Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.


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TENNER, EDWARD. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. xiii + 346 pp. $26.00.This book is a wide-ranging collection of anecdotes about the deleterious and unanticipated effects of innovations both large and small. As such it is best read in parts; a single sitting produces early on a certain satiety. We know that whatever wonderful new gadget or flower or machine is introduced, it is surely going to do something very bad. Although he notes that tight coupling and complexity may favor revenge effects, Tenner unfortunately never attempts to construct a theory as to why these dozens of unfortunate and unexpected deleterious effects of potentially favorable innovations occur so frequently. Revenge, according to my dictionary, is “vindictive retaliation, or the disposition or desire to seek vengeance.” As Tenner puts it, “The real revenge is not what we do intentionally against one another. It is the tendency of the world around us to get even, to twist our cleverness against us” (p. 5). This seems to cast the “world” as an individual, and a particularly vengeful one at that.It has been evident for a long time that even small actions (for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost...) can have not only large but far-reaching effects. It is also true that most of us including the savants and scientists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had an unalterable faith in both the effectiveness of science and the steady and upward progress of mankind using its brilliant results. The last few decades have seen this optimistic viewpoint falter and an increasingly pessimistic philosophy sometimes with an antiscientific bias emerge. Curiously, at the same time the public safety is more closely monitored than ever before.This book consists of a well-written and an extraordinarily detailed account of the unintended consequences of varied innovations. In his conclusion, Tenner analyzes some aspects of actions that seem particularly likely to produce revenge effects and what measures we can take to modify or mitigate these effects. He feels that intensity, whether it be intensive farming, a heavy reliance on a handful of antibiotics, or increasingly powerful computers and software, is one of the major sources of revenge effects. It is not clear what he would do confronted with a patient harboring a life threatening infection; would he rely on something other than antibiotics? Nonetheless, he may have a point here.Tenner also argues for diversification and dematerialization to prevent revenge effects. In particular he espouses cunning rather than a frontal attack on problems and uses the introduction of smallpox vaccine as an example. “Cunning,” yes, but not frontal? Skepticism and critical thought are clearly always important in assaying the probability of success or failure or unexpected consequences of any procedure. However, this has been for a long time the essence of the scientific endeavor. Nothing new here.Several chapters seemed to be particularly pertinent; his description of the problems with hardware, software, and printers is a detailed examinations of both the successes and problems now present in the computer world and those that may be down the line. His analysis of innovation in sports equipment is an insightful analysis of the mixed blessings of what have appeared to be major safety innovations.Why Things Bite Back is heavily referenced; I count 46 pages of references, and it has a good index.

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