Efficiency, Contact, & Meaning

Several recent incidents have made me think about efficiency and the desire for efficiency that appears so widespread and unconditional. You must have witnessed this desire in different forms. Students have repeatedly asked me how they could read or learn faster. Businesses want increased efficiency, automating or outsourcing steps that could be automated or outsourced, reducing the number of steps, streamlining, shortening the amount of time allocated to tasks, and increasing the outcome for the same amount of work.

The desire for efficiency can and does spread into all areas of life: Books are replaced with 5-minute summaries; dating apps save time by calculating compatibility scores; “productivity” apps might start introducing us to ways in which we could catch up with a friend in 10 minutes or less; workout programs might require only 2 minutes of your day; and, even romantic trips could be carefully designed and optimized based on a wealth of data and research.

Something to note, in passing, is how these techniques of efficiency divide the human population into two sides. On the one side, we have the producers of the techniques: People who presumably read the books and summarize them in 5-minute segments; designers of those apps, who oversee and evaluate their function. In general, these are the people who, we believe, are still in touch with reality and its inefficient demands. On the other side, we have the consumers (or users) of the techniques, people who benefit from the summaries, the shortcuts, the optimized routes to fulfilling goals.

But aside from that divide, what are the consequences of this increased efficiency for our humanity? What does it mean for a human person to (want to) be efficient in every domain of their life? What is the human meaning, the human upshot, of achieving efficiency? There is only one question here, which I am trying to formulate in different ways. This is itself an exercise in inefficiency.

To begin, we must recognize that (a desire for) efficiency corresponds to (a desire for) reduced contact.

Let’s imagine efficiency with respect to the work of an experimental scientist. When she designs an experiment and sets it up so that future versions of the experiment are produced efficiently, she is aiming to produce those future versions without much contact with the material of the experiment–the apparatus, the computer code, etc. She wants to continue with the experiments, while reducing her level of involvement with the experimental apparatus over time. The expression, “getting a lot of milage out of the initial idea”, applies here.

To pick another example, let’s think about the place of efficiency at a tickets office, in the interaction between the customer and the sales staff. Here, again, increasing efficiency means reducing the contact between the two sides of the interaction–no small talk, no joking around, no indirect or obscure language. The exchange between the two sides has a clear goal. There is no reason to lengthen the route that leads to the fulfillment of that goal, in so far as the interaction between the customer and the sales staff is defined and reduced to their functional exchange. The way we think about function, the way we allow function to monopolize our (actual or potential) involvements, was critiqued by Gabriel Marcel:

The characteristic feature of our age seems to me to be what might be called the misplacement of the idea of function, taking function in its current sense which includes both the vital and the social functions. / The individual tends to appear both to himself and to others as an agglomeration of functions.

Gabriel Marcel, “On the Ontological Mystery,” trans. Manya Harari, in The Philosophy of Existentialism (New York: Citadel Press, 1956) (Quoted later in Marcel’s Tragic Wisdom & Beyond).

There are domains in our lives that, if we pay attention to them, demand increased contact. When we spend time with family or friends, when we explore creative projects, the idea of efficiency or function would be misplaced. Here, our aim should be increased contact, which in turn means an increase in our ability to pay attention and notice what is taking place.

Take camping, for example, or going to the beach. My friends who enjoy camping tell me that, once they arrive at a point close to their camping destination, they park their cars and walk the remainder of the way. Sometimes this could be because the roads aren’t appropriate for driving, but it also indicates the desire for increased contact with nature, with the earth, with the demands of the earth (Heidegger). We don’t want a camping site that can be easily reached with modern vehicles, which is to say we don’t want a site that overrules the demands of the earth.

In human relationships, we can similarly choose to open ourselves to the demands of the present, or we can choose to overrule those demands. We can choose to become subject to the (ethical) demands of what is taking place in a human encounter. But to notice those demands, we need contact, we need inefficiency. Imagine wanting to share a life event with a friend (a breakup, a first date, a job interview, a fight with your colleague), and having the following two responses from two different friends. One friend wants a summary of the event, while the other friend wants to hear as much as you’re willing to share with her. The inefficient friend wants to act according to the demands of a human relationship, whereas the efficient friend wants to overrule them.

What about work? What happens when we bring this kind of contact (inefficiency) to our work? Do we become bad workers? That’s a possibility, but something else happens when we bring contact to our work. We make our work more than work, we give it light and life.

In my experience in academia, the inability to do this was a source of alienation. I felt strange and alone for wanting to give life to my work, for wanting my work to reflect life, to be connected with life (not necessarily my life). My desire for inefficiency was linked to a desire to experience a kind of fullness in my work, a kind of presence which I think irritated others, especially others who were interested in “getting things done” so they could update their CVs and move on to other things (watching sports, drinking beer, socializing, etc.). Such a functional approach to work empties it from joy.

Life in a world centered on function is liable to despair because in reality this world is empty, it rings hollow; and if it resists this temptation it is only to the extent that there comes into play from within it and in its favour certain hidden forces which are beyond its power to conceive or to recognize. (ibid.)

You might be surprised to know how many academics, how many “professors,” have almost no interest in talking about their subject-matters, their official field of expertise, the keywords associated with their names. And I think this is because they have taken the efficient route in relation to their work, which means they have tried to remove their work from themselves, from their lives. Their work is no longer a part of their inner life, it has been expelled. Do we not always expel the thing in relation to which we want to be efficient?

Thinkers like Carl Jung, Gabriel Marcel, and James Hillman have argued that our attitude toward another person or object isn’t just outward attitude. The care for something outside of us isn’t just an outward care. It is, at the same time, an inward care. You demonstrate care for something (a friend, a pet, a work of art, etc.), while at the same time exercising care for aspects of yourself that correspond–and have a similar nature–to what you are paying attention to. On a camping trip, we subject ourselves to the demands of the earth, while also affirming our connection to it; in human relationships, we can subject ourselves to the ethical demands of our bonds; and, in work, we can subject ourselves to the inner/outer demands that affirm the ties between us and our work–the ties that preserve fullness and meaning.

2 thoughts on “Efficiency, Contact, & Meaning”

  1. Beautiful, it is.

    You might like to check out this book : Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burckman (2021) it rings self-help to ears but nah it isn’t. It’s more a philosophy of time and partly efficiency.

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