Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Jennifer Alexander - The Mantra of Efficiency

 Alexander argues that efficiency, as it has developed since industrialization, is a key concept of Modernity.  Critical to the concept of efficiency is its ability to articulate conservation with dynamism or growth, and – more importantly – its ability to articulate an intellectual/abstract normative vision of how the world should be with descriptive material practices to achieve that goal.  This is interesting to me because I like to think of technology in a very similar way: as the realization of a (rational) human idea in the material landscape, or as the material means to an abstract end.  But efficiency is a little different from technology: historically, efficiency has been an underlying principle in the development of technologies, one that advocates discipline and conservation of motion/energy/resources in pursuit of growth/progress/a vision of the world where things are orderly and nothing is wasted.  An efficient machine is an ideal machine.  She traces how efficiency has come to have these dual meanings – conservation and growth – through ancient history, but primarily in the 19th and 20th centuries, and she uses a variety of historical examples to show how efficiency is complicated morally but strangely consistent politically b/c it’s associated with ideas of progress and a fixed social hierarchy.

Regarding the politics of efficiency, Alexander pursues a line of argument similar to Mumford’s in Technics and Civilization: efficiency (like Mumford’s technology) appears to be a neutral product of the Industrial Revolution, but a longer historical view shows that it has its roots in culture, and thus it has a politics.  But from here she diverges sharply.  In the 1930s, Mumford was optimistic about the transformative (and potentially utopian) power of technology, even despite the abuses of power was was associated with in the 19th century – just because it had been used to create/ reinforce social hierarchies didn’t mean that it had to continue to do so.  Alexander makes some gestures in this direction regarding the moral ambiguity of efficiency, but otherwise she is much more pessimistic: efficiency as it developed under Modernism (so up to WWII) was associated with control, and thus it requires a master and a mastered in order to operate.

I’m not in love with this book (it’s a little hard to follow), but I do appreciate that she politicizes efficiency and shows how domination and progress are two sides of the Modernist coin.  This politicization of efficiency also politicizes technology – not inherently, but historically, because efficiency and rationality have developed side-by-side out of the Enlightenment.  Hence a lot of what is human (like, say, human suffering, or feelings in general) gets written out of the efficient (social) machine as unnecessary or unintelligible complications – just like the unquantifiable gets written out of the scientific/ technological worldview.  Politicizing efficiency thus brings it under the umbrella of cultural critique and calls it into question as a design philosophy.  And this questioning is important today, especially since, as she says, despite the development of PoMo since WWII, we still operate under a modernist worldview – one that emphasizes planning, human reason, and the human ability to shape our environment – and thus one in which efficiency is still central.  Her major contribution to this problem, though (aside from theorizing efficiency, which is huge), seems to be just to recognize that someone has been losing so that someone else can win; how might we change efficiency to incorporate a more egalitarian politics?

Alexander, Jennifer Karns.  The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

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