we increase the capacities and efficiency of our computers (generally, “digital technology”) with each generation. (See also: Moore’s Law.) However, I think the misstep is to gloss over the other reasons we improve our technology. While better technology enables even better technology, it also serves the other purposes for which we use technology. We store our music, movies, photos, and literature on the larger storage spaces. We play our games and communicate through the faster speeds. The concern should not ignore these features of our relationship with technology. We should rephrase that concern as: “Have we lost sight of the purpose for our technology, now serving it instead of it serving us?”


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