Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequencesby Edward Tenner
In this perceptive and provocative look at everything from computer software that requires faster processors and more support staff to antibiotics that breed resistant strains of bacteria, Edward Tenner offers a virtual encyclopedia of what he calls "revenge effects"the unintended consequences of the mechanical, chemical, biological, and medical
In this perceptive and provocative look at everything from computer software that requires faster processors and more support staff to antibiotics that breed resistant strains of bacteria, Edward Tenner offers a virtual encyclopedia of what he calls "revenge effects"the unintended consequences of the mechanical, chemical, biological, and medical forms of ingenuity that have been hallmarks of the progressive, improvement-obsessed modern age. Tenner shows why our confidence in technological solutions may be misplaced, and explores ways in which we can better survive in a world where despite technology's advancesand often because of them"reality is always gaining on us." For anyone hoping to understand the ways in which society and technology interact, Why Things Bite Back is indispensable reading. "A bracing critique of technological determinism in both its utopian and dystopian forms...No one who wants to think clearly about our high-tech future can afford to ignore this book."Jackson Lears, Wilson Quarterly
Why Things Bite BackEarly in Chapter 1 (entitled, by the way, "Ever Since Frankenstein"), Why Things Bite Back sets forth its central premise and agenda: "Wherever we turn we face the ironic unintended consequences of mechanical, chemical, biological, and medical ingenuity -- revenge effects, they might be called." The book surveys these revenge effects of modern technology across a wide spectrum of contexts and applications, organizing them under the general headings of health care, the environment, agriculture and pest control, the computerized office, and sports. The two chapters on computers and information systems are disappointingly sketchy. They focus primarily on repetitive stress injuries, eyestrain, software viruses, and the so-called "productivity paradox" (which, of course, is not turning out to be such a paradox after all). Some obvious targets for an in-depth analysis -- the Y2K crisis and fly-by-wire systems -- are completely ignored. The computing chapters, unlike the rest of the book, have distinct neo-Luddite overtones, and are not even consistent internally, criticizing TEX on one hand and graphical user interfaces on the other. However, the bibliography provides a good starting point for further reading in this area. Probably the most telling commentary on Why Things Bite Back, is the time it took me to slog my way through it. I bought it on the strength of the title and clever cover photo, which unfortunately turned out to be its most compelling features. The author plods through superficial, diffident examinations of a seemingly endless litany of revenge effects, giving a discussion of chronic illness equal time with the economic impact of high-tech tennis rackets and golf balls. I'm normally a very fast reader, but I picked this book up and put it down for over a year before I finally finished it off. Revenge effects are fascinating, pervasive, and critically important, but they need a more passionate, more insightful treatment than they found here.--Dr.Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books
Tenner, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, argues that progress in numerous fields of endeavor has been undercut by unanticipated "revenge effects," which he describes as "ironic unintended consequences" of human ingenuity. Examples are myriad: antibiotics that promise the cure of age-old disease but end up breeding resistant microorganisms; imported wildlife that competes too successfully with native species; computer printers that create better-looking documentsand force everyone to desktop-publish memos that would convey the same information if handwritten. The examples are organized under several headings, from medicine and environmental disasters to pests (both animal and vegetable), computerization, and sports (which, interestingly enough, offers some of the best evidence of the thesis). The football helmet, designed to reduce injuries, actually encourages a more violent style of play, creating a new and more serious kind of injury. While Tenner claims to be neither pro- nor anti-technology, he often seems to press his thesis beyond useful limits, as in his observation that those who dwell near wooded areas must now be on guard against tick bites; this is neither a new phenomenon nor an effect of technology. He has clearly done an impressive amount of research, but his footnotes (which attempt to cover whole paragraphs in one sweep) do not let the reader easily follow his research; often an interesting and provocative quote will go unattributed. And a convoluted style often forces a reader to reread an argument that could have been more simply stated.
