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Why Things Bite Back

Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. By Edwar Tenner.

Edward Tenner: Why Things Bite Back, Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Vintage, New York 1996, ISBN 0-679-74756-7


05.06.1999 · Reviewed by Douglas Merrill


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Edward Tenner grapples with the paradoxes of technology. With one hand on the clear benefits of centuries of technical advances and the other on the real drawbacks stemming from these very advances, he wrestles with some of the biggest questions presented by humanity's relations with its machines. Are we better off in our deeply technical society? Can we continue on our present path? What should we expect from the mechanical devices sharing our world, and how do the systems of human-machine interaction behave?

Although Tenner comes up with optimistic answers, he spends a long time on the mat with the negative effects of technology, particularly the unexpected negative effects. What he calls revenge effects are not merely side effects of or trade-offs associated with new technologies, they are consequences of the technology (or of human interaction with the technology) that partially negate the advantage that the advance was supposed to bring. "If a cancer chemotherapy treatment causes baldness, that is not a revenge effect; but if it induces another, equally lethat cancer, that is a revenge effect." Consider automated security systems; they produce far more false alarms than legitimate calls. "In Philadelphia [in the early 1990s], only 3,000 of 157,000 calls from automatic security systems over three years were real; by diverting the full-time equivalent of fifty-eight police officers for useless calls, the systems may have promoted crime elsewhere." Security gains for owners of the systems were real, but overall security may well have declined. That's a revenge effect.

Revenge effects come in a number of different forms, and Tenner sketches a typology that he uses in examples throughout the book. There are rearranging effects, as when air conditioning makes summer temperatures inside buildings bearable, but at the cost of raising the temperature on the streets around them. There are repeating effects - doing the same thing more often rather than gaining free time to do other things. The modern office is home to a multitude of repeating effects. Recomplicating effects occur when one form of technology overtakes another's limitations, but doesn't make end users' tasks any simpler. For example, rotary telephones were slow and often cumbersome to dial, but the advent of voice mail menus and extra dialing codes means that people may now spend more time dialing than before the advent of the supposedly simpler touch tone phone. "Sometimes a practice or device can multiply a problem." There is evidence that more damage occurred in Tel Aviv during the Gulf War after Patriot missiles were deployed, even though fewer Scud missiles were launched. Patriots hitting Scuds may have produced more destructive debris than the original Scuds themselves. "This hydralike response to technology is a regenerating effect," and it can be even more devastating in medicine and agriculture than in missile defense. Finally, technology can open up seemingly endless vistas which are then rapidly filled up. These are recongesting effects, and examples range from traffic on ring roads to competition for slices of electromagnetic spectrum to the internet's apparently endless thirst for bandwidth.

Tenner uses this typology not to fight against technology but to help readers understand how drawbacks are intimately bound with advances. He also makes the benefits crystal clear: people have never been healthier or longer lived, or free to move about, or less dependent on back-breaking labor to survive, or in control of the world around them. At the same time, this very control has made us less tolerant of the gaps in our abilities, less willing to accept that our systems may not be one hundred percent certain, and indeed may be the causes of certain problems. In general, we have moved from acute problems to chronic ones, from sudden disasters to slow-moving destruction, from localized damage to widespread aggravation. "The very means of preventing [disasters] sometimes created the risk of even larger ones in the future. And, even more significant, the gradual, long-term, dispersed problem proved far less tractable than the sudden, shocking one. As we shall see, the steady seepage of petroleum products from small industrial, residential, and service-station tanks became a more serious problem than any of the great oil spills."

He focuses on five arenas where revenge effects are clear: medicine, the environment, agriculture, the office, and sports. In each, conquest of acute problems has brought about unexpected chronic difficulties. Tenner builds his case through an accumulation of detail from surprising sources, and his writing is a constant pleasure to read. The steady buildup of facts from such a broad array of fields and perspectives makes his argument thoroughly convincing. From comparisons among the different ornithologists who introduced new species to America in the 19th century to the economics of planting eucalyptus in California to the real originator of Murphy's Law, Tenner finds the detail that makes the case.

That he draws optimistic conclusions is yet another paradox of technology. The greatest disasters, from the sinking of the Titanic to deaths from disease in the Crimean war, have often provided the biggest push for dramatic improvement in a certain area. "[Disaster] legitimizes and promotes changes in rules - changes that may be resisted as long as the levels of casualties remain 'acceptable' prior to a disaster that leads to change. More important, disasters mobilize the kind of ingenuity that technological optimists believe exists in unlimited supply." But not only disasters lead to improvements; the very intensification that brings about revenge effects can be self-limiting. As a revenge effect rises, people have incentives to modify their behavior, taking on a vigilance that limits the effect.

And while guarded optimism is a reasonable outcome after this thorough round of technology and its consequences, the future will remain full of surprises. "What is almost a constant, though, is that the real benefits are not those we expected, and the real perils are not those we feared. What prevail are sets of loosely calculable factors and ranges of outcomes, with no accepted procedure for choosing among them."
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