In Praise of Inefficiency

About a month ago, I was invited to give a keynote presentation to the newly inducted Phi Beta Kappa students of the Omicron chapter here at the University at Buffalo. I remember my own induction ceremony from a few (many) years back as a wonderful moment and one of my proudest moments at Wellesley College. (It was also the only dry moment before the rain-soaked, outdoor graduation itself.)

I decided to use this opportunity not only to praise the talented and hard-working students at UB, but also to comment on the growing discourse of efficiency and corporatization that seems to be shaping the discourse of education all around us. As someone invested in the arts, humanities, and sciences, I find the current language troubling. I therefore tried to articulate some of these concerns to those gathered at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. I don’t know how successful I was or what anyone–students, their parents, or fellow faculty–took away from this, but I offer these comments here and welcome any commentary or response.

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In Praise of Inefficiency: Art, Technology, and the Creative University
Phi Beta Kappa Induction 2015 – University at Buffalo (SUNY)
March 6, 2015

Efficiency.
Productivity.
Excellence.

You have probably heard these words many times over the course of your academic studies. As new inductees to Phi Beta Kappa—an elite intellectual cohort representing excellence in the liberal arts—you’ve probably often heard them as praise. When you were younger, they came in phrases such as “uses time wisely” and “stays on task.” You were “not easily distracted” and later you perhaps “demonstrated determination and commitment” to your goals. In the sometimes overwhelming days of high school and college, you learned that the first two of these concepts usually lead to the third. Your ability to find the most efficient way to work was often the most productive and this allowed you to accomplish more and to push your standards higher. As you progressed through the University at Buffalo, you continued to use your time well and as a result, you have produced work that has been judged to be excellent and even superior by your peers, teachers, and now UB’s Omicron chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa. This is no meager accomplishment. Fewer than 10% of American universities have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. I checked the stats. Today you join approximately 600,000 living members of Phi Beta Kappa in the world. So, your efficiency and productivity have served you well and lead to an award today that represents a pinnacle of academic achievement. Congratulations. You have achieved excellence.

So, of course, you have no reason to listen to me and my argument against what has made you, and, to be honest, me and many of our fellow members of Phi Beta Kappa, successful. That is, I am here to argue in praise of inefficiency, to celebrate non-productivity, and perhaps even to argue against excellence itself.

None of these things are in and of themselves bad. To the contrary, efficiency is a very worthy goal. Energy efficiency, for example, may be the only thing that can save our fragile planet. Productivity is also a justifiable aim. As you likely know only too well, we all have limited time and with many demands from numerous directions, learning how to make the most of our limited resources (time, money, attention) is a valuable skill. I will confess here my own addiction to “productivity” apps, evidence of a technophilic faith that just the right device or program will rescue me from the mounting piles of emails, texts, and other digital requests. However we understand the demands of contemporary life, we can probably all agree that efficiency makes us more productive and perhaps even excellent. What could be wrong with that?

Too often we hear the language of efficiency, value, productivity, and outcomes used to increasingly separate and segregate different intellectual domains. We can point to political candidates on both sides of the aisle whose rhetoric dismisses (with alarming frequency) the value of the liberal arts we reward here. Politicians fault English majors for having no clearly defined job post graduation; others contend that anthropologists are unnecessary to the state economy; and President Obama just last year noted that, although he had nothing against art history, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Most recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has attempted to revise the charter of the University of Wisconsin system to replace its mission statement goals —that for 100 years have included “the search for truth” and “to serve and stimulate society”—with a stated focus on “serving the state’s work force needs.”

Certainly in the current economic climate, none of us can ignore the financial realities of college expenses and competition in the labor market. But what troubles me about these statements is not that they dismiss or ignore the demonstrable economic value in the liberal arts (which they do), nor that they pander to legitimate fears in order to serve political goals (whether or not we agree with those goals). I am not even bothered most by the rhetoric that measures the worth of every human endeavor exclusively according the dollar amount that an activity produces. (Though to be fair, as someone from the theatre, I never expected to earn a lot of money.)

No, what bothers me about these claims is not simply that they are often factually and empirically wrong, but they are factually and empirically wrong in the wrong way. That is, I reject the very terms of a debate that pits the sciences and technology as separate from and against the humanities and the arts. Part of the whole problem with the ubiquitous discussion of so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and STEAM (all of the above, with “art” stuffed in the middle) is that this terminology continues to treat these things—science and art—as distinct from one another and too often opposed. As if the arts and humanities are not rigorous and the sciences are not creative. As if writing is not a technology and mathematics is not aesthetic. As if we can set down only one path and must reject all others.

Over the past few years, I have worked closely with both artists and engineers, physicists and philosophers, and I have written about work that engages the most abstract theories—be they mathematical or rhetorical—and projects that operate materially in the world. I’ve observed how differently these endeavors can appear from a distance but how closely linked they are when you get up close.

Take, as an example, the work of Belgian artist Kris Verdonck. Trained as a theatre artist, sculptor, and engineer, his works often treat human bodies as machines and machines as sympathetic persons. His “Dancer #3,” for instance, is a pogo-jumping robot, who repeatedly fails in its attempts to bounce continuously. When the charming robot inevitably falls, it makes little digital whimpering noises that elicit murmurs of sympathy from the audience. In another project called “Heart,” Verdonck attaches a powerful winch to a harness worn by an actress. Every time her heart beats 250 times, the winch pulls her off her feet, slams her into the back wall of the theatre, and then drops her unceremoniously to the floor. She then returns to the foot of the stage anxiously awaiting the next trigger, which of course comes faster and faster since with each repetition of the mechanical device, her heartbeat accelerates uncontrollably. The audience at first gasps and by after watching for a while eventually chuckles.

