Technology is the undisputed champion of efficiency. Tasks that were once complex and time-consuming are now completed in the blink of an eye. But there is a downside to an abundance of technology. In his new book, scholar Edward Tenner explains how too much efficiency can kill creativity, which can turn off avant-garde thinking, innovation and problem-solving. He believes there is a better way to improve our lives through a combination of technology and intuition, and by exploring the random and unexpected.
Tenner, a distinguished scholar at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian, spoke about his book, The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do, on the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowlege@Wharton: What’s so terrible about efficiency?
Edward Tenner: The problem with efficiency is that algorithms let us really learn from experience, they let us codify experience, they let us benefit, they recognize patterns. They are really tremendous at that. For example, I use the Google navigation program Waze. I first started out as a critic of it, but then I got into it more and more. However, the problem with Waze is that every once in a while, it will make a terrific blunder. If somebody relies completely on a system like that, no matter how brilliantly engineered, sooner or later some glitch is going to bite back. However, if they keep their awareness of where they are, if they keep their common sense, and if they keep trust in their common sense, then they can get the most of the program while avoiding those little disasters.
Knowlege@Wharton: Because we are so reliant on technology, are we losing something as a society, as a culture?
Tenner: There is definitely that risk, and it happens all of the time because it is so easy to become dependent. It is so easy just to accept what a program is proposing to you and to shut your eyes to other things that might be a little more unusual. But that didn’t really start with technology because people were using pattern recognition and routines for a long time.
For example, look at all of the publishers that turned down the Harry Potter series. Although it had elements from other literary works obviously, really didn’t fit into the pattern of what publishers thought would be a really successful children’s book. It was only when the 8-year-old daughter of the editor wrote an ecstatic little review of the book that he decided this was the one to buy.
The problem with artificial intelligence is not limited to the technology, it is extended to the tendency that we all have to go on what has been familiar and to ignore the unexpected. To ignore really our ability to recognize something that is really fresh and exciting.
Knowlege@Wharton: You said that efficiency was redefined in the 19th century. What happened then?
Tenner: Yes, the 19th century made a huge difference. Before the 19th century, people were always concerned with managing with the least overhead, getting the most for the least and so forth, but they didn’t really have a doctrine about it. One of the big changes of the 19th century with the rise of the steam engine was that now people were very much concerned with how much work they could get out of a given unit of coal, for example. Which steam engines would let a railroad travel fastest on a given amount of fuel? People started thinking much more systematically about efficiency, and that fed back into business and social thinking more generally.
Knowlege@Wharton: One of the descriptions you use relates efficiency at times to a threat. How so?
Tenner: Efficiency as a threat, I think, appears in a