Relax. Digital is efficient — so we don’t need to be

Are we so in love with digital that we try to emulate it? Silicon is made for efficiency — humanity isn't. Let's stop trying to be what we're not.

I am, inarguably, and happily, a member of Generation X. I am of the slacker generation, who are gently sliding into middle age, still listening to our Nirvana albums. And, in true slacker fashion, I am writing this post a few days late.

I am betraying the calm efficiency of the well-planned NEXT content calendar, and I don’t care. Because, yes, I’m writing a post about efficiency late. Somewhere, a lifehacker is having a coronary. If I’m doing something late, where’s the time for my side-hustle? Have I optimised my output incorrectly? Is this an optimal time for posting?

Have I consulted the analytics?

This, my friends, is not healthy.

The Killer Cult of Efficiency

Somehow the hippy Boomers and the slacker Gen Xers have birthed a cult of efficiency, or productivity, that has dominated Silicon Valley culture, and increasingly the rest of the corporate world, too. Sure, this has its roots back in time and motion studies that started a century ago — but it has found its peak as digital tools allow us to monitor everything. Think of the poor Amazon warehouse worker whose every toilet break is measured to the second.

At the manual end, we measure every second of a worker’s output. At the upper echelons of business, we compete with each other on how hard we work, how long we work, and how many projects we have on the go.

This, my fiends, is really not healthy.

Could we be — finally — be shifting away from that. Last week, Tim Cook gave the ritual thanks to his staff that Steve Jobs did before him. He thanked his staff for their long hours and weekends, and the time they spend away from their family. But for the first time I saw people questioning it, even challenging it. Is that such a good thing.

That almost feels like heresy in the world of the side hustle, biohacking and the quantified self. We should be optimising and measuring everything, surely?

Proudly Unoptimised

Well, should we? Is that what humans actually bring to the post-digital world? To me, it seems like a fight we’re going to lose, because we’ve invented something that’s far better at being efficient than any human being is: and we call it digital.

Perhaps the most fundamental of the many parallel worlds we will look at in September are the worlds of digital and human. They are parallel, yet separate, although technologies like augmented reality are attempting to blend them.

The world of digital — of bits and switches, of binary states — is a world of efficiency and speed. But the world of humanity is fuzzy and emotive, full of liminal spaces and lacking in any certain clarity.

Trying to reinvent ourselves as creatures of digital efficiency is to ignore our fundamental nature. We should not attempt to emulate our creations, but instead find and treasure what each uniquely values.

It’s perhaps an understandable desire to complete with digital. People have feared being supplanted by digital since the first robots hit production lines. But we can’t stave off that process by being a poorer imitation of digital. We can only find a new role by leaning into what we are, and what digital isn’t — creative, empathic, insightful.

Relax your way to productivity

And, bluntly, the human and the biological work in every different ways to the digital and the silicon-based. Machines don’t need to rest. We do. Processors don’t have subconsciousnesses. We do. Sometimes, human can increase their output in counter-intuitive ways.

Experiments in four day working weeks have seen an uptick in productivity, not a downturn:

The founder of one of the first big companies to switch to a four-day working week has called on others to follow, claiming it has resulted in a 20% rise in productivity, appeared to have helped increase profits and improved staff wellbeing.

The longer a human being works, the less efficient it becomes.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

So, perhaps, one condition of the post-digital world we do need to strive towards is in recognising what the human does well is very different from what computers do well, and leaning into that. Let’s not try to apply the same definitions of efficiency to the digital and the biological. And let’s learn to co-exist in a way that harnesses digital to improve our lives, not enslave us.

After all, this post is much better than it would have been if I did it on time.