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Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.

Contrary to futurist Alvin Toffler's prediction in The Third Wave that "making paper copies of anything is a primitive use of (electronic word processing) machines and violates their spirit," Edward Tenner noticed that, in his workplace, the use of personal computers, networking, and electronic mail had not reduced the amount of paper being used. In fact, Tenner's colleagues were making lots of back-up hard copies, circulating files across departments, and networking had actually multiplied paper use. Tenner wrote an essay, "The Paradoxical Proliferation of Paper" to describe this phenomenon and started to look around at "the strange consequences of nearly everything." He became 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 the hallmarks of the "progressive," improvement-obsessed twentieth century.

In Why Things Bite Back you will learn about such revenge effects as: low-tar cigarettes, which may encourage smokers to defer quitting altogether; the meltdown at Chernobyl, which occurred during a test of enhanced safety designs; and personal office computers, which may cause executives to waste time on what are essentially clerical tasks. The author is not just interested in providing a list of technological ironies. He believes that Murphy's Law (what can go wrong will go wrong) should be seen not as a fatalistic, defeatist principle but as a call for alertness and adaptation. To reduce revenge effects he believes we need to deintensify our quest for "more, better, faster" in favor of finesse (read "delayed reaction" if you want to use a general semantics term) and analysis of consequences.

In agriculture, this means looking at forgoing applications of heavy fertilizer in favor of planting complementary crops in the same fields, increasing both productivity and resilience. In business computing, deintensification requires that we reassess the functional value of "more powerful" new releases of both hardware and software. It also suggest doubts about whether higher workloads and longer days produce greater profits. In medicine, the move away from intensity calls for a shift from heavy reliance on a few antibiotics.

Whether you're a Luddite, a technophile, or a curious observer, this wide-ranging book, written in a literate and lucid style, will have you rethinking the conventional optimism that surrounds technological change. It reminds us that since change is inevitable, knowledge and vigilance are needed to reduce the "revenge of unintended consequences."
COPYRIGHT 1997 Institute of General Semantics
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Levinson, Martin H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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