Alexander, Jennifer Karns. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control. Baltimore: TheJohnsHopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. xvii + 233. Hardcover, $49.95.
The notion of “efficiency” can be applied to machinery, to economic systems, to human factors in production, to self-improvement, to global trade, and undoubtedly much more. I found the individual chapters thoughtful and fascinating, but the connection to a central theme was not quite clear. The discussion about engineering efficiency is focused on motion, rather than on a comparison of input and output energy. A distinction is made between static and dynamic efficiencies, between balance and growth. Dynamic efficiency deals with a system moving toward a new state, as when a technology modernizes. Efficiency has also been used as a framework in planning industrial organizations. In the technical sense, efficiency is a ratio between like quantities, such as useful energy to available energy, but the term has been broadened, and people discuss the efficiency of a factory in terms of number of shoes produced per kilowatt-hour. The first chapter deals with waterwheels. The second with machines in general, and their relationship to human labor. The third deals with the efficiency of natural selection in evolution. The fourth starts with a discussion of the efficiency of mill workers in New England and gets into personal efficiency through a series of questions like “Are you thoroly (sic) informed on scientific management?” Efficient seating for workers in the Weimar Republic comes next, and then a dispute about the efficiency of slave labor in the American South, and finally, concern about efficiency in present global society is discussed. One question is whether early childhood education is an efficient use of funds. The concept of efficiency, as Alexander notes, is a slippery one. Seeing how the concept has evolved is interesting. It is not entirely clear to me, however, that these various uses give significant insight about each other.