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The "efficiency" of gross centralisation is entirely based on ultra-cheap energy (i.e. fossil fuel).  It's actually grossly inefficient in any real sense.  Only the wonderful (and transitory) EROEI of fossil fuel (as good as 100:1 initially, now falling off sharply) made all this maze of transport and energy-intensive processing look "efficient".

Then again, when "efficiency" is mentioned -- even in a discourse narrowly and artificially limited to dollars -- we have to ask "efficient at what or toward what end?"  Capitalism, for example, is very efficient at concentrating wealth and ownership in the hands of a small elite, and at pillaging biotic and mineral resources in record time.  Whether these are desirable goals is not really discussed;  all we ever discuss is how much more efficient we can be in achieving them.

The fetishisation of Efficiency goes back to the early industrial revolution and the invention of machine-based mass production (though it was already established as early as corvee labour, thousands of years earlier, it took the engineering/mechanistic mindset of C19 to blossom into its full cultic prominence).  The guy to google is Taylor (Frederick), who at first seemed to be helping the worker (who in those days was often paid by the piece or unit) to earn higher pay by getting more done in a day.  But the principles of "Taylorism" rendered factory work more and more mindless, compartmentalised, and insanely boring;  a win for the bosses, as this meant that the labour force could be nearly skill-less and completely replaceable/interchangeable (i.e. more machine-like and controllable, more "efficient" to manage and exploit).  And so on.

If we started with the goal of making people's lives happy, satisfying, and interesting, we might have a whole different notion of efficiency -- call it "Efficacy" perhaps -- something more oriented to Quality than Quantity, and more oriented to the whole/organism rather than the rigorous analysis of decontextualised, atomised parts.  But if one starts down this path one is generally accused of "sentiment," "luddism," anti-scientism etc -- despite the tantalising and maddening fact that almost all the recent advances in bio and neuro science come to the same conclusions:  a) "it's more complicated than we thought," b) "it's far more interconnected than we thought," c) "actually, it seems to be nonlinear."

recommended reading:  S Dehaene's "Reading in the Brain" -- for a glimpse of the massively parallel processing (not a linear assembly line as previously modelled by C19 thinkers) done by stacks of neurons as you and I read these little squiggly marks and render them into more-or-less shared meanings.  not an assembly line, but a semi-anarchistic crowd of peers, far more similar to the traditional Japanese village economy than the Toyota plant.  fascinating stuff.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 12:01:17 PM EST
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I enjoy reading anything about the mind and brain (any species),  for a review of the misperceptions as well as the insight. We are still in the coastal waters of mind - we don't yet have robust enough ships nor the navigational skills to cross any major tracts of awareness.

But there is this anecdotal 16th C feeling that there are definitely other lands to explore. For the moment, we are still putting 'there be dragons' on our maps. But that's just rorschach projection. To which we are prone.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 12:14:37 PM EST
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The "efficiency" of gross centralisation is entirely based on ultra-cheap energy

What makes you think that centralisation is, in general, less energy-efficient than decentralisation?

Centralisation allows you to take advantage of economies of scale (such as running a furnace 24/7, thus saving the energy required to re-heat it after cooling down overnight), and it makes the distance you need to ship intermediate goods much shorter.

Further, centralisation allows you to organise your production around energy sources and modes of transportation that require expensive infrastructure to work - which is the case for almost all sustainable energy sources and almost all modes of transportation powered by sustainable energy sources.

Centralisation also enables a much more fine-grained division of labour, which enables organised knowledge and technology to be brought to bear on the production process in much greater detail. So it is less than perfectly clear that centralisation is always less energy efficient than decentralisation.

The fact that these advantages have in the past been used to optimise production for man-hour efficiency at the expense of energy efficiency does not necessarily mean that this is how they will be used in an energy-constrained economy.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 12:33:18 PM EST
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It's not all fossil fuels.  There were huge gains to efficiency to be made in international transportation to be gained by the shift from overland caravans to long-distance sailing ships in the 1500's.  That's what killed the silk road - buying directly from the producer, and selling directly to the consumer, while cutting out the middlemen.  Then the Dutch went a step further, and vertically integrated the producer by setting up slave-run spice plantations.

Energy consumption is one way to compensate for man-hours, and thus create "efficiency," but there's another sort of efficiency to be had by squeezing people out of the trade.  Middlemen who formerly had a cut of a particular enterprise are squeezed out, and their profits accrue to one side or the other.  That's all fine and good for the end producer and the end consumer, but in the end whole societies are wiped out as inefficiencies, un-necessary to the transaction.

by Zwackus on Sun Nov 7th, 2010 at 10:55:49 PM EST
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