Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Archive for the tag “efficiency”


Once upon a time (preemptive pun), there was a genius named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Equipped with a clipboard and stopwatch, he revolutionized office and manufacturing procedures in the early part of the last century. (The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911.)

I learned this as a young teen by reading Cheaper By The Dozen. The book was about applying time-study methods to life with the twelve children of the husband and wife efficiency team of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. (The 1950 movie starred Clifton Webb; the remake in 2003 starred Steve Martin.)

Fifteen years later, I learned of another goal, effectiveness, from the top management guru, Peter Drucker. Taylor preached efficiency, but effectiveness was more important. Yet, many organizations prefer efficiency over effectiveness.

In Taylor’s day, efficiency was symbolized by the stopwatch. Today’s efficiency is a quantity that can be measured more accurately by computers. Effectiveness is a quality determined by humans making value judgments.

Efficiency is easy to measure; it’s what is happening now. It’s harder to measure tomorrow’s consequences of today’s actions. Effectiveness is about judging consequences. It requires humans to make those judgments. Efficiency can be reduced to numbers churned out by computers.

Computer numbers are easy to acquire, super-fast to calculate, and can be analyzed a million different ways. The human judgments necessary for effectiveness are hard to acquire, slow to evaluate, and difficult to analyze.

In discussing the woes of modern workers, two companies are manipulative in the extreme: Walmart and Amazon. Their success is built on the diminution of human margins.

Is it any wonder that companies like these are using the computer as a modern stopwatch? In the name of efficiency, they’re pushing their workers to act like machines. To what end?

Using Taylor’s Scientific Management, companies are reshaping human jobs to better fit the robot workers of tomorrow. You could say the jobs are being tailored to suit the robots. (Begin with a pun; end with a pun.)


Survival Of The Dumbest

Once computers were very big (an entire floor of a large office building) and very fast (or so it seemed to puny humans). Today, they are much bigger, not in real size but in memory and storage. They are also much faster—in real time. Their speed is beyond human comprehension, like the speed of light.

Computer memory and storage have become so big, using it has almost zero cost. As a result, software makers feel free to be needlessly wasteful. Computers have also become so fast, the same software makers can afford to be mind-numbingly inefficient.

Hardware doesn’t just grow in power and speed, it also adds new gizmos. Cameras, touch-screens, and the ever present Internet weren’t even dreams in the beginning. However, we still need software to operate the new gizmos. And wasteful and inefficient software cannot produce smarter computers.

The overabundance of storage and speed subverts the incentive to improve software. Without the environmental pressure from limited resources (e.g., storage and speed), this won’t happen as it does in nature. To evolve, software needs to keep the best from the past, try new ideas, and keep what works.

So while hardware inevitably gets bigger, faster, and does more, software will not become smarter. (I’m talking about real capability, not clever gadgetry or advertising puffery.) It will not improve as long as they can keep making money doing what they’ve been doing.

After all, money is the sole yardstick computer makers use to measure the success of their devices. Whether they are better products in any real sense—efficiency, productivity, true functionality—is entirely irrelevant. What really counts is that they appear, as the old slogan says, “new and improved.”

Therefore, computer makers focus on advertising: words and pictures designed to fool people into paying more to acquire far less than they expected. Their disappointment can be alleviated only by buying the next “new and improved” device. Hardware gets better, but computers will never be smarter than their software.

Post Navigation