In praise of inefficiency

Among the many buzzwords of our age, efficiency is one of the most binding. Nearly everything is being brought to the Tribunal of Measured Efficiency, where verdicts are passed by the wigged magistrates of Speed, Cost and Outcome, the Triumvirate of the industrial and postindustrial ages.

An efficiency inquest may also be conducted against language. Against any language. In the Organon, Aristotle suggested that synonyms and homonyms constitute a language’s capital of inefficiency. If a word designates one thing, why should another designate the same thing? And why would the same word, same spelling, mean more than one thing? Surely the economy of language, and our penchant for maximum outcome through minimum energy constitute the best indictment of synonymity and homonimity, that is, against the ultimate freedom of language understood as its ability to generate itself sans compter.

Language has its own internal economic dynamics. For instance, the phonetic evolution of a language depends, among other things, on energy efficiency. An easier pronunciation – one that saves time and articulative effort – is likely to defeat a more onerous configuration. 

But an indifference of efficiency is also part of a language’s DNA for it is part of humanity itself. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has been argued that humans are not rational, but that we gravitate towards rationalisation. A large chunk of human behaviour, personal and collective, is inefficient. ‘What’s the point of it’, ‘what purpose does it serve’, are common imputations against actions, occupations and even scholarly areas of focus which are not seen to pass the efficiency test. 

There is no proof of freedom than the pursuit of inefficiency. Constrained by cost- effectiveness formulas and relentless rationalisation, much of human activity is being reduced to known and predictable variables, with more and more of the unknowns being cut down by the cost-benefit guillotine. 

Language multiplies inefficient structures because it takes human freedom seriously. A synonym might be an inefficient option, but it is also an expression of a language’s freedom to evolve freely, unimpeded by rational calculation. And the more it shows indifference to the exactions of efficiency, the more it thrives. 

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