THE EFFICIENCY PARADOX by Edward Tenner

THE EFFICIENCY PARADOX

What Big Data Can't Do
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A bite on the data-driven hand that feeds the system.

Thank heavens for GPS: without it, we’d all be lost. Or would we? As Tenner (Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology, 2003, etc.), a longtime student and critic of technology, posits, left to their own devices, most people are pretty good at wayfinding: “We have an ability to form a total understanding of a space, richer than what can be shown on any electronic or paper map, including features that have not yet been identified as such.” Unlike GPS, we also have a sense of which roads are likely to be jammed when and which neighborhoods are likely to pose dangers—or attractions. The author’s overarching point is that the constant quest for efficiency leads to a kind of intellectual and social impoverishment. By Tenner’s definition, at its best, efficiency should mean with the least waste possible; in practice, it often means with the least human intervention and the widest use of machines or algorithms to slice away value judgments. Though it’s not a binary, the author strongly advocates for human messiness in the place of machinelike efficiency. For instance, web search engines may deliver near-instantaneous results, but those results may not be the best possible nor yield the answers we are really seeking. That split-second quality speaks to the constant need for gratification and an industry well set up to serve that end, such that “consumers don’t learn the benefits of deferred enjoyment, and vendors have no incentive to teach them.” That may be a little utopian, or at any rate counterdystopian, but as Tenner ranges among case studies from Uber to e-books and platform revolutions, he is a clear champion not of the robot but of the human mind behind its creation, a mind far richer than any algorithm—for the time being, at least.

Of a piece with recent critiques of technological overreach, and among the best of them.

Pub Date: April 17th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4139-8
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2018




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