A few years ago science and technology author Edward Tenner set out to write a book about positive unintended consequences. The opposite theme— the unexpected negative effects of progress—was a familiar one for him.
His two previous books were “Why Things Bite back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences” and “Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.” But this book was going to explore the real silver linings of life’s storm clouds.
“One of the themes that it was getting into was the positive effects of reversals in life, and especially of economic crises and depressions,” says Tenner, a resident of Plainsboro. But somewhere along the way, there was yet again an unintended consequence, and Tenner completely changed the focus of his research, noticing a larger trend that complicated his original thesis.
The result is “The Efficiency Paradox — What Big Data Can’t Do,” just released by Alfred A. Knopf. The book that takes a skeptical (though not cynical) look at our civilization’s never-ending quest to make everything more efficient.
Tenner’s book took a serendipitous path to its current form, which is itself a lesson in the dangers of eliminating what Tenner calls “creative waste” in the name of efficiency. One of the major themes of the original book idea was the flourishing of inventions that took place during the 1930s when the world was in the grip of the Great Depression.
“So many of our classical everyday technologies come from that era,” Tenner says. “Aviator sunglasses, the snail tape dispenser, aluminum ice cream scoops… it was a rethinking of designs that had become over-elaborate in the 1920s.”
Surprisingly, high-tech inventions can be traced back to this era, too: television and Xerox copiers (patented in 1938) are the prime examples. It was exploring the Xerox machine’s long and tortured development path over several decades that led Tenner to the book’s final incarnation.
The copier proved to be a great leap forward in information technology and a preview of the massive changes that computers, big data and mobile phones would bring. But the copier’s development was much different from the advance of things like the cloud, mobile computing and big data.
“One of the things that dawned on me was that these Silicon Valley startups that were based on connecting buyers and sellers of goods and services much more cheaply—what I call platform efficiency—were picking up a lot of the capital and inventive energy that had once gone to mechanical systems,” he says.
This has led to phones that have powerful processors and graphical capabilities, but are powered by lithium-ion batteries that have been improved at a much slower pace.
“It gradually dawned on me that here were unintended consequences of all the efficiency that platform companies were wringing out of us,” he says. “I came to see that there was a need for an entirely new treatment of unintended consequences of technology.”
There is nothing original about criticizing the big platforms—especially Google, Facebook, and Amazon—but Tenner is examining a different set of problems than most critics, who have mostly focused on privacy issues and inadvertent discrimination.
Tenner sees a much more fundamental problem, and it is not with any particular company but with the very pursuit of efficiency itself, which has not been confined to a particular sector, but which has been a civilization-wide obsession since the industrial age.
“Concentration of short-term efficiency may actually damage our ability to become more efficient in the long run,” he says. “Inventions that have helped us become more efficient very often had to be inefficiently pursued. To really change something, you need to make a lot of mistakes.”
For example, the development of the Xerox machine was not at all an efficient process; rather, it was full of dead ends and missteps. The first models had a tendency to catch fire if the text they were copying had too many “o’s” or zeroes.
The groundbreaking Xerox 914 of 1959, a 648-pound beast that could only make 136 copies an hour, even came with a fire extinguisher.
Tenner discovered that many innovations delivered greater efficiency, but caused a whole slew of problems that no one ever imagined.
Sometimes competing parties each pursuing efficiency clashed and made things worse for everyone. As he did more research, further examples of this emerged.
For example, travel websites are supposed to allow consumers to book the lowest prices on hotels and airfares.In theory, this should make booking travel much easier than it was in the old days, allowing users to do everything on their smartphone screen and avoid the hassle of going to a travel agent.
But some service providers have responded to the proliferation of these sites by offering their lowest prices only if you book through them rather than a third party. The result is that finding the best deals on travel is just as hard as it ever was, and experts can get better results navigating the maze of websites than civilians can. As a result, travel agents have seen an uptick in business.
Nevertheless, Tenner is not a Luddite. The overall argument in his book is that technological efficiency and human intuition must work together to get the best results.
“If there’s one central idea that both I and people who have read the book so far have emphasized about it is that we should not be intimidated by our tools,” he says. “We should not scorn those tools. We should respect our tools and we should respect our common sense.”
“Getting lost” intellectually is part of what has led Tenner to success as a writer. Tenner’s father was an economist and CPA (with a Ph.D. from Northwestern), and a consultant who taught governmental accounting and wrote a leading textbook on the subject.
Tenner recalls his father telling him the benefit of writing is that “you can do something once and keep getting paid for it.” When Tenner was 12 his father died and the royalties on his books helped put Tenner through college.
