Sunday, January 30, 2011

Efficiency’s Downside

No question one of the hallmarks of progress is the efficiency it offers. Plumbing is a far more efficient system for delivering water to the house than walking out to pump it from a well. The efficiencies of mass production enable us to acquire more goods at affordable prices than when pins and parcels were made one at a time.

The Internet has created countless additional efficiencies. Easy access to information was the first I noticed, eliminating the need to wait for the library to open to call one’s local reference librarian, a phone number I had at one time kept memorized. With the advent of social media it has become remarkably easy to interact with and develop friendships with new people from all over the world.

But many of these efficiencies have a downside as well. A few examples are in order.

Cars can help us get from place to place quicker and more efficiently than walking, biking or public transportation. But travel by car nearly eliminates all interaction with others that we might encounter by the alternative means of transportation. When walking we see the world around us in far greater detail. And in both walking and biking we leave a far smaller "carbon footprint" than any internal combustion engine. And as for buses, subways and trains, I still have many memories of insights gained through first hand encounters with others whom I would never have met any other way. I learned a few shocking things as well from the things high school students were talking about on the bus as I rode to work.

Another example... In the realm of sales, many techniques have been developed based on psychology and science so that the salesperson improves his close ratio or success rate. Unfortunately, as consumers get more educated they are increasingly aware of these wiles. The net result is that after a while we become unable to discern whether people are being honest or if we're just being manipulated into a decision. For example, I frequently have a hard time trying to decide what to order in a restaurant. If I ask the waiter or waitress about a dish, they so often say, "That's my favorite thing on the menu!" that I have begun to wonder if they were trained to say that. It's making me insecure about asking servers for advice any more.

In the arts and crafts realm, the people making money locally are the one's who efficiently "crank it out." The market for work that is painstakingly detailed and personal hardly provides a living wage. So our world is a bit poorer because the ornate carvings in furniture are gone, the architectural craftsmanship is neglected because we can't afford to pay craftsmen what they're worth to do such things.

And now, to Facebook. Whereas it is a marvel how many fascinating people we can meet today via social media, there are downsides. Initially, many pundits criticized the Internet because of the damage it would do to language. It waits to be seen whether this is a legitimate fear or not. What concerns me more is what it is doing to friendship. Someone once said, and I paraphrase, "If a man is worth knowing, he is worth knowing well." But how well can we get to know people when we now know so many?

Everything happens so fast. We have more relationships than we can manage, and we end up interacting with them so superficially because who has time to invest in so many lives. But yes, the communication is very efficient. We can reach so many so very quickly, follow what they are doing, see their pictures and briefly share in their experiences. It's all quite amazing. But... at what price?

Speed is what we've embraced. Fast food, fast commutes, fast news and information. Maybe this is why God introduced the Sabbath, a day set aside for rest and reflection. A day to catch our breath, because it truly is an amazing world and if we didn't stop to reflect now and then we just might make ourselves dizzy trying to embrace it all.

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