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Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences Paperback – Sep 2 1997
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If it can go wrong, it will--thus Murphy's Law. Science journalist Edward Tenner looks more closely at this eternal verity, named after a U.S. Air Force captain who, during a test of rocket-sled deceleration, noticed that critical gauges had been improperly set and concluded, "If there's more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will end in disaster, then somebody will do it that way." Tenner concurs, and he gives us myriad case studies of how technological fixes often create bigger problems than the ones they were meant to solve in the first place. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics, by way of example, has yielded hardier strains of bacteria and viruses that do not respond to pharmaceutical treatment; the wide-scale use of air conditioning in cities has raised the outdoor temperature in some places by as much as 10 degrees, adding stress to already-taxed cooling systems; the modern reliance on medical intervention to deal with simple illnesses, to say nothing of the rapidly growing number of elective surgeries, means that even a low percentage of error (one patient in twenty-five, by a recent estimate) can affect increasingly large numbers of people. Tenner examines what he deems the "unintended consequences" of technological innovation, drawing examples from everyday objects and situations. Although he recounts disaster after painful disaster, his book makes for curiously entertaining, if sometimes scary, reading. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Even when used to better the world, technology fosters unforeseen, often unpleasant consequences that Tenner calls "revenge effects." For example, air-conditioned subways raise platform temperatures by as much as 10 degrees F; some computer users get painful, wrist-numbing carpal tunnel syndrome; flood control systems encourage settlement of flood-prone areas, inviting disaster; 6% of all hospital patients become infected with microbes they encounter during their stay. In a thought-provoking study, Tenner, a historian of science and visiting researcher at Princeton, looks at revenge effects that pop up in medicine, sports, the computerized office and the environment. Oil spills, erosion of beaches, back injuries, athletes' illegal use of steroids and mass extermination of bird species on the world's islands by ship-hopping rats mark this saga of bewildering, often frustrating change. Tenner's cautionary conclusion: revenge effects demand ingenuity and brainpower as technology continues to replace life-threatening problems with slower-acting, more persistent ones.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
The Chiles book Inviting Disaster is thoroughly entertaining. The author is a professional writer with a readable style who often tries out equipment, goes on site, or goes along with technicians in order to do his research. He is by no means given to just armchair research and that makes for a very exciting narration.
I did have some difficulty getting used to his method of pairing recent and 19th Century tales of disaster, especially his habit of jumping back and forth between the two narrations. It does focus ones attention on the similarities between the two events and the degree to which we have learned little from experience! It would appear that leaning from mistakes has been given more lip service than practice over the years. This may well be due to the fact that it's only been more recently that failure itself has been made a subject in its own right with a proper examination of how systems "go off the rails" and what can be done about it.
The author includes an interesting variety of situations, and the list makes it clear that complexity itself gives rise to surprising new outcomes. Just as the authors of Figments of Reality note, complex systems can give rise to emergent characteristics which are entirely unexpected and therefore not planned. (In their book intelligence/mind arising from brain/nerve.Read more ›
Drawing on a rich variety of sources, Tenner shows quite clearly how and why we have unintended consequences. Once you read this book, you will find yourself thinking about many of the technological fixes in your life and wondering what unintended consequences they begat.
The next step - and maybe this can be Tenner's next book - is ask, what can we do about this situation? We cannot and should not stop innovation or problem-solving. But maybe we can do two things. One, explore how feedback loops can be enhanced, especially now that we are living in a digital world. It sounds silly when you read that someday, your refrigerator will order milk from a grocery store when it "senses" you are low on milk, but the faster and more efficient the feedback loops, the better we can be at forecasting danger ahead. Secondly, when a new solution or invention comes to fruition, look back for a moment, not ahead. Something is always lost when a new tool comes into human hands. Maybe the old tool had positive attributes we should try to keep. For a great example of this, read the little essay on railroads in George Kennan's Around the Cragged Hill.Read more ›
What I got out of reading this book is more than just that new technologies can have unintended consequences -- that is to say, that people frequently FAIL to predict their consequences -- but also that it is essentially IMPOSSIBLE to predict all such consequences. The policy implications may be subtle, but they are important: while we might be able to improve our predictive abilities somewhat, we should be much more humble in our assumptions about the likely environmental, economic and social effects of technologies. There is much more to his argument, of course, but the evidence Tenner marshals in order to underscore this central point makes the book a must-read for anybody working in areas where technological development plays a central role.
If Edward Tenner has any plans to write a 2nd edition, I hope that he also includes some examples of the unintended consequences of new energy technologies and consumer electronics (besides computers). If he does, I'll buy that one too.
Most recent customer reviews
This book is slightly mistitled; it probably should have been called "HOW Things Bite Back", since there's not a lot of "why" until the last few pages of the... Read morePublished on Oct. 10 2002 by Gary Schroeder
This could more aptly be titled "Lots of Ways in Which Technological Improvements have Unexpected Consequences. Read morePublished on Aug. 26 2000 by Kevin W. Parker
In medicine we conquered (to some extent) the catastrophic only to succumb to the chronic. This is an example of what Tenner means by things biting back. Read morePublished on Aug. 9 2000 by Dennis Littrell
This book deserves a 5-Star rating for the depth of its research, the overall quality of descriptive analysis, and the scope of its coverage. Read morePublished on July 5 2000 by Richard Tyler
Maybe I had the wrong expectations from a book titled "Why Things Bite Back." I expected to read what it was about things and our relationships to them that create... Read morePublished on May 3 2000 by K. Mohnkern
This raises the idea that sometimes we, i.e., the common man has to be a bit weary with new inventions. DDT was seen at first as a god send. Read morePublished on April 23 2000
This book is a well researched and enjoyable examination of some of the most perplexing outcomes of technological innovation. Read morePublished on March 24 2000 by Craig Webster
I discovered Tenner's ideas on how technology bites back when I read a magazine article on the history of the chair-- how it was first a throne, for royalty, and how gradually,... Read morePublished on Jan. 23 2000 by Robert Kall
This is an excellent book that explores in a very interesting way the complex and often unforeseen consequences of "improved" technology. Read morePublished on Nov. 3 1999
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