Edward Tenner's Off-Topic Reads

April 18th, 2018

Edward Tenner is a distinguished scholar of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and a visiting scholar in the Rutgers University Department of History. He was a visiting lecturer at the Humanities Council at Princeton, and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study and the University of Pennsylvania. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalThe AtlanticThe Wilson Quarterly, and Forbes.com, and he has given talks for many organizations, including Microsoft, AT&T, the National Institute on White Collar Crime, the Smithsonian Associates, and TED. His book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, written in part with a Guggenheim Fellowship, has been translated into German, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, and Czech. Edward will discuss The Efficiency Paradox on Wednesday, 4/25, 6pm at the Co-op.


The Icon and the Axe, by James Billington - James Billington, recently retired as Librarian of Congress, was my undergraduate adviser at Princeton and published this unique cultural synthesis while still in his mid-thirties. The work (and Billington's lectures and tutorials) showed me the power of seeking out and using telling, documented details in the service of sweeping generalizations.

The German Idea of Freedom, by Leonard Krieger - Leonard Krieger was my graduate dissertation adviser. I decided to attend University of Chicago graduate school in history in part because of the brilliance of this book in exposing the contradictions in intellectual history. It helped convince me that everything is a study of intellectual history. The study of the theory and practice of efficiency over the centuries confirms this.

Plagues and Peoples, by William H. McNeill - William McNeill, to whose memory The Efficiency Paradox is dedicated with the permission of his family, showed me (in my role as a research assistant) that everything is also a study of the history of science and medicine. I sponsored another of his books, The Global Condition, while an executive editor for science and history at Princeton University Press. I admired how McNeill was able to put aside the objections of specialists to sustain his argument. The evolutionary biologists I knew praised this book as a key application to the principles of population biology and epidemiology to human history. My assistantship helped me make a transition to publishing, and McNeill's example helped liberate the generalist in me after my extremely specialized dissertation was accepted.

Theology and the Scientific Imagination, by Amos Funkenstein - Amos Funkenstein was called by one of his Berkeley colleagues "the only genius I have ever met." And that is in a university with eight Nobel Laureate parking spaces! Funkenstein's profound knowledge of rare manuscript sources let him illuminate how medieval thinkers had imagined components of the scientific outlook that coalesced in the seventeenth century. It's a classic on the relationship between science and religion. On a personal note, Amos Funkenstein gave me vital encouragement when I left publishing for full-time writing a few years after this book was published.

Social Limits to Growth, by Fred Hirsch - I never met Fred Hirsch, but I include this book because like those above, it is a learned and original approach to the paradoxical in life -- in this case that people seem to desire the very things that are most limited in supply, prosperity leading not to happiness but to bidding wars. Technological efficiency has allowed this phenomenon to spread beyond Hirsch's dreams or nightmares. How could Hirsch have imagined, for example, that in spring 2018 bitcoin mining in Iceland is about to exhaust the nation's entire electricity supply, only a decade after the collapse of the country's banking system?


About The Efficiency Paradox: Algorithms, multitasking, sharing economy, life hacks: our culture can't get enough of efficiency. One of the great promises of the Internet and big data revolutions is the idea that we can improve the processes and routines of our work and personal lives to get more done in less time than ever before. There is no doubt that we're performing at higher scales and going faster than ever, but what if we're headed in the wrong direction?

The Efficiency Paradox questions our ingrained assumptions about efficiency, persuasively showing how relying on the algorithms of platforms can in fact lead to wasted efforts, missed opportunities, and above all an inability to break out of established patterns. Edward Tenner offers a smarter way to think about efficiency, showing how we can combine artificial intelligence and our own intuition, leaving ourselves and our institutions open to learning from the random and unexpected.

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