Be less efficient, but more civilized

The world is out of control. Humanity — from individual to groups to nation-state level — is doing all sorts of preternatural activities in the name of ‘innovation’, ‘competitive disruption’, ‘economic growth’, ‘self-help’ etc.

They are not natural from the perspective of our millions years of evolutionary history. Since the industrial revolution almost 200 years ago, our biological and psychological makeup have been turned on their head at an unprecedented accelerating rate. We have extended our evolved propensity to an uncharted but extremely profitable territory. Throughput — in terms of market share, quarterly reports, GDP, sales funnels, paper market-value — had become the measure of success. To that end, all means are justified, all converging to the goal of being E.F.F.I.C.I.E.N.T.

Because by not being efficient yourself while everybody else is, you run the risk of losing ground socio-economically. This is a powerful narrative particularly in an unequal and corrupted social environment.

And so, the unlucky of us reluctantly, or unwittingly, embraced the mission to be ever more efficient in many aspects of daily lives. We feed ourselves all sorts of new stuff— ready-made foods, iconoclast, fads, sound bites, diets, life-hacks, affiliation, religion, shiny jobs, virtue signaling. They constitute individual identity and ego that give life to any narrative that would help us to efficiently make sense of the world. And many of us who were unable to cope, plunged to a very dark corner of our mental landscape.

On the other hand, the privileged of us took it as an opportunity to further our gains. In the name of efficiency, we espouse free-market economy logic across the globe. Raging on our rich-get-richer momentum, we proceed to capture regulatory, democratic, and financial apparatus. The most glaring example of this is the gig-economy startups operating in a winners-take-all market — That the only way to win the game is to derive war chest from dubious financial engineering, giving artificial life-support to their business model that wouldn’t otherwise have survived in a natural environment with limited resources. They desire to be an aggregator that acts as a gatekeeper that small businesses and the rest of us have no choice but to play by their book because they say it’s efficient and therefore good for their business too.

Ironically, the novel things that modern humans do today are in a sense natural and rational. Humans have evolved to be equipped to reproduce. To reproduce with an optimal mate, you not only need to be naturally selected, but sexually selected. If you are alive and born healthy today, you had already been naturally selected barring medical intervention. It’s the sexual selection process that will largely determine whether you will get to pass on your genes in your lifetime. And that means gaining status, money, power, and other modern manifestations— such as hustler, gym rats, entrepreneur, careerist, politicking— that act as a proxy which will signal your fitness to the desirable mates. So, if you refuse to do any of that stuff while everybody else does, you risk losing access to the limited desirable mates. So you do it. And you gotta do it…efficiently. Because that’s the way to win the ‘game’ — one of the many games in different disguises of the one and only game: the mating game. It’s just that in recent decades we have brought on a whole load of novel DLCs that accentuate our inherent propensity to mate and gain status.

So, I’m not saying that striving to be efficient in things that we do is wrong and irrational. I’m saying that we need to be very careful when introducing novel activities to a setting inhabited by humans still operating in an archaic biological and psychological makeup. In a broader sense, we need to recognize the potential negative secondary effects when doing so. In the case of food delivery startups, surely they are delivering good values to consumers and giving access to an audience for small businesses that they otherwise wouldn’t have. But they come with secondary effects which we need to scrutinize— Drivers and riders are driven to precarious and dangerous jobs without next to non-existent safety nets; Small restaurant businesses are forced to shut their business due to the aggregators eating up their already small margin; Consolidation of gig-economy startups leads to unbalanced power socially and politically who only have their private stakeholders to answer to; Workers are reduced to ratings and reviews; Social interaction becomes overtly transactional.

So there are unintended secondary consequences resulting from being a servant to efficiency in market, business, lifestyle, governance. We run into the free-riders and tragedy of the commons problems whose participants are just being efficient to their own interests. Shackled by human nature, we will always be tempted to be efficient in a winners-take-all environment.

Ultimately, we lose the social intuitions because we have stopped reinventing the wheels. At the end of this efficiency bandwagon, we are faced with the inevitable outcome which is the outright destruction of global environment and social fabrics. Humans were never evolved to be concerned about the global environments, let alone those alien looking people in a foreign land. We are too preoccupied by our lifetime achievements and relative social standing in our local environment.

The solutions to stop the contagiousness of this efficiency narrative are, ironically, an unnatural one. We need to start holding our actions accountable to ethics and sustainability. Tech startups need to dial back on their scaling and their bogus narratives abetted by cheap money. Grow slowly. Bound the spill-over of your repercussions. Work with the government and communities. It’s a frustrating, inefficient process but a responsible process. And contrary to the free-market zealot, we need more government regulation. They might be wasteful and inefficient, but at least the system is robust and just. We need more taxes. Taxes on generational wealth. Carbon taxes. Start putting a price on externalities. We need inefficient and slow enforcement. GDP will go down. We will see less iteration of iPhones. We will become poorer. But we trade all that for a breathable, robust and just world until humans become interstellar species.

Thinking along these ideals won’t be palatable to us because we are largely not wired for that. But it is our only chance to really have a better world. If we refused to do so, we need to rightly tell it like it is — We don’t really buy into our whole narrative of building a better world, and instead, what we really ever believed in was our selfish personal achievements, in our own lifetime, at all costs, by any means necessary — That would be what all that really was. Period. ☘

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