Efficiency and Ellul

Glass Half Full/EmptyThere’s an old engineering joke that goes like this: an optimist looks at the glass and says, “it’s half full”; the pessimist looks at the same glass and says, “it’s half empty”; and the engineer looks at the same glass, consideres it for a moment, and declares, “that glass is twice as big as it needs to be!”

Anyone who is an engineer, or who has known an engineer, or better yet is married to an engineer, probably at least chuckled knowingly at that joke. Although the joke plays on a stereotype, it’s really not that far off. Engineers do tend to have a certain obsession with efficiency, much to the chagrin of those non-engineers who have to live with them.

My wife can attest to this. Before I returned to graduate school, I was a software engineer for over a decade, and I still dabble in programming when I’m not teaching. All those years spent designing and implementing software systems have given me a certain sensitivity towards the relatively efficiency of doing something one way or another. When walking somewhere, I’m always seeking out the most direct yet safest path. When running errands, I carefully plan out my route in order to minimize the time they take. I even sort my grocery list by store aisle so that I can get everything in one pass. This sort of efficient, in-and-out approach to shopping certainly frustrates my highly-creative wife, who would rather wander and explore, taking delight in the surprises she finds along the way. Neither of our approaches is better than the other—we just think differently, and although we might annoy one another at times, we also find our differences refreshing.

I’ve been thinking about my attitude towards efficiency lately because I’ve been re-reading Jacques Ellul’s classic book The Technological Society. This book is a favorite among Christian critics of technology, and it’s not all that surprising why: Ellul is a brilliant and perceptive thinker, and his book provides a very insightful analysis of the ideology that he thinks underlies all of modern culture.

Despite the title, though, Ellul isn’t really talking about ‘technology’ in the sense that we commonly use the word today. This is where I think many people can easily misread Ellul. He is not really concerned with the products of technological practice—those shinny electronic gadgets and media that consume our attention. Instead, he is concerned with what he calls in French “la technique.” This is more of an attitude, a way of relating to the natural world and to each other, that prioritizes efficiency above all other values. It is the attitude of modernism and progress, the attitude of those who advocate for the “one best way” of doing a task, the attitude of those who see nature and people as merely “resources” to be used as efficiently as possible.

When we adopt this attitude, Ellul cautions, we quickly start confusing means with ends. When technique takes priority over ethics, we become obsessed not with how to live well, but with how to get the highest return on our investment. We begin to see the natural world and human society like machines that can and should be tuned to deliver the best possible performance. And when those machines create problems, we develop new techniques to correct them, never considering that those new techniques will probably create new problems of their own.

Ellul’s “characterology” of technique is certainly interesting and compelling, but this time through the book, I started to notice certain assumptions that Ellul makes that raised red flags in my mind. His understanding of efficiency stood out the most. He consistently characterizes efficiency as something that is completely objective, cold, and rational chiefly because it is measurable. This is true to an extent, but it presupposes two things which are not objective at all: choices about which of the many possible things you  choose to measure; and choices about the context in which one conducts the measurements.

For example, how would you measure whether one car is more ‘efficient’ than another car? Focusing on the performance of the motor seems like a reasonable thing, but the motor is only one of many subsystems in a modern automobile that one might care about. Even if you do focus on the motor, what makes one motor more efficient than another? Fuel economy, for which the EPA offers standardized ratings, might be one consideration, but torque and pulling power at various RPMs might be another. Even if you choose fuel economy as your only concern, there is a second assumption buried in those EPA numbers: the driving conditions under which they determined those measurements. The EPA can tell you relative differences in miles-per-gallon based on their particular tests, but those results could easily come out differently under different conditions. In other words, what you choose to measure and how you measure it are not always obvious and forgone conclusions. Someone makes those choices, and they do so for specific reasons.

The truth is that measuring ‘efficiency’ in practice is never quite as simple nor objective as a philosopher might imagine. When one looks closely at how such measurements are constructed and communicated, one often sees quite a lot of assumptions being made that are then effectively hidden from the final results. In science and technology studies, we refer to this as “black boxing,” where the methods and assumptions used to construct a particular “fact” are stripped away as that fact travels away from it original source (see Latour, Science in Action; or Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision). You can see this all the time in news articles about recently published scientific studies—the original paper will make explicit most of the assumptions and caveats, but these are typically stripped away as the findings are reported by the press. Suggestive correlations quickly become causations, and tentative findings become “proofs.” Similarly, MPG ratings or other kinds of efficiency measures always have stories behind them that are stripped away when they are compressed into a few numbers on a window sticker. Consumers may use them as if they were solid objective facts, but they are born out of a context, and are less objective than one might think.

When I worked in the software industry, we had similar sorts of standardized benchmarks that were supposed to reveal the efficiency of one program over another. For example, spreadsheet programs were measured for recalculation speed based on a particular set of complex models that bore little resemblance to the models used by our actual customers. Relational database management systems were measured based on the execution of a particular set of transactions over standardized schema and data, but that was only one possible way of using these highly-flexible storage engines. Although these tests were supposed to help consumers and developers determine which program to buy, they really couldn’t tell you much about how these programs would actually perform in your particular context of use. It was also widely rumored (and probably true) that software vendors specifically tuned their products to perform the standardized tests as quickly as possible, even if those tunings ran counter to what was needed under more real-world conditions.

Regardless of how we measure efficiency, do you think that Ellul is correct in assuming that efficiency is the thing we value most in our culture? Do you make your decisions solely based on efficiency, or do other considerations come into play as well?


5 thoughts on “Efficiency and Ellul

  1. Geoff Youngs

    Efficiency is certainly one measure – but for many aesthetics can be just as important? It’s probably susceptible to the same critique: it still focuses on experience rather than purpose or intent.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks for the comment Geoff! I agree that aesthetics is just as important as function, but Ellul thinks that modern society would value efficiency over all other things, including aesthetics. This was based on Ellul’s assumption that efficiency could be measured objectively, while other things (like aesthetics) couldn’t be.

      The things I love most are those that blend form and function perfectly together: things that are beautiful, but also work like they are supposed to. Recent Apple computers are good examples, but so are little things, like an olive wood spoon, or a really nice frying pan. William Morris once said “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I love that quote, but I would also add a final phrase: “or preferably both.”

  2. Marie Sheel

    I tend to do things similar to you – take the most efficient path, organize my shopping list, and I try to focus on achieving and being able to measure specific objectives (when I am at work.) Your blog post made me think that Ellul forgot about political power and the influence it has on “technique.” People make many decisions based on the power they will gain – though from a company perspective that solution is as efficient or effective as another option.


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