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Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Vintage) Vintage Pbk ed. Edition

3.7 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0679747567
ISBN-10: 0679747567
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Vintage Pbk ed. edition (September 2, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679747567
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679747567
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #521,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Gary Schroeder on October 10, 2002
Format: Paperback
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 book. Tenner provides many discrete examples of how various technological solutions to problems of the past have resulted in unforseen consequences, but never really gets at the heart of the philosophical question of why there must always be such unintended consequences. Despite this, it's a fairly interesting little look at various disasters, big and small. Surprisingly, for someone who's not a sports fanatic, the foray into how technology has changed sports in unexpected ways turned out to be the most interesting section.
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Format: Paperback
Boy, we humans make a mess of things, don't we? Our solutions to problems end up causing other problems. We can never get ahead of the curve. So, what's the point? Why do we bother inventing things? If we stopped right now, and lived like its 2002 forever, we will be in better shape, and live quieter, more stress-free, and even safer, lives. That is NOT what Tenner advocates in his book. But it is a conclusion one could reach when you read the litany of unintended consequences he provides.
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.
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Format: Paperback
Publishers prefer catchy titles for their books, and this one is certainly catchy, but its subtitle is what buyers should pay attention to. Unlike some other reviewers, I was pleasantly surprised by the author's scrupulously neutral (some would even say optimistic) tone, which gives authority to his analysis. I was prepared for an anti-technology rant. Instead I found a carefully researched -- and fascinating -- set of cautionary tales. I WOULD take this book along to the beach, but I'm also somebody who reads the reverse side of cereal boxes.
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.
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Format: Paperback
Since I had been reading on the topic of technology, complexity, decision making and the like, I decided to follow up on some of the sources I had come across in my other reading. I chose Inviting Disaster, by James R. Chiles, (another Minnesotan), Why Things Bite Back by Edward Tenner, and Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow. I also decided to review them together, although I have also reviewed the latter separately.
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.
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