Edward Tenner's "Why Things Bite Back"

The following review appeared in the _Times Higher Education Supplement_ for 1996 November 8 with small editorial changes and a misleading title and illustration.

Up to: Reviews page

WHY THINGS BITE BACK: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences
(346 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, $26, 0-679-42563-2)

According to the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, air bags have saved 1,500 lives. The unintended consequence is that airbags have killed 22 infants. Airbag systems are being redesigned to avoid this, but the redesign itself may have further consequences. Very likely they will be as much smaller than the 22 deaths as the 22 are smaller than the 1,500. It is rare good fortune when the numbers to make comparisons are available.

Tenner's book is about the unintended consequences of technology. Unlike most writers on this subject, Tenner is judicious, often concluding that some specific innovation was worthwhile in spite of some unfortunate consequences. He avoids the cliche "our hubris" and using the word "we" to mean "they". Some other reviewers have regretted his failure to attack their favorite scapegoats.

Before turning to specifics we note that the unintended consequences of technology have turned out so far to be less consequential than those of many political and social decisions. Neville Chamberlain brought the world "peace for our time". More recently Gorbachev thought that semi-free elections were compatible with the preservation of Communist Party rule.

Tenner's research on is more thorough than that of his predecessors. In some cases, quantitative comparisons are possible as in the air bag example, and it's too bad he didn't do more of them.

The lessons to be learned from his topics are various. Here are a few.

The gypsy moth was brought to the U.S. in the 19th century in the hopes of founding a silk industry. There is no industry, and the moth's damage to forests requires expensive control measures. The moth was a disaster, but was it a mistake? It was one of a number of introductions of foreign plants and animals many of which have been extremely successful. Was there knowledge at the time that should have told Leopold Trouvelot not to do it?

The fire ant was not an intentional introduction but a side-effect of transportation from South America. The efforts to control it have not been very successful and may have been counter-productive by killing some of its enemies. My own technological optimism suggests that a way of eradicating the gypsy moth and the fire ant will eventually be found.

Eucalyptus trees were imported from Australia into many countries. It was thought that they would be good timber trees, but the wood from eucalyptus grown in the U.S. splits too easily, apparently because the trees grow too fast. They provide good windbreaks and are still widely planted in California, where they are the tallest fast growing tree in many parts of the state. They are controversial, and many people argue from the principle that no non-native can be any good. Most of us are not so squeamish, and the world would be a poorer place if the kings of Spain and Britain had taken advice from the future to forbid bringing plants or animals from one continent to another. There would have been no horses or cattle for the cowboys and Indians and no potatoes for the Irish.

Antibiotics were introduced in the 1940s, and bacteria resistant to their effects immediately began to evolve necessitating ever new (and more expensive) antibiotics. Tenner can't resist a bit of scapegoating here. So far we are far ahead of the game. Tuberculosis once killed 300,000 Americans per year. After declining to a very low level, it is now back up to almost 2,000, mostly AIDS sufferers and other immunocompromised people.

From my point of view, Tenner's most interesting complaint concerns computers in offices. There are three points.

First he considers that productivity has not increased. I don't know whether it counts as a productivity increase, but it is much less frustrating to deal with an organization where the person who answers the telephone can call up your record.

Second the amount of paper has increased, belying the idea of a paperless office. It would have been surprising if the advent of copiers, fax machines and cheap, high quality laser printers hadn't led to more printing. Now we all have Winston Churchill's extravagant luxury of making our corrections on page proofs.

Tenner tells us that people print their email. I did some polling at Stanford and at IBM. Engineers and scientists almost never print email and store it permanently on the computer. Secretaries and administrators and executives often print it, and a few even file it in printed form. Mostly they have good reasons, but advances in notebook computers will obviate them. We'll have the paperless office yet, and we'll be able to read from screens lighter than a book in bed or in the bathtub. Surely someone will match the old advertisement that ball point pens let you write under water with one asserting that the new screens let you read under water.

Tenner's most interesting complaint is that the personal computing environments have become so complex that ordinary users need the help of experts to survive, and that people with important jobs often spend a lot of time helping others use the computers - time that would be better spent on doing their jobs. He's right about that. I am a computer scientist and have been using computers for 40 years. Nevertheless, I have had to rely on my graduate students and our computer facilities professionals to deal with the complexities of configuring collections of programs. The problem has gotten worse in recent years with the advent of graphical user interfaces and programs that interact with others over networks, and there are trends that may make it worse.

There are feasible technical fixes, but they may also require some standardization of how computer programs are configured and used. The companies that adopt them will get big competitive advantages.

Tenner's main recommendation is eternal vigilance - a solution that was also recommended in the political sphere.

I welcome comments, and you can send them by clicking on jmc@cs.stanford.edu

The number of hits on this page since 1996 December 12.