What does it tell us about being human if Verdonck can elicit warmth and compassion for a bouncing mechanical object and laughter for a woman literally being jerked around? What do we learn about ourselves and our reactions as we watch these performances? And how could these questions about the nature of agency, empathy, and emotion be asked without knowledge in aesthetics, design, psychology and engineering?

Closer to home, I am talking with engineers who are looking to dance for ways to annotate robotic movement. As they track the ways that robotic limbs can move, they are looking for a sophisticated vocabulary of gesture, which happily dancers have been refining since the 15th century. I’m also very lucky to be working with a group of senior design engineers who are designing and building a solar panel sun-tracking system that will allow the Techne Trekker, a mobile media art studio, to function independently of an outside electrical source, thereby bringing media-based art to locations without readily available electricity. The electrical system that this group’s project will power was designed by yet another group of engineering students, the Engineers for a Sustainable World, and the whole idea of the mobile media studio came from colleagues in the School of Social Work, who use new technologies and methods of analysis in service to global social justice.

Elsewhere, UB faculty are re-appropriating surveillance technologies to make critical forms of art, and theatre scholars are collaborating with neuroscientists to understand more precisely what happens when we watch other people perform in front of us. I could easily go on. As the director of the Techne Institute, it’s been my privilege to learn from smart and capable people throughout the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences at UB and beyond. And through these collaborations, I’ve learned that we are most productive—as thinkers, teachers, and humans—when we engage all these perspectives and talents. We do best not when we focus narrowly, but when we think broadly and imaginatively. The challenges of our contemporary world are too complex and too important for us to treat any area—even the arts—as a luxury.

The pursuit of knowledge has often been regarded as a noble enterprise (and indeed for most of human history has been restricted to the nobility and aristocracy of wealthy nations), but it is not an efficient one. Reading universally and in pursuit of the liberal arts has many uses—as you have probably already discovered—but this model of education does not always serve a set of tasks in a direct and linear way. It is for this precise reason that the liberal arts are under assault. We find ourselves confronting the notion that excellence can only be defined by demonstrations of maximum efficiency and productivity. Amid such debates, I am reminded of German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s reflection in his essay, “The Storyteller,” where he noted that, “Thought is a non-productive labor.” What do universities generate more than thought? And what, from an efficient perspective, could be more useless, or as Benjamin described it more “wasteful,” than thought? And, yet, what is more fundamental to what we do at UB?

This is what I mean when I say, let us praise inefficiency. Let us think and talk beyond our own centers of knowledge and reach into the domains we do not know. Let us ignore disciplinary definitions and preconceived ideas about artistic personalities and science-types. Let’s look for the beauty in technology, the precision in poetry, the creativity in engineering, and the rigor in dance. Let’s listen more carefully to new fields and embrace new vocabularies from both multiple languages throughout the globe and the technical terminology in diverse literatures. Let’s seek out the kinds of failure that can be found only in doing something totally new and for which we may be totally unprepared, and let’s allow that practice of un-knowing to change what we do next. Let us take up the challenge of a university that aspires to not to productivity, but to progress. Not to uncritical consumption, but to creative engagement and transformation. In the arts and engineering, we make stuff. We put ideas into motion in the world. Let’s imagine the modern university not as the first step on the way to global competition, but as a creative university where the arts, technology, science, social sciences, and humanities are not only valued equally but also seen as integral and essential to each other.

Of course, this is a silly and unreasonable idea. Many would tell me and you may well be thinking, that’s all very nice, but it’s not the way things really work. That’s not how it is in the real world. But as playwright, George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Following Shaw, then, I will put my faith in an unreasonable university, in non-productively thinking students, and in inefficient classrooms. For these are the things—perhaps the only things—that can really prepare us for the 21st century rapidly unfolding before us. No matter what our individual skills and interests, the current moment shows us a world in which we will need to draw from multiple areas of expertise and talk across different areas—be they arts or sciences—not only to solve the problems of the future but also and—perhaps even more importantly—to enrich our lives and experiences within the present.

As members of Phi Beta Kappa, you have already accomplished a great deal. You have tested your own boundaries and found your way in new and unfamiliar domains. In pursuing the liberal arts throughout UB, you have prioritized things other than efficiency and today you have earned an important recognition of your talent, hard work, and pursuit of knowledge. I hope that as representatives of the Omicron chapter you will continue to seek out divergent and diverse paths for yourselves and those you will no doubt inspire. Most of all, I wish you the utmost in unreasonableness and non-productivity to go along with your pursuit of inefficiency as the ultimate form of excellence.

I’ll close with a quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman. In response to demands for utility and productivity in his own era, Cardinal Newman wrote, “Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward. …What the worth of such an acquirement is, compared with other objects which we seek,—wealth or power or honour or the conveniences and comforts of life, I do not profess here to discuss; but I would maintain, and mean to show, that it is an object, in its own nature so really and undeniably good, as to be the compensation of a great deal of thought in the compassing, and a great deal of trouble in the attaining.”

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