Law in the Internet Society

Insidious Efficiency

-- By LauraZhang - 11 Dec 2016


When we talk about technological innovation and the value a new piece of technology adds to society, the most common concept brought to the table is efficiency.

How do we know this?

Students learning their first programming language are immediately taught that the run-time of algorithms and the space utilized are the two defining factors of optimal code for any given situation.

Not if they are taught by me. Optimal code is finished, it has no high-severity bugs, and it does not create security problems. Making things faster is always possible, and space now costs nothing.

We want to expend minimal time and minimal effort for the sake of maximum results. In today’s neoliberal society, the business landscape is not defined by multiple values. Rather, it holds only one value paramount – efficiency. With technology’s rapid advancements, we are achieving gains in efficiency too quickly. The pleasure centers in our brains are addicted to progress, and our appetites have been rewarded again and again with tangible gains in efficiency through the advancement of technology. Our obsession with efficiency and convenience has pushed us to focus blindly on advancing efficiency at the expense of all other values.

Eschewing Human Connection

Once upon a time, kids ran around yards and biked around the block with their friends after school. Time spent playing with kids was gradually replaced with hours talking on the phone with friends, which still facilitated some level of human connection. By 1999, phone calls were replaced with email, games, and surfing the internet in other ways. Email emphasizes the convenience of getting to respond to things on your own time. The kid is not forced into interaction in the same way that phone calls and in-person interactions demand. Instant gratification in the form of web games, too, is too convenient – we can click a few buttons and the thing we want is right there. Other activities such as physical exercise, enjoying real snow, playing with friends seem to require too much effort by comparison. The crazy convenience of technology taps into our laziest urges and makes other options seem far less appealing, even if these other options would eventually bring far more long-term gratification.

Information Overload

In 2002, Angela Lewis in a First Monday article observed “I also find that there is a tendency for some people - and children in particular - to view any information coming from the computer as having an intrinsic worth above other sources (e.g. books) specifically because it is online, and therefore somehow more current or valuable.” The information that comes to us from the mediums of greatest efficiency (internet sources) is now prioritized as carrying the most accuracy and importance. Never mind the reputation of the sources or the thoroughness of the fact-checking – we want our information now, and we hold the fastest, most current sources to be the best.

The problem with this is not the individual pieces of information themselves. The internet is home to a vast amount of truth, and it is incredible that these truths are now available to us at our fingertips. The difficulty at hand is now our lack of ability and motivation to separate truth from falsehood. Lewis speaks of cyber-overload – the phenomenon of having an over-supply of information. The human attention span cannot handle sifting through the expanse of information in front of us. It is more appealing and immediately gratifying to consume new information rather than to go through the pains of fact-checking the old. The internet offers an unprecedented opportunity for people to publish whatever bits of information they desire, and they may choose from any number of sites from which to publish that do not bother to check the accuracy of such information.

The convenience of the internet has also lead people to forget that the world contains a vast amount of information still inaccessible through the web. They have deemed this information too inconvenient to access, and therefore they will not bother learning from these sources. With these mediums of immense convenience and efficiency, it is no wonder that our baseline expectations of efficiency have drastically increased. When it comes to retrieving and analyzing information, we have no patience for taking extra steps to ensure we are learning truths.

Fake News and Facebook

Lewis’s article was written in 2002, more than a decade before the 2016 election. She had not been exposed to the news divide that happens on facebook today, nor did she see the massive influx of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton-related “fake news” articles. Even so, as early as 2002, she cautioned “We cannot assume that just because we found some information on the Internet, that it somehow makes it automatically real, right or a sound source of knowledge. Web sites are designed to sell a message to us as potential consumers of a point of view, a product or a concept - it is more a marketing than an information age in that respect.” Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms have honed in on what news we agree with and show us only that. Macedonian teenagers have discovered that if they write articles with incendiary headlines and completely false events, they can earn a ridiculous amount of money through foot traffic on their webpages because their articles are shared on facebook. The “fake news” phenomenon highlights the fact that many people encountering quite shocking news don’t even bother to do a cursory google search anymore – they will simply take the information as true.


Our society’s increasing obsession with efficiency, spurred on by the conveniences of the internet, has led us to ignore other aspects of our lives that carry importance. We think this increasing efficiency has lead us to have more control over our time. After all, if more tasks can be done in less time, doesn’t that mean we have more time for leisure and more freedom to do what we want? Ironically, that is the opposite of what has happened. We have become addicts of and slaves to the maximization of efficiency. Our lives revolve around answering text messages as soon as possible and running programs as soon as they have loaded.

I don't think that "efficiency" is effective as a master metaphor here. Another draft that did without the concept of efficiency as an umbrella, and which attempted to describe the phenomena that interest you directly, would probably yield substantial additional clarity in analysis.


Webs Webs

r2 - 13 Feb 2017 - 13:08:07 - EbenMoglen
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