Friday, April 10, 2009

The Downside of "Efficiency"

Preamble: I started this post over 3 months ago, so many of the links are a bit dated.  I decided to finish it up ad post it since this very delay illustrates the point I'm making: in a highly stressed system, where all capacity is consumed, minor additional stress can make a system collapse.  That feels a lot like work today, where budgets have been cut, and we all have to do more.  So we lose time to think, let alone blog.


Times are tough.  Buckle down.  Buck up.  Be lean.  Be efficient.  Do more with less.

Yes, Indeed.  But before we all become super-efficient pieces of a super-efficient machine let's take a moment for pause.  Because there is a downside of efficiency (or at least what the world around us often calls 'efficiency')

I think it was in graduate school when it first became clear to me that efficiency was great until there was a problem, and then it wasn't so great.  I was studying complex water systems, and how to manage them to leverage the most capacity (electrical and consumption) while preserving fish happiness and keeping the land pretty.  Once you balance all of the uses into a finely tuned system, and make it reliable, people will build complex systems around that reliable water, and if it isn't there... well complex systems start to break down.

What this amounts to is setting up systems to have the butterfly effect, since making systems more efficient generally creates more complex dependencies.

Consider George Monbiot's recent interview with Fitah Birol's, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency.  Much of the world's governments rely on assessments of the IEA regarding how long oil supplies will last, and it turns out they now think they were off, but only by a factor of 2.  They had modeled a decline in output of 3.7% per year, which they now think is 6.7% per year.  And we're using more.  So we'll be running out around 2020.  This means that "unconventional" sources of oil, like tar sands, would need to be processed into oil to keep the machine running, but don't worry: that would only amount to an environmental catastrophe.  It is similar to the phases of drilling in conventional wells, where primary, secondary and tertiary recovery start to require more resources, be worse for the environment, etc.

Or consider the minor business dispute between Russia and Ukraine that led to freezing out Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary and Romania over the past few days.  As gas flows efficiently between regions, complex systems begin to rely on it, so it better keep coming.

In other words: efficiency increases output, output begets demand, demand requires continued output, and the scenarios of Too Big to Fail, or the corollary, Too Big to Exist.

To my friends who work in software this is just obvious: we are asked to use resources "more efficiently" all of the time, which usually means very little spare capacity to handle unexpected events.  And the software business = unexpected events.

So my solution?  I endeavor to become less busy.  Take more breaks.  Chew food slowly.  Say no.  Which will of course require and enable "true efficiency," but it might not look like that on the books.  And, of course, will never happen.