The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Remember the Couch

At work, I recently got an email that opened with, “In an effort to increase the efficiency of company-wide business card orders,” and went on with instructions for ordering new business cards online. Businesses in general are epitomized by this “effort.” Efficiency isn’t the explicit goal or purpose of any company, but making money often is. Businesses don’t exist to be efficient, but they often stay in business because they are efficient.

Sometimes the effort to be efficient involves “downsizing.” Whole departments become obsolete when computers can do the work. Sometimes the effort involves new processes that cut out old steps. Sometimes the effort comes by cutting corners. Sometimes by “outsourcing”: to computers or to cheaper labor markets. Sometimes though, a team gets really good at what it does—becomes “a well-oiled machine,” we say—because it has had a lot of practice. Sometimes efficiency is a matter of familiarity, not technology.

But I thought of another way to be more efficient: “In an effort to increase efficiency, we’ve decided to stop doing work altogether.” This would indeed be one way to improve efficiency. Stop doing anything and you’ll automatically be save time, energy, and money—the warp and woof of efficiency. By this logic, the guy sitting at home on the couch is the most efficient man in the universe. 

At this point, I think we’re in a Dilbert comic strip.

Efficiency taken to the extreme is laziness. The couch. Obviously, the couch isn’t what we’re going for. We still want to accomplish something. And to do so with a minimum of effort—efficiency. We want to do it faster, cheaper, with less effort—time, money, energy. Just not the couch.

The opposite of the couch is the lottery. Even though they look nearly identical, they aren’t. The lottery is all profit, no effort. The couch is no profit, no effort. But most business, when it’s legal, happens between the couch and the lottery—making some money and requiring some effort. This is the tension.

The thing that keeps us off the couch is the passion—the desire to create something of value. Something must exist instead of nothing. It is this drive, this passion, that makes the couch unacceptable, uncomfortable even. And it is this drive that rails against efficiency. Efficiency would have us on the couch, but the desire gets us up and working, spending time, money, and energy.

In my company’s case, business cards are still a thing worth having. So eliminating them is bad efficiency. The couch.

But in the pursuit of a passion, there are other less-tangible elements that many people overlook, elements that efficiency can eventually annihilate if we’re not careful. In a company, the well-being of employees is a value that many companies have, but sometimes luncheons or holiday parties take a hit for the sake of efficiency. Sometimes market competition drives deadlines, and deadlines come at the cost of making a better product—the line between good and great. 

This drive for efficiency creates the dystopias we all despise. The cogs in the machines. The lifeless Office Spaces of Corporate America. Efficiency at all costs is bad efficiency. Because efficiency at all costs still costs something. The question is, what? 

Often it’s people, products, and passions. Just as business cards are still worthwhile, these values have to be defended in the face of efficiency. Efficiency at all costs will put us on the couch—maybe in more ways than one. But the people, the products, the passions—these must be defended, held up, pursued. And efficiency must then suffer. If employee happiness is important, then maintain it at the cost of efficiency. If a better product is valued, let efficiency take the hit. 

Efficiency must always take the hit. It’s the only way we stay off the couch. But it’s worth it.
Efficiency is fine to have as a value. But it should be just that, a value. One value among others—be it morality, or generosity, or well-being, or discipline, or familiarity, or quality. To make efficiency the sole measure is to give efficiency much too much credit. Remember the couch.

Efficiency is a good servant, especially in service to other values like compassion or serving people. It can make those things better. But it is a terrible master. Over them, efficiency will only make them worse—or destroy them if you let it. 

Efficiency is the impetus behind technology. And like technology, efficiency tends to take over wherever it can—even business cards. Our job is to remember the couch and to fight for the people, fight for the product, fight for the passion.