37. NEED FOR SPEED
The worst job I ever held was as a driver in the then-emerging realm of largescale food delivery by bike. At the end of each month, we received a ranking of all drivers according to aggregated, speed-related stats - including, for some reason, how long we waited at a restaurant before receiving the food. Appear three times in the bottom four and you would get the sack. But after having to collect a replacement order for a driver who'd just been run over by a car, I began to view the threat of the ranking as somewhat superficial in comparison to my own safety. It's fair to say that attempts to increase my speed did not increase my efficiency.
The self-perpetuating machine
Today, I'm very glad to be working in science and technology instead, although this is hardly any slower moving. In 2019, supercomputers had a computational capacity of 143,500 terabytes; in 2021, they reached 442,000 terabytes. In 1970, a computer chip with 2000 transistors cost $1000 to manufacture. Today, this costs $0.02. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 90% of all digital data was generated within the last two years. The reason for this fast growth is, to a degree, the growth itself: each innovation creates multiple possibilities while (usually) reducing overall costs, creating something of a technological hydra. The faster technology improves, the faster it needs to improve.
It's tempting to view such quick technological developments as a linear path from 'inefficient' to 'efficient', but philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg thinks otherwise. "Of course, all technologies must be more or less efficient, but that does not explain why they are present in our technical environment. Sometimes economic criteria prevail, sometimes technical criteria such as the 'fit' of the device with other technologies in the environment, sometimes social or political requirements of one sort or another."
Overcoming the lag
For an example of the latter, look no further than renewable energy. Solar energy, for instance, can generate energy for half the cost of fossil fuels and requires zero transportation costs or refuelling once the panels are installed - yet millions are spent each year by oil and gas companies to oppose their uptake. The same is true of bicycles, the most efficient way to transport individuals within a city if the relevant infrastructure is in place. In fact, most European and American cities received their first paved roads through bicycle lobbyists, who were later swept aside by the automobile industry. In much of the world, bikes are now seen as a modern traffic intrusion.
Thankfully, the efficiency of renewable energy is becoming better recognised, particularly as new technologies push up its yield in comparison to fossil fuels. This is a pertinent moment given the speed with which climate change needs to be dealt with: the time lag between what we do and when we feel it is less than a decade but if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, the rise in global temperatures would begin to flatten within a few years. And as Feenberg suggests, this change in mentality isn't totally related to efficiency either. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has prompted a much closer look at Europe's main sources of energy, with a number of countries promising to cut Russian oil and gas out of their pipelines completely. This is likely to increase the uptake of renewable energy across the continent, sparking quicker developments in the field.
Matching the marathon
If we understand that efficiency isn't always the driving force behind new technologies, it's easier to make the case that speed sometimes trumps efficiency in how successfully we can meet societal challenges. Better still is to strive for a combination of both. The Russian invasion, for example, has relied on poor, aging equipment on the gamble that this would still be enough to force Ukraine to capitulate within 15 days. Had it succeeded, I'm sure that many online generals would have crawled out of the woodwork to declare it a masterstroke of 4D chess by Putin. But as Feenberg puts it, "efficiency does not explain success, success explains efficiency."
When it comes to my work today, I'm feeling a lot more motivated to pursue this intersection of speed and efficiency - which is just as well, given that quick turnarounds are not simply a matter of a unique selling proposition but are very much a constant given for CPLS clients. Back in 2019, for instance, we translated a press release on Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge becoming the first person to complete a marathon within two hours thanks to the help of Eindhoven University of Technology's wind tunnel tests. In this case, the article was done before Kipchoge even started running and it was up to TU/e to fill in the blanks with his ultimate time as soon as he finished. It's no sub-two-hour marathon, but it's still pretty fast-paced. And if there was such a thing as a translator speed ranking, I'm glad to know that we would be in the top rather than bottom four.