While runaway cars and vengeful stitched-together humans may be the stuff of science fiction, technology really can take revenge on us. Seeing technology as part of a complex system can help us avoid costly unintended consequences. Here’s what you need to know about revenge effects.
By many metrics, technology keeps making our lives better. We live longer, healthier, richer lives with more options than ever before for things like education, travel, and entertainment. Yet there is often a sense that we have lost control of our technology in many ways, and thus we end up victims of its unanticipated impacts.
Edward Tenner argues in Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences that we often have to deal with “revenge effects.” Tenner coined this term to describe the ways in which technologies can solve one problem while creating additional worse problems, new types of problems, or shifting the harm elsewhere. In short, they bite back.
Although Why Things Bite Back was written in the late 1990s and many of its specific examples and details are now dated, it remains an interesting lens for considering issues we face today. The revenge effects Tenner describes haunt us still. As the world becomes more complex and interconnected, it’s easy to see that the potential for unintended consequences will increase.
Thus, when we introduce a new piece of technology, it would be wise to consider whether we are interfering with a wider system. If that’s the case, we should consider what might happen further down the line. However, as Tenner makes clear, once the factors involved get complex enough, we cannot anticipate them with any accuracy.
Neither Luddite nor alarmist in nature, the notion of revenge effects can help us better understand the impact of intervening with complex systems But we need to be careful. Although second-order thinking is invaluable, it cannot predict the future with total accuracy. Understanding revenge effects is primarily a reminder of the value of caution and not of specific risks.
Types of revenge effects
There are four different types of revenge effects, described here as follows:
- Repeating effects: occur when more efficient processes end up forcing us to do the same things more often, meaning they don’t free up more of our time. Better household appliances have led to higher standards of cleanliness, meaning people end up spending the same amount of time—or more—on housework.
- Recomplicating effects: occur when processes become more and more complex as the technology behind them improves. Tenner gives the now-dated example of phone numbers becoming longer with the move away from rotary phones. A modern example might be lighting systems that need to be operated through an app, meaning a visitor cannot simply flip a switch.
- Regenerating effects: occur when attempts to solve a problem end up creating additional risks. Targeting pests with pesticides can make them increasingly resistant to harm or kill off their natural predators. Widespread use of antibiotics to control certain conditions has led to be resistant strains of bacteria that are harder to treat.
- Rearranging effects: occur when costs are transferred elsewhere so risks shift and worsen. Air conditioning units on subways cool down the trains—while releasing extra heat and making the platforms warmer. Vacuum cleaners can throw dust mite pellets into the air, where they remain suspended and are more easily breathed in. Shielding beaches from waves transfers the water’s force elsewhere.
Recognizing unintended consequences
The more we try to control our tools, the more they can retaliate.
Revenge effects occur when the technology for solving a problem ends up making it worse due to unintended consequences that are almost impossible to predict in advance. A smartphone might make it easier to work from home, but always being accessible means many people end up working more.
Things go wrong because technology does not exist in isolation. It interacts with complex systems, meaning any problems spread far from where they begin. We can never merely do one thing.
Tenner writes: “Revenge effects happen because new structures, devices, and organisms react with real people in real situations in ways we could not foresee.” He goes on to add that “complexity makes it impossible for anyone to understand how the system might act: tight coupling spreads problems once they begin.”
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, technology typically consisted of tools that served as an extension of the user. They were not, Tenner argues, prone to revenge effects because they did not function as parts in an overall system like modern technology. He writes that “a machine can’t appear to have a will of its own unless it is a system, not just a device. It needs parts that interact in unexpected and sometimes unstable and unwanted ways.”
Revenge effects often involve the transformation of defined, localized risks into nebulous, gradual ones involving the slow accumulation of harm. Compared to visible disasters, these are much harder to diagnose and deal with.
Large localized accidents, like a plane crash, tend to prompt the creation of greater safety standards, making us safer in the long run. Small cumulative ones don’t.
Cumulative problems, compared to localized ones, aren’t easy to measure or even necessarily be concerned about. Tenner points to the difference between reactions in the 1990s to the risk of nuclear disasters compared to global warming. While both are revenge effects, “the risk from thermonuclear weapons had an almost built-in maintenance compulsion. The deferred consequences of climate change did not.”
Many revenge effects are the result of efforts to improve safety. “Our control of the acute has indirectly promoted chronic problems”, Tenner writes. Both X-rays and smoke alarms cause a small number of cancers each year. Although they save many more lives and avoiding them is far riskier, we don’t get the benefits without a cost. The widespread removal of asbestos has reduced fire safety, and disrupting the material is often more harmful than leaving it in place.
Not all effects exact revenge
A revenge effect is not a side effect—defined as a cost that goes along with a benefit. The value of being able to sanitize a public water supply has significant positive health outcomes. It also has a side effect of necessitating an organizational structure that can manage and monitor that supply.
Rather, a revenge effect must actually reverse the benefit for at least a small subset of users. For example, the greater ease of typing on a laptop compared to a typewriter has led to an increase in carpal tunnel syndrome and similar health consequences. It turns out that the physical effort required to press typewriter keys and move the carriage protected workers from some of the harmful effects of long periods of time spent typing.
Likewise, a revenge effect is not just a tradeoff—a benefit we forgo in exchange for some other benefit. As Tenner writes:
If legally required safety features raise airline fares, that is a tradeoff. But suppose, say, requiring separate seats (with child restraints) for infants, and charging a child’s fare for them, would lead many families to drive rather than fly. More children could in principle die from transportation accidents than if the airlines had continued to permit parents to hold babies on their laps. This outcome would be a revenge effect.
In support of caution
In the conclusion of Why Things Bite Back, Tenner writes:
We seem to worry more than our ancestors, surrounded though they were by exploding steamboat boilers, raging epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters. Perhaps this is because the safer life imposes an ever increasing burden of attention. Not just in the dilemmas of medicine but in the management of natural hazards, in the control of organisms, in the running of offices, and even in the playing of games there are, not necessarily more severe, but more subtle and intractable problems to deal with.
While Tenner does not proffer explicit guidance for dealing with the phenomenon he describes, one main lesson we can draw from his analysis is that revenge effects are to be expected, even if they cannot be predicted. This is because “the real benefits usually are not the ones that we expected, and the real perils are not those we feared.”
Chains of cause and effect within complex systems are stranger than we can often imagine. We should expect the unexpected, rather than expecting particular effects.
While we cannot anticipate all consequences, we can prepare for their existence and factor it into our estimation of the benefits of new technology. Indeed, we should avoid becoming overconfident about our ability to see the future, even when we use second-order thinking. As much as we might prepare for a variety of impacts, revenge effects may be dependent on knowledge we don’t yet possess. We should expect larger revenge effects the more we intensify something (e.g., making cars faster means worse crashes).
Before we intervene in a system, assuming it can only improve things, we should be aware that our actions can do the opposite or do nothing at all. Our estimations of benefits are likely to be more realistic if we are skeptical at first.
If we bring more caution to our attempts to change the world, we are better able to avoid being bitten.