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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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