This book promises to explore the controversial effects of “big data efficiency” across all its spectrum --- economic, political, and ethical:
We are living in a second age of efficiency.
Why are citizens around the world so unhappy with their governments, so ready to look to extreme solutions?
This book is a critique of something self-evidently desirable, even wonderful, until it isn’t: efficiency. And it’s also about an apparent oxymoron that seems absurd until we realize that it’s also been essential: inspired inefficiency. Efficiency is mostly good but, like all good things, can be carried too far; even an excess of water can be lethal……. Since 2008, the dream of utopia through ever-increasing electronic efficiency has been dimmed.
Edward Tenner explains how the controversies of this “second age of [electronic] efficiency” hearken back to the controversies of the “first age” of mechanical efficiency, from the 1870’s to the 1930's. As industrial economist Henry George wrote in 1879: “The present century has been marked by a prodigious increase in wealth-producing power. The utilization of steam and electricity, the introduction of improved processes and labor-saving machinery, the greater subdivision and grander scale of production, the wonderful facilitation of exchanges, have multiplied enormously the effectiveness of labor.
“But just as such a community realizes the conditions which all civilized communities are striving for, and advances in the scale of material progress….so does poverty take a darker aspect. Some get an infinitely better and easier living, but others find it hard to get a living at all. The “tramp” comes with the locomotive, and almshouses and prisons are as surely the marks of “material progress” as are costly dwellings, rich warehouses, and magnificent churches. Upon streets lighted with gas and patrolled by uniformed policemen, beggars wait for the passer-by, and in the shadow of college, and library, and museum, are gathering the more hideous Huns and fiercer Vandals….”
The economic insecurity wrought by mechanical efficiency caused society to be rent by decades of economic depressions where unemployed mobs were incited to riot and revolution. Communism, fascism, world war, and genocide were spawned by people made desperate by “efficiency” resulting in mass unemployment. A new Liberal Globalist world, led by the United States, emerged from the war, and restored prosperity and a semblance of order for 50 years.
And now some are alleging that the Liberal Globalist world is threatened by a “Populism” created by the “second age” of computer and internet efficiency. According to the losers of the 2016 elections, all that “fake news” supposedly circulating on the Internet cause Britons to Brexit and Americans to Trumpet. Or perhaps the Britons Brexited and the Americans Trumpeted for other reasons having nothing at all to do with computers, the internet, or fake news? Two questions, then:
Large question: Did Britons and Americans revolt against their Establishment elites because they lost their jobs due to computer automation and were angry at being unemployed?
Small question: did Britons and Americans revolt against their Establishment elites because they were snookered by “fake news” on the Internet?
Tenner gives his view of the “small question.” He feels (as I do) that there was a proliferation of “fake” news in the 2016 elections, but that it was unlikely to have affected the outcomes.
However, that brings up a larger point. The “fake news” proliferated because the Internet has placed people in direct contact with points of view on many websites that have not been vetted by the Establishment Media. According to many Liberals, the public is being “brainwashed” by rightwing lunatics who make things up and distort reality. According to Conservatives, it is the "Left Wing Mainstream Media" that brainwashes people with bad information, and it is the democracy of the internet that sets things right.
I couldn't discern Tenner's political take, but he generalizes the issue by asking the more important question (paraphrasing), “How can we educate people properly when the Internet has removed the vetting process that traditional publishing houses used to apply to information that was published in newspapers and textbooks?” People are accustomed to believing everything they see in print. How can we train them NOT to believe everything they see on their computer when it down loads an un-vetted internet page?
Tenner talks about other aspects of computer technology, such as navigating by GPS, being educated by computer courses, the travails of print journalism in the age of electronic media, and the efficacy of diagnosing medical disorders by computer. These are interesting topics, but do not address the “large” economic question of whether computer automation and the internet are disrupting society to the point of causing the economic earthquake of 2008 and the political earthquake of 2016.
Tenner doesn’t say what he thinks about this larger question, but provides links to other authors' books who address it in detail. This book is therefore a pointer to those who want to research the subject deeply. (My feeling is that the “Populists” are “revolting” against government and big business policies that would have happened with or without computer automation.)
It seems that Tenner wrote this book to be the “mortar” that binds together the “bricks” that other authors have written in heavy-hitting books. In that regard the book ties together all the current literature about the political, social, and economic effects of computer automation and the Internet. It is a useful survey course of the controversies of this “second age of efficiency.”
- Paperback: 282 pages
- Publisher: Vintage Books; Reprint edition (5 March 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1400034884
- ISBN-13: 978-1400034888
- Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 227 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 56,199 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)