Until Schwinn

Humans don’t move particularly fast. To be more specific, they don’t move quickly compared to the amount of energy they expend attempting to move. A well-known Scientific American study ranked a variety of animals according to their locomotion efficiency: the ratio of how fast a creature can move in proportion to the effort required. Humans were in the middle of the pack; the condor was the undisputed champion.

Until Schwinn. Putting a human on a bicycle results in a completely different story. Two wheels, some cogs, and a pair of pedals turns a human into the locomotion efficiency champion in a completely lopsided competition. No creature on the planet travels more efficiently than a man on a Schwinn.

Having made such a tremendous impact on their ability to travel farther and faster while expending less effort, one might think humankind would have been satisfied. We could have smugly enjoyed our accomplishments, having cemented our place on the biological leaderboard. But bicycles weren’t enough.

The invention of the automobile devastated the previous record of the bicycle. The railroad train surpassed the capability of automobiles by a huge factor. The airplane put humankind in the skies, enabling what used to be the unique locomotion of the birds. But still we were not satisfied. Faster and higher and farther and longer is never enough. We want more.

Would the ancients have comprehended the notion of locomotion efficiency? Would they have considered the ratio of speed to effort and wondered at the score of the hawk, horse, or human?

Actually, I think they would have. They may not have been quite so concerned about efficiency of travel, but they understood all too well the important ratio of work to reward.

The promise God made to his people so they could enjoy the commanded year of Jubilee was an agricultural efficiency equal to three times the normal expectation.

I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years.     — Leviticus 25:21

This amounts to an incomparable blessing. For a culture accustomed to working for every scrap of food extracted from the ground, a three-year crop was a rare gift. Efficiency was important even to the ancients.

Just as God promised to give his people productivity as a reward, he also threatened to remove it as a punishment.

If you spurn my statutes … then I will do this to you … you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.   — Leviticus 26:15-16

There was no worse humiliation than for your hard work to be put to waste. To have expended great effort, which yields only a meal for wild animals or your enemy is the pinnacle of failure. Arduous toil with zero reward.

From ancients to Americans, we want our toil to produce results. But not only that, we want it to be more productive than last time. We are desperate for increasing efficiency.

For this blog, we’ve adopted a simple and broad definition of technology: man-made creations which extend the natural capabilities of humankind. In our efforts at efficiency throughout history, technology has been a constant ally. The problem of limited capacity often finds a technological solution.

Several years into my career as a pastor, I was given a set of new responsibilities in addition to the ones I was already performing. During this time, smartphones were gaining in popularity and usage. I was convinced adding new tasks would be made manageable by the new tools available the me. Confident that technology would extend not only my capability, but my efficiency, I approached those new responsibilities with optimism.

I was trained as an industrial engineer. At my institution, the disciple was either fondly or maliciously referred to as Imaginary Engineering. The classic expression of this academic field was not how to construct objects: roads, computer chips, bridges, software, or chemicals. We didn’t want to make better things. We wanted to make the making of things better.

Our goal wasn’t a product. Our goal was productivity.

I have carried this emphasis into my professional life in regrettable ways. To-do apps, websites, and systems have always been an integral part of my attempt to “get things done.” I overturn every obscure corner of the internet looking for new ways to organize my efforts. All too often I find I’m far more interested in figuring out how I should manage my work than in actually doing the work itself.

But I am not the only one kneeling at the altar of efficiency. There are more than a dozen food delivery services in San Francisco, each frantically competing to literally out-deliver the next. From six-minutes to a six-pack, to the seven-minute seminary, to the ten-minute meditation, we continually fashion a liturgy of worship to the god of efficiency.

When the God of the Bible speaks of human effort and production, he uses a powerful metaphor. It is not the image of a machine, engine, or system. It is not even from the field, the arena where most ancient people expended of their effort. Instead, the picture most often showcasing human effort and achievement is the fruit tree.

He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.   — Psalm 1:3

This image offers us a different way of thinking about our work. Fruitfulness replaces productivity. Health becomes more important than efficiency.

In a sense, fruitfulness isn’t very different from efficiency. A single tree yielding so much produce carrying countless seeds each with the potential for replication represents a paragon of efficiency. But the fruit of a tree is different than the output of a process.

Even a highly-optimized manufacturing line results in an object with a lifespan. A well-tuned locomotive effort is completed by a destination. The best managed project succeeds by concluding.

But the produce of a fruit tree is a beginning.

Efficiency requires management, control, measurement, precision, and optimization. A small disruption can result in significant delays. Efficiency is fragile.

The fruit tree tells a different story. All a peach tree requires to survive and propagate is a hungry goat with a heart to explore.

Ever since the industrial revolution, we have been tempted to view ourselves as sentient machines. We are enlightened engines who can not only produce, but be proud of it as well. This framework leads to two stories we are tempted to tell.

The first speaks of a time when humans will maximize their efforts to levels hardly imaginable. Our machines will navigate the darkness of space, the depths of the sea, and even time itself. Our work will rival the power of the gods. Planets will be colonized. Galaxies will be conquered. Perhaps even death itself will be abolished. There will be no end to our efficiency.

The second story has a different twist. It begins in the same way. Human efficiency will grow to unheard of levels. But as a result we will have literally worked ourselves out of jobs. Because our ratio of effort to production will approach the infinite, there will hardly be the need to expend any effort at all. Our lives will be consumed not by work but by recreation. We will be freed from the prison of producing to enjoy the comfort of consumption. Imagine the image from the movie Wall-E of obese citizens entertained on their electric scooters.

Each of these stories share a common foundation. The worship of efficiency resolves into a lifestyle of infinite work or endless recreation.

Could there be a different story to tell?

Rather than focusing on management of output, could technology help us to focus on the foundation of health? Instead of maximizing our effort, could technology enable us to restore vibrancy to our lives? How can we create technologies to guide us toward a life of fruitfulness, where our time is filled with meaningful work, deep relationships, long-lasting legacies, and generations of new life to follow?

We need not think of ourselves as enlightened engines pursuing exceptional efficiency. We can be trees. We can be healthy. We can bear fruit. Technology can help us in those endeavors. And after a meaningful day of work, we can be satisfied with riding our bikes home.


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