Edward Tenner's book is rather dated by now (1997!), but in everything but its discussion of software and the internet it still seems relevant. It isEdward Tenner's book is rather dated by now (1997!), but in everything but its discussion of software and the internet it still seems relevant. It is an informative collection of instances in which new technologies, upon their adoption, have been found to result in unintended consequences. Consequences which happen to have undermined the very reasons for having pursued the new tools. Tenner cites cases across five broad areas: office efficiency and safety, medicine, environmental resource management, animal, plant, and pest introductions into ecosystems, and sports technology. Some of the cases have become common knowledge by now, such as how forest fire management tends to increase the intensity of fires or how antibiotic soaps can create incredibly dangerous and unstoppable diseases. There are scores of well known cases of revenge effects like these listed in Tenner's book. A few that I found to be interesting: *Beach jetties, which are installed to limit beach erosion, tend to massively increase the erosion of all of the surrounding beaches. *Office technology implemented for the purposes of increasing efficiency and paring down employee costs usually results in having to hire teams of expensive specialists and technicians to maintain the new hardware or software. It also tends to disrupt the work that people should be doing by introducing a plethora of new minor tasks that have to be individually nursed. For example, the replacement of secretaries with fast communication, sorting