The dark side of efficiency

In the tech industry we pursue the elimination of waste as a modus operandi — it’s even been codified in the Lean Software Development movement. Inefficiencies hinder the cost-effective delivery of goods and services; certainly the pursuit of reducing these — making those goods and services accessible for more consumers in the process — is an admirable one.

For a time this was wildly successful. Through the Industrial and Technological revolutions efficiencies brought benefits to health, living standards, and leisure. All this whilst producing unforeseen opportunities to engage and develop our broader faculties to create new kinds of value, both in business and in art.

This exponential progress exploded with the emergence of computing and the internet. Previous successes were built upon by distributing power and wealth even more equally throughout our societies. All of a sudden you didn’t need to be from old money, or spend the majority of your adult life climbing the corporate ladder, to achieve real success. If you had an idea and the ability to hustle you could develop a business, connect with people who held similar values and aspirations, and — every now and then — strike it unbelievably rich.

But recently a different picture has begun to emerge out of these developments. The systems that only yesterday enabled anyone to succeed became the same systems that funneled more of the world’s wealth to a privileged few — those same few who benefited from the bottom-up systems they now suppress. And with this shift we reached a fundamental tipping point in humanity’s unending march of progress.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/16/business/economy/nine-new-findings-about-income-inequality-piketty.html

There’s a darker side to this pursuit, one which is revealing itself more with every passing day. The cold fact of the matter is that more often than not, these inefficiencies manifest themselves as jobs. Or, more accurately, as developmental opportunities, livelihoods, and a sense of meaning for human beings.

Technological progress is no longer improving wealth distribution and living standards across the board. It is now increasing income inequality and leaving people behind.

We can no longer hide from the truth that when we remove labour-driven inefficiencies from the market, we are building a world where there are substantially less jobs than there are people that need them.

For those of us who produce software, it’s time we expanded our understanding of ethics and empathy to include the question: what is the impact my work will have on labour markets at large?

Is there a way our solution can increase the distribution of wealth, rather than decreasing it? If not, what kind of support or replacement programs exist that we could contribute to in order to assist those who are displaced? Is it necessary that everyone in my company, or the labour market we support, work five days a week? What role should my company and I play in the growing debate around basic income? These are just some of the questions we should be asking ourselves as we innovate our way to an increasingly jobless future.

We source supplies ethically and buy carbon credits to offset environmental impact — what are we doing to offset labour impact?


At SEEK we help people live more fulfilling and productive working lives and help organisations succeed. This provides us with a unique insight into the aspirations and needs of job seekers and hirers. Follow us at SEEK User Experience and SEEK Culture as we tackle the social and ethical challenges of producing software at scale that respects humans on an individual level.

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