Tenner's subject is undoubtedly interesting, and his examples will strike close to home for many readers; the book would be even better if he had not tried to inflate his useful observations into universal truths.
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Read an Excerpt
From easily reversible eyestrain to crippling back, hand, and wrist pain, the physical problems of computing have important things in common. They are incremental. They develop slowly, often without a noticeable onset. There can be a sudden crisis of disabling pain, the result of conditions that have persisted for weeks or months. These are only indirectly measurable. X-rays and other imaging can show anomalies consistent with pain, but men and women with similar physical images may not have similar feelings.
Above all, these conditions are shaped socially. Political conservatives usually insist on the existence of an objective reality and deny that scientific and even technological knowledge is socially constructed. But partly because there is no "dolorometer," no recognized test for pain only at best devices that may reveal suspiciously inconsistent responses conservatives and especially neoconservatives deplore the economic cost of computer-related claims and see neurosis at work, if not fraud. Liberals, who otherwise perceive the self-interest of medical providers in "new" syndromes and diagnoses, consider computer-related illness to be objectively real. Both sides would agree that injury rates tend to be higher where work is more stressful. Organizations using similar hardware and software have had such different experience with injuries that social processes must be responsible for part of the difference. But nobody understands yet what the processes may be and how they operate.
In the outbreak of reported cumulative trauma disorders in Australia in the 1980s "the largest, most costly and most prolonged industrial epidemic in world history," according to one medical critic there there was agreement that medical attitudes were part of the problem and actually helped make it worse. But who was creating the unintended consequences? Was it the office workers who were reporting it, or their labor and feminist allies who helped promote oversensitivity to minor symptoms and even encourage outright malingering? (Australian trade unions are among the world's most socially and politically active, and workers' compensation laws reflect labor's political influence.) Or were sympathetic physicians helping "the powerless and dependent, and those who cannot otherwise express their righteous rage at their supervisors, employers and spouses," to use their "exquisitely symbolic pain and incapacity" to communicate distress, as one Australian doctor has suggested? Or were skeptical physicians helping to create chronic symptoms by refusing to take early reports seriously and putting the burden of proof on patients, as other analysts have argued? Either way, the epidemic was in part an unintentional consequence of medicalizing what the Australians called (following Commonwealth practice) repetitive strain injury.
Not paying attention leads to injuries. But focusing on the physical problems of computing or anything else might have amplified the symptoms. Are sufferers hard workers who have driven themselves too far, coming forward reluctantly only when the pain is unendurable? Or are they consciously or unconsciously trying to escape from responsibility by medicalizing their problems? Questions that begin with seatpans and backrests, forward and backward tilts, microswitch clicks and wrist supports turn out to have answers that are psychological, organizational, and even political. The question is whether the ethical burden is on employers to control stress even at the expense of profits and "competitiveness," or on workers (whether data tabulators or editorial writers) to stiffen their upper lips as well as their lower backs.
Meet the Author
Edward Tenner, former executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press, holds a visiting research appointment in the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton University. He received the A.B. from Princeton and the Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and has held visiting research positions at Rutgers University and the Institute for Advanced Study. In 1991-92 he was a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow and in 1995-96 is a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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I think that this is the first book that I have ever recommended after quitting less than half-way through, but it's a very worth-while read and I think that one gains a great deal just by understanding the underlying premise even without reading all the particulars. The books is organized by subject, so if the reader who is mainly interested in how the pursuit of fitness can lead to nasty accidents can focus on that. It does make the one cheerful point that although common wisdom has it that technologically complex societies are brittle, in fact they fare better in the face of natural disasters. Tenner is not a Luddite, urging us to get rid of technology, rather, a realist warning us of the trade-offs. Tenner acquaints, or reaquaints, us with the fact that our actions often have unintended and unforseeable consequences, an often overlooked truth that is absolutely necessary to wisdom. Arm yourself with retorts for any blithe idiot who demands: "What could possible go wrong?"