WSJ – Though technology is making our lives ever more convenient, it also may be having the unintended effect of lowering our skill set. Gregg Easterbrook reviews “The Efficiency Paradox” by Edward Tenner.
“‘Big Data” is the Big Bad of our moment. Companies and governments amass enormous troves of information about our online and offline activities, so they can understand them better than we do. Recently we learned that creepy firms like Cambridge Analytica mine Big Data from websites such as Facebook, using “psychographic microtargeting”— Orwell would have considered the term extreme—to alter public opinion, spread falsehoods and influence elections. Facebook itself seems increasingly creepy, grounded in lying to the public about what happens to the data it collects. In the future, will Big Data help physicians cure diseases or help health insurers deny claims? Make factories and products safer or accelerate layoffs? Ultimately spawn some kind of hostile artificial intelligence? Right now it’s fair to suppose that many people would favor putting the Big Data genie back into the bottle. Such questions set the stage for “The Efficiency Paradox,” a skillful and lucid book by Edward Tenner, a technology commentator best known for his 1996 volume “Why Things Bite Back.” Mr. Tenner’s specialty is the unintended consequences of scientific, engineering and electronic developments. Authors cannot control the current-events environment into which their works are launched, but the timing for “The Efficiency Paradox” seems propitious. The book arrives as the boomerang-and-backfire effects of Big Data are in the papers, or on your phone, as the case may be…”