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

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

by Edward Tenner


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679747567
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/1997
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 779,881
Product dimensions: 5.23(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.91(d)

About 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.

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.

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Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
sirfurboy on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A wonderful set of case studies in how the law of unintended consequences always applies in any undertaking. The book avoids the obvious trap - the temptation to preach that we should therefore do nothing, whilst providing cautionary advice, such that we should always consider the law of unintended consequences.If only more people would read this book, we might have less woolly thinking and more visionary thinking instead.
SeriousGrace on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Edward Tenner takes an in-depth look at the technology that first set out to make our lives easier, more convenient, and faster: technologies that include chemistry, invention, ingenuity and just plain luck. The advances science and medicine don't come without fault and failure. It's these drawbacks that Tenner describes as "revenges." Seat belts that save adults but kill children, for example. The unexpected thrill to Tener's book is that it isn't dry and didactic. There is actual humor hidden in the irony.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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?"