Efficiency is based on the notion that if you have to do something, you might as well find a way of doing it in the quickest most frictionless way possible. On one level, it means you end up having more time and energy to do the other things you have to do. Within a business context, savings in time and energy means savings in money. Less fuel is used and machines and humans have time to do more tasks. Modern industries are always looking for new ways to increase efficiency. It is a virtue that is enshrined in the modern work ethic.
Nevertheless, something is gained and something is lost with our modern focus on efficiency. What is lost is perhaps not always immediately obvious. We can perhaps explore more fully what is lost when we look at pre-industrial traditional society. There, people do not always look to perform their actions in the most efficient way.
In most traditional societies, people do not tend to break up their actions a lot into isolated defined discrete steps. There is not a science to getting an action precisely right. Instead actions are performed as an organic continual flow. Traditional society actions are coherent, and there is an art to performing an action with style. It is not simply a matter of doing something right to achieve a particular goal at the end. The whole action performed as a flowing continual cohesive unity is a goal in and of itself. There is an art to fishing, an art to hunting, an art to gardening and to planting crops, an art to making implements and other necessary accessories of life.
In a modern mechanical action, the focus is on the mark left on the world at the end of the action in the form of a discrete product or service. In a traditional organic action, the focus is on the imprint left on a person’s field of experience throughout the whole course of the action. The journey of the action is as important as the destination in terms of human validation. When one is looking for efficiency in actions, the journey of the action is of secondary importance and the only source of human validation is the quality of the mark at the destination of the mechanical action, the quality of the product or service.
There is something else that distinguishes the actions of traditional people from modern efficient actions. A traditional action is actually several different actions with several different ends. There is the ostensive dominant sub-action within the action. The sub-action which triggered the action process in the first place. A group of men decide to go hunting for game to bring their tribe some meat. Going hunting for meat is the dominant sub-action for each man in the group. However, interspersed with going on the hunt is the need for socialization. While on their way to the hunting ground, the hunters talk, making and receiving imprints from each other in the conversation. On a larger level, there is rooting themselves in the camaraderie of a group, feeling grounded in a segment of the larger group of their village. The hunt will create a preserved memory imprint in the mind of all the hunters, a memory that will be discussed after the hunting action is done.
On the way to the hunt, prayers or offerings can be made to the gods in order to have a good hunt. Each hunt is not just an attempt to find food. It creates a disturbance in the activity of the cosmos which must be dealt with properly. If not, the hunt will not be successful. The hunt makes and preserves a larger cosmological imprint than simply killing an animal or animals. It affects the balance of nature; it creates a shift within the hunters’ field of experience.
Hunting is in and of itself not necessarily an efficient way of obtaining meat. An animal has to be followed patiently for a period of time, before the hunters are in a position to kill the animal. And sometimes, the animal escapes. Hunting is a true test of skill for each of the hunters. It becomes a way of validating himself as an adult male member of his tribe and as a provider for his family. Hunting for meat requires skill, patience and care more than efficiency.
Hunting not only leads to the defined discrete survival of people as figure biological organisms. It leads to the more nebulous flowing continual survival through grounded group interaction and to the internal flowing continual psychological survival through a successful demonstration of the art of using hunting implements and to the larger external flowing continual cosmological survival through an embracing grounded integration in the larger scheme of nature and the spirit world. Efficiency strips an action of any other meaning other than arriving at a focused goal. Efficiency turns an action into a temporally-defined figure floating in a vacuum.
The point is that a lived life is more than constantly taking the straightest path from point a to point b. And yet that is what a machine does. But a machine does not have to satisfy a need to feel alive. Even a complex robot cannot be construed to have an organic cohesive consciousness the way a human would have. All of the many different operations to move a robot in different ways or to make it analyze or speak do not add up to consciousness.
And frankly, the quick frictionless movements of efficiency are not very stimulating for a human. A person loses his connection to himself, to the people around him and to his living environment, when he is at his most efficient. He doesn’t feel the stimulation of the journey of the action flowing within him.
Put another way, what point is there for a person to reach a destination, if he is unable to experience reaching the destination. And he is not likely to experience reaching the destination, if he is unable to experience the journey that takes him to the destination. A person has to be able to experience where he has been – his temporal grounding – in order to fully experience where he is arriving. Making and preserving organic imprints is a flowing process, not simply disconnected points in time.
But, some will say, we are living in a modern technological society built on machines and computers and robots, and we can’t simply get rid of them, or we will have a complete societal breakdown. And we need the efficiency built on this modern infrastructure, or our society will become dysfunctional.
My answer is that I am not trying to get rid of this machine infrastructure, but to minimize its influence, particularly among those people who are beginning to feel bothered by modern technology’s pervasive influence. If people can understand that there is more that is potentially available in the journey of a human action than simply the possibility of attaining an end goal efficiently, they will become less obsessed with efficiency. They will start focusing on psychological, social, environmental and cosmological grounding; creating good flowing complex actions; making, preserving and receiving good organic imprints; having rich vibrant experiences and ultimately preparing for death. And focusing on these ideas will prevent people from sliding into machinehood or computerhood or robothood. Too much efficiency diminishes our capacity for human experience. Too much efficiency very simply diminishes our capacity to be human.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow