The paradox of efficiency | Edward Tenner | Summary and Q&A

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January 9, 2020
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TED
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The paradox of efficiency | Edward Tenner

TL;DR

Efficiency can be both beneficial and detrimental, as demonstrated by historical examples, modern challenges, and the need for inspired inefficiency.

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Questions & Answers

Q: How did the potato, an apparently efficient solution, contribute to a famine in Ireland?

The potato, with its genetic uniformity, allowed a blight to spread rapidly, causing a million deaths and forcing millions more to emigrate during the Irish famine. The lack of genetic diversity made the entire crop vulnerable to the disease, leading to catastrophic consequences.

Q: How can the pursuit of efficiency in healthcare backfire?

Electronic medical records were intended to improve efficiency and provide better data for treatment. However, in practice, they have resulted in increased paperwork and less time for individual patient care. The focus on efficiency can actually hinder doctors' ability to dedicate enough time to each patient.

Q: What are the limitations of relying solely on efficiency in decision-making?

Efficiency often leads to false positives and negatives. Algorithms and pattern recognition can make mistakes, requiring additional time and effort to eliminate misidentifications. Efficiency also fails to account for future possibilities and can prevent necessary exploration and experimentation.

Q: How can diversity and redundancy improve safety and efficiency?

Monoculture, as exemplified by the potato crisis, can be detrimental. Similarly, organizations relying solely on software-based screening miss out on the diverse skills and perspectives that may be valuable in the future. Redundancy in systems and the presence of skilled operators can prevent failures and respond effectively to emergencies.

Q: How does "inspired inefficiency" play a role in achieving true efficiency?

Sometimes, taking the scenic route or embracing the hard way can lead to unexpected discoveries and creative solutions. Being less fluent or abbreviating notes can actually enhance active learning and understanding. Rationally extravagant approaches, rather than strict cost-cutting measures, can yield better outcomes, as seen in the case of Thomas Edison and the film industry. Embracing a bit of inefficiency can strengthen overall efficiency.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • The potato, initially hailed as an efficient solution to famine, resulted in a devastating crisis due to its genetic uniformity and susceptibility to blight.

  • Modern examples, such as electronic medical records, reveal that the pursuit of efficiency can lead to unintended consequences, such as increased paperwork and decreased patient care.

  • False positives and negatives, as well as the potential for opposition to copy efficient tactics, highlight the limitations and drawbacks of efficiency.

  • Hardware inventions face unique challenges, as scaling up physical or chemical innovations is often more difficult than software-based solutions.

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