Introduction to the ARCADE Issue 35.3 feature, “Rethinking Efficiency.” Articles from the issue will release online over the following weeks. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Blackberry illustration

Illustrations by Emmy Smith 

Efficiency has a creeping quality. Like the invasive Himalayan blackberries of the Northwest, it has pleasurable fruits but quickly encroaches on neighboring plants if left untended. Efficiency is a boon to industry, getting things done cheaper and faster. Yet when the value of efficiency creeps into other realms such as art, education, ethics, and social interaction, our culture starts to suffocate.

Our organization, Sawhorse Revolution, teaches kids to design and build structures, but its philosophical drive is to study how groups rediscover meaning in a disillusioned culture rife with apathy. As most design-oriented groups do, we feel a tension between a desire for efficient production and our recognition that spaces that protect creativity, learning, and community are (or, perhaps, should be) inefficient. Inefficiency does not necessarily mean slower, but it does imply unpredictability, which can be difficult, frustrating, and impossible to manage. However, when we avoid reflexively “fixing” certain inefficiencies, moments of genuine, unanticipated meaning can arise.

This reflex though is increasingly difficult to suppress. Today’s dominant economic driver is efficiency, as evidenced by our growing reliance on standardization and automation. As workers we are taught to acknowledge the primacy of this value in some strange hope we may outperform the mechanization that threatens our livelihoods. As human beings, we too easily begin to displace this value into our personal interests, projects, and relationships.

In this ARCADE issue 35.3 feature (which will release here over the following weeks; issue 35.3 is also available for purchase in print), we explore what is lost in an era where efficiency has forcefully entangled itself in all aspects of our lives. We approach the topic broadly, having prompted our favorite thinkers and writers to consider where inefficiency exists (or existed) and what beauty arises from it. Knowing what we are to lose, we hope to discover some impulse to spend time among the thorns, extricating efficiency from the roots of our culture.