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An Ngram of Efficiency

When confronted with a big, abstract topic I always feel at ease after running it through Google Ngram Viewer. Not necessarily because I´m hoping for a sudden epiphany – though it happened every now and then – but more out of comfort the continuous line offers a brain. A brain that keeps chewing over possible connections that big, abstract topics usually lack. In the case of an ngram of efficiency it worked out pretty well.

At the end of the day, the Ngram Viewer is “just” statistics and won´t spit out any distinct answers. But being able to search particular keywords across 5 million books that have been digitised by Google shows some telling connections and developments of keywords. Due to a temporal graph that is able to span up to 500 years in time it was able to put quite a few assumptions into perspective. One of my favourite examples of how to use the Ngram Viewer is a project by a.o. the guys at Information is beautiful. The ngram below (one of quite a few) shows how often people used these keywords in written records and it implicitly tells us how important they were to them. The graph won´t tell you neither if people actually consumed any drugs nor if they were generally for or against it. Nonetheless I get a distinct feeling that the Fin de siècle was anything but boring or that prohibition policies and movements from the 20s were quite effective.

Ngram of drug use around 1900

Something tells me that the Fin de siècle was anything but boring. (Image via Information is beautiful )

I believe anyone was confronted with some notion of efficiency at some point in their lives. Be it professionally, by receiving a newsletter promoting the most efficient service to cut costs or by being tasked to increase productivity by 3%. Be it at home, by coming up with a plan how to fetch the children from school, visit the gym and watch the latest episode of your favourite series. All that within an afternoon that just feels way to short. Efficiency has a lot of names and even more layers to it. It has become a pervasive motivator to strife for more ‘efficient’ solutions opening up ever more promises for a bright future. But knowing that there are countless means for countless ends does not necessarily produce constructive insight in what efficiency actually is about. To do that, we need to answer a few questions that make efficiency more tangible. And the Ngram Viewer may be just the tool to get started. Observing the ngram reveals a flat rise until 1900, followed by a rapid climb within roughly 20 years and finally entering a plateau around 1930 with two minor peaks in 1945 and 1980. This leaves us with two assumptions about when efficiency became an object of public interest:

Efficiency is roughly 1½ centuries old.
The name for the concept behind efficiency is roughly 1½ centuries old.

In the course of this post I´ll use the first assumption to explain the usage of the Ngram Viewer as a research tool. But if the second one caught your attention then I may refer you to another post on a more historical perspective on efficiency.

If efficiency is roughly 150 years old then the question remains, what happened there? Or to be precise: What is causing the spike around 1900? Why is it not easing out but entering a plateau? What is causing the minor peaks after 1940? Did the character of efficiency stay the same or did the concept evolve over time or even along with the two minor peaks?

The first spike of the ngram

When looking up ‘efficiency’ within a timeframe of 1900+ it is inevitable to stumble upon Frederick Taylor. He came up with a set of managerial strategies that analyse and synthesise workflows in order to make production processes more efficient. In 1910 Louis Brandeis coined the term Scientific Management which ultimately got accepted even by Taylor himself. By that time the field had grown considerably and had sparked interest all over Europe and the US. Interestingly its influence curve correlates with the first spike. Nowadays well-established theorists such as Max Weber, Benjamin Graham, Frank Gilbreth or Henry Gantt actively conducted research on the theme of economic efficiency, which would finally echo in society in the form of the Efficiency Movement.

The plateau and the first minor peak of the ngram

By developing the field of economic efficiency and by enriching it with a cultural, social and political dimension early pioneers and the following generation of players laid way to what we might regard as efficiency today. The field consisted initially of theorists but soon enough also engineers, managers, politicians, etc. who would participate as active players. Best practice and strategies to identify and eliminate waste weren’t restricted to an aware elite anymore. Efficiency became a social factor and optimisation strategies were developed and implemented into all aspects of society. Broadening the field shows up in the ngram as the first minor peak as well as the plateau after the first third of the century and may attribute to three reasons:

Instilling the values of efficiency into society.
Reaching a broader public by advertising being efficient as a sublime virtue that will inevitably be rewarded with growth.
Further developing existing managerial strategies.

One might guess, now that efficiency has become a social and economical accepted practice it would reach a point of uniformity. However according to the ngram there is a second minor peak around 1980 that indicates a somewhat influential shift in the perception of efficiency. In another post titled Efficiency and Value I´ve been writing about a more intrinsic quality of efficiency: value. The main idea is that efficiency requires a context that determines what is regarded as most desirable, which in turn becomes the objective of optimisation.

Often one of the most important reasons for restructuring is a foregoing or an upcoming crisis as it is being interpreted as a problem or sign of unreason – the inefficiency of former rationalisation strategies. (Image via

Often one of the most important reasons for restructuring is a foregoing or an upcoming crisis as it is being interpreted as a problem or sign of unreason – the inefficiency of former rationalisation strategies. (image via

The second minor peak

So what happened in the 70s and 80s that would have had an impact on efficiency? In the 70s society holds its breath in the wake of social movements such as Anti-war protests, Feminism, Environmentalism, etc. questioning given standards. Iran struggles with a revolution and inadvertently plunges the world economy into an oil crisis. The Cold-War simmers and spreads virulent fears of nuclear strikes and fall-out. In short, a crisis happened. Often one of the most important reasons for restructuring is a foregoing or an upcoming crisis as it is being interpreted as a problem or sign of unreason – the inefficiency of former rationalisation strategies.I was digging deeper into the ngram, playing wildcards and exploring the data. Finally it revealed one interesting aspect of efficiency that would suddenly sky-rocket just in time to correlate with the second, minor peak: energy efficiency.

After the Oil Crisis society was suddenly confronted with the fact that infinite growth is hardly possible. Growing energy-hungry industries like the newly founded information technology sector (that promised but one thing: increasing efficiencies) tarnished the reputation of efficiency strategies. They couldn’t live up to their promise to invoke growth because their resource basis, the availability of cheap energy, has been affected. The most efficient course of action now was to rethink the concept of efficiency itself. Not only in terms of process and waste but also in terms of the origin and future availability of the input and the recoverability of waste – a trend that didn’t lose in precedence until present days. Neither did attempts to create ever more efficiencies.

Check out an article on energy efficiency if you want to know more about the paradigmatic shifts of efficiency. And in the meantime don’t be shy and tell us, what you think about efficiency, where and how you were confronted with it and most importantly: How efficient were you?


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