Life from an outsider's perspective…

The “Revenge Effect”. Why things bite back.

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What is the revenge effect? Put simply, its nature’s way of biting back. Call it Karma, call it Murphy’s Law. Call it what you will. You’d be suprised at the negative consequences of our actions… I’ve read bits of the book “Why things bite back” and various books on chaos theory, and I’m inclined to agree. Take the following random examples:

  • Two safety inventions, Anti-Lock-Brake (ABS) & crash helmets, can also both lead to a false sense of security, increased speeds, and an increased incidence of injury.
  • The use of pesticides which create insecticide-resistant bugs, demanding ever-sronger chemicals.
  • Computers were initially supposed to reduce the amount of paper we consumed in offices!

In Why Things Bite Back, Edward Tenner introduces and explains his ground-breaking ‘Revenge Effect’, that every technological advance leads to a paradoxical and unintended consequence. As we complicate the systems which govern our lives, revenge effects multiply. Technology demands more, not less human work and vigilance. For every accute problem solved, a chronic problem comes up in its stead. New roads lead to bigger traffic jams. Antibiotic therapy promotes the spread of virulent bacteria. Pest control which spreads pests; exercise [over-training] which diminishes fitness; communication which impedes the flow of information: it seems as if the world we have create is intent on getting even.

Edward Tenner has been called a “philosopher of everyday technology.” His principal concern is the way that human beings interact with the products of technological innovation. In exploring these interactions, Tenner takes a very expansive view, and his thinking brings together subjects as diverse as agriculture, antibiotics, automobiles, chairs, shoes, football helmets, and computer software. Tenner’s studies of technological development have led him to conclude that innovation often produces-at least in the short term-unintended negative consequences. These negative consequences, which Tenner calls technology’s “revenge effects,” sometimes actually make life less safe, convenient, and efficient than before the inventions came into being. As he puts it, “A small change to solve a minor problem may create a larger one.” – Richard E. Millar


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

3 Responses to “The “Revenge Effect”. Why things bite back.”

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

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