An exploration of the two-sided nature of advancing technology: Although it has made it easier to keep in touch with friends, find a ride, and order takeout, it may also be limiting our capacity to find creative solutions or insights that require more time and space for the mind to meander and struggle.
Mr. Tenner, a distinguished scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, writes in an erudite manner and cites dozens of studies, monographs and books, so many that at times the text veers toward the sort of survey of the literature that graduate students compose. There are bright spots, though. Learning via Mr. Tenner that there exists, in this era of flash drives and PDFs, a publication called Stationery News—devoted to fountain pens and letterhead—made my day. Since everyone understands that inventions and discoveries have unintended consequences, this aspect of The Efficiency Paradox can feel like the padding necessary to enlarge a magazine article into a book. But many findings in Mr. Tenner’s book put contemporary tech-anchored dilemmas into sharp focus.
The dehumanizing effects of big data are well known and Tenner adds no groundbreaking insight here ... But what Tenner brings is a new frame. Unlike critiquing the denizens of Silicon Valley for deepening social and economic inequality, destroying our brains or helping to undermine democratic norms (issues that seem to matter to us more than them), questioning efficiency is truly kicking the geeks where it hurts ... His recommendations are sensible, if hard to imagine actually coming to pass. He wants us to spend more time in the physical world, in the 'terrain' of our cities or between the paragraphs of a printed book. We need to get a little lost ... If this sounds like Tenner is a man impassioned, I should be clearer: This is no manifesto. There is not much blood flowing through this book, which reads more like a report issued by a concerned think tank. Maybe it’s just that preaching moderation doesn’t lend itself to writing that pulls your face to the page.
Efficiency keeps us focused on our goals, which is good, but, on the flip side, a narrow focus can make us miss things we might have seen if we weren’t so lasered in on our goals. It’s a complex subject, but Tenner’s smart organization and user-friendly prose style make it entirely accessible to lay readers.