Tenner’s mother, with an advanced degree from the University of Chicago, was a child services counselor. Tenner chose to come east to Princeton in part because he was offered a spot in the then-new University Scholar program that promised a personalized course of study for a few undergraduates.
“And it paid off,” Tenner says of his choice. “James H. Billington, later Librarian of Congress, became my advisor and made me a much more active reader and critical writer.”
Tenner originally planned to become a scholar in German history and earned a Ph.D. in it in 1972 from the University of Chicago. Had he been successful in gaining a professorship at a university, he might have spent his whole career focusing on one narrow area of academic inquiry. “The logic of academia is the logic of specialization, and finding a niche in the academic framework” he says. “I started to work in that mode. That turned out to be bad for me.” A better choice was publishing, and he served as a science editor at the Princeton University Press from 1975 to 1991.
The “Efficiency Paradox” may make the biggest splash of any of Tenner’s books to date.
At one point in Tenner’s book, he describes how Google’s search engine can funnel users towards the most popular results of their queries, but that skilled researchers can use search terms and arguments to unlock the full power of the search engine to find what they are looking for by using “search intuition” and becoming “information athletes.”
Tenner mastered the art of database search in the 1970s and 1980s and has used his information athleticism to find connections between disparate subjects that no one else has imagined. For example, he is currently preparing a talk on how shadows have been used by scientists over the centuries to do everything from measure the shape of the earth to detect planets orbiting stars many light years away.
It was an insight gained by following detours in the literature and combining them into a unique insight, the way Tenner and few others are able to do. “I really love to show how problems people in different professions have identified really have a lot in common,” he says.
Tenner’s curiosity and ability to pursue these threads has led to numerous articles. A while back, he saw an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about how the original breeder of the German Shepherd dog was a German nationalist who later became a Nazi.
Tenner was taken aback by this because he had casually assumed that breed of dog had existed since the Middle Ages. It turned out that it had been bred in the 19th century to provide a Teutonic alternative to the popular British-bred collie. It was a matter of national pride.
Tenner went back to the library stacks to write an article on the history of the German Shepherd; his first work of German scholarship since earning his doctorate. He ended up doing part of his research in the American Kennel Club library, where the seat next to him was occupied by a dog. It’s a story he never could have found through efficient web searching.
The “Efficiency Paradox” may make the biggest splash of any of his books to date. It has been reviewed in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, among others.
High tech industries have also taken notice of the book, as Silicon Valley leaders seek a way to spur innovation at their companies. Tenner is giving presentations to Microsoft, Intel and AT&T. He says marketing divisions at big companies have tended to be slow to recognize the value of the kind of serendipity his book advocates seeking.
Tenner’s research in pursuit of the efficiency paradox led him to an astonishingly broad variety of examples, not all of which could fit in the book. For instance, baseball has been turned on its head by the invention of “sabermetrics,” a highly quantified way of measuring the performance of baseball players, chronicled in the Michael Lewis book “Moneyball.”
“Ever since the publication of ‘Moneyball,’ people have been obsessed with big data in sports,” Tenner says. At first, teams that used sabermetrics excelled far beyond expectations. Their success caused the math-driven model to be adopted by almost every other team in Major League Baseball, and as a result the competitive advantage disappeared. Worse, the data-driven baseball strategy, which emphasizes players’ ability to get walks, has led to longer, more boring ball games, and an overall decline in baseball attendance.
Tenner says there is a balance to be struck between automation and human control. In medicine, on the other hand, healthcare workers are often barraged with alarms from a hodgepodge array of medical devices in every hospital room, and quickly learn to ignore some of them.
Design problems like this persist across industries. Tenner has observed a cycle in bridge building where a bridge will fail, and then engineers will solve the problem by coming up with a new kind of bridge design.
“They will become bolder and bolder in exploiting the new design and after about 30 years, people have forgotten about the lessons of the last failure. Meanwhile, the new generation has taken the design to its limits and is pushing the envelope as far as what the design can take … and there is another disaster, and the cycle starts all over again.”
“The Efficiency Paradox” went to the printer earlier this year and includes discussion of things that happened just before its publication, such as Facebook’s scandal with the data broker Cambridge Analytica.
Tenner says he was constantly revising the book to reflect current events, and noted that writing a book about technology is always going to be an attempt to hit a moving target. He says there is a positive side to print publishing in that once a book is done, there is very little room for revision. Maybe a few things will change in a second edition, but that’s it.
“If an author really had to keep revising as new information became available, writing a book would be a form of slavery,” he says. “I consider it to be an efficiency of the inefficiency of the printed book that except in unusual cases, once it’s done, it’s done.”