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Under The Microscope

WHY THINGS BITE BACK: TECHNOLOGY AND THE REVENGE OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES, by Edward Tenner; Vintage Books, 1997; 431 pages; paperback $26.95

Reviewed by Craig Webster

This book is a well researched and enjoyable examination of some of the most perplexing outcomes of technological innovation. A well-intentioned intervention that leads to unforeseen negative consequences is what Tenner calls a "revenge effect", and it seems that our modern world is full of them.

An airline concerned with safety may require that all infant passengers have their own seat rather than travelling on the lap of an adult. However, since the seat will cost money, many families choose to travel by car which is more dangerous than air travel, and so more injuries and deaths result. Thus, the airlines' safety intervention has resulted in the revenge effect of a net increase in passenger injury and death.

The book deals with many such fascinating anomalies including the myth of the paperless office. The widespread introduction of computers was supposed to lead to the elimination of paper in office work, yet modern offices with ubiquitous fax machines, photocopiers and computer printers, consume more paper now than they ever did when they were operating on a purely paper system.

In addition, the "efficiency" of modern high- speed data entry has caused an epidemic of repetitive strain injury resulting in a huge amount of lost work time.

More technology is not necessarily better. The popularity of home security systems is flooding police with false alarms, more than half of them caused by user error, thus diverting vast amounts of police time from solving actual crimes. Sports safety equipment can actually make the sport more dangerous, low tar cigarettes can make you smoke more, and antibiotic use can breed new and more virulent bacteria.

Tenner claims, that the answer to many of these technological revenge riddles involves a deintensification of our technologies, and a better understanding of the greater system in which technological innovation takes place. Every new release of our technological products purports to be better, faster and stronger than the last, but hitting the problem harder with a more intense version of the same technology is not sustainable.

Often this "improvement" race succeeds only in increasing the number and severity of revenge effects. Even in computing where advances have been exponential there is no hard evidence of anything more than a minimal increase in the efficiency of the average computer user.

Implementers of new technology need to look outside the immediate system which they are altering so that they may anticipate possible negative effects, and address them as part of the design process. Better system understanding, coupled with technological deintensification will allow a more subtle, lasting, and better integrated solution to many problems.

Craig Webster is currently a clinical researcher in the Anaesthetics Department at Auckland's Green Lane Hospital.