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Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the…

Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended… (1996)

by Edward Tenner

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The examples used to support the author's narrative are generally communicated superficially and almost exclusively cover "well known stuff." Exxon Valdez, kudzu, helmets leading to riskier behavior, carp, zebra mussels, etc. - all subjects well covered in popular culture. Perhaps these were largely new issues in 1997, but the text doesn't age well.

I started skimming about 1/3rd of the way in because I wasn't seeing new information or a clear narrative emerging.

Also, I don't think it's good form to imply that antibiotics allowing sick people/children to live is an example of a negative impact. There's some room to explore the issues related to chronic illness expansion on the work force and health care expenses, but this text doesn't do that well (chapter 3). ( )
  sarcher | Jan 13, 2018 |
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. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Feb 8, 2010 |
A fascinating read! Although a bit dated in a few places, the issues raised in this book are timeless. The thesis: people solve problems with technology, but any attempt to control pretty much anything leads to unintended consequences, simply because everything in this world is part of a complex system, and no-one can possibly predict the effects that can arise in such complexity. Detailed and well-researched, educated without being scholarly, this book presents an insightful look at what the author calls "revenge effects" in several areas: medicine, pest introduction/control, computers, and sport. By limiting to these four themes, the author leaves room for a more nuanced analysis than a broad book would permit, with just enough detail yet with four themes the opportunity to see commonalities across very different issues. The book invites a healthy skepticism for the impact of technology (shared by this trained scientist) without encouraging a Luddite existence. All sorts of unintended consequences are considered, including not only "bugs" and technological problems, but social and economic issues as well. The book makes a strong case that an intense focus on the most effective or efficient solution can often lead to far more chaos than the original diverse state of a system, whether it be ecological, social, economic, civic, or even recreational.

The book is incredibly well-written. The language flows smoothly, and the author uses examples which will engage readers with a wide variety of backgrounds. The author includes references as well as a recommended reading section for those who would like to further pursue the theme. I would recommend this work even for those who do not typically read nonfiction, as the "story" is something anyone can relate to.
1 vote caffron | Aug 22, 2009 |
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. ( )
  sirfurboy | Apr 23, 2009 |
Not read yet
  pod | Jan 1, 2007 |
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One of industrial and postindustrial humanity's perennial nightmares is the machine that passes from stubbornness to rebellion.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679747567, Paperback)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:56 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Technology has made us healthier and wealthier, but we aren?t necessarily happier in our zealously engineered surroundings. Edward Tenner is a connoisseur of what he calls revenge effects-the unintended, ironic consequences of the mechanical, chemical, biological and medical forms of ingenuity that have been hallmarks of the progressive, improvement-obsessed twentieth century. In seeking out these revenge effects, he ranges far and wide in our cultural landscape to discover an insistent pattern of paradox that implicates everything from black lung to bluebirds, wooden tennis rackets to Windows 95. His insatiable curiosity embraces technology in all its guises: televised competitive skiing, which is much less exciting not that state-of-the-art cameras have eliminated the blur and lost motion of older broadcasts; low-tar cigarettes, which may encourage smokers to defer quitting altogether, justified margins, which became de rigueur just a psychologists and typographers were realizing that uneven right-hand edges are both more legible and more attractive; the meltdown at Chernobyl, which occurred during a test of enhanced safety procedures; and much, much more.While Tenner is fascinated by these phenomena in their own right, Why Things Bite Back is not merely a compendium of technological perversities. There is a historical and, indeed, ethical agenda behind his new look at the obvious. After all, Murphy?s Law as originally uttered by a frustrated military engineer was meant not as a fatalistic, defeatist principle but as a call for alerrtness and adaptation. Tenner heatrily concurs. Things do go wrong, with a vengeance, and assigning cause can be as trick as unscrambling an egg. Reducing revenge effects demands substituting brains for stuff-deintensifying our quest for more, better, faster, in favor of finesse. And in Tenner?s estimation, humanity is perfectly capable of this adjustment. BOOK JACKETIncludes information on agriculture, air pollution, bicycling, cancer, carp, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), chronic health problems, computer-related health problems, computer related productivity, cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs), disasters, disease, environmental disasters, fires, Florida, golf, health, helmets, herbicides, hydrilla, insects, computer keyboards, malevolent machinery, melaleuca trees, motorization, office related health problems, pesticides, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), rearranging effects, recomplicating effects, recongesting effects, repeating effects, reverse revenge effects, software, storms, tree pests, zebra mussels, etc.… (more)

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