On Efficiency

If efficiency is what drives us – and drives the introduction of new technology into culture – it is worth asking why efficiency has become the most important goal. The inventions of the Industrial Revolution and Frederick Taylor’s organizational techniques sought to streamline labor, of course to the benefit of capitalist society. But perhaps efficiency was also perceived as a way confine work to a specific realm in order to provide people with more leisure time, what we call “free” time — to be human, to engage in relationships, to pursue intellectual thought.

A technological determinist would say that technology created the notion of leisure time – that the clock itself carved out slots of time for specific tasks — but a social constructivist would argue that humans place value on efficiency of labor in order to have more freedom in their personal lives. In other words, that humans created the clock because they wanted a way to understand and categorize divisions of labor and leisure.

Far beyond steam engines, we now have technology like smart phones. Do we text, IM, and email our friends because the technology has afforded us the leisure of doing so at our own convenience, unconstrained by location or activity? Or do we communicate with friends through technology because it is more efficient than meeting in person, because we want more leisure time to pursue other interests?  As people use their smart phones at work to communicate with friends, and at home to conduct business, the line between labor and leisure increasingly blurs. Instead of increasing efficiency, are we enslaved to it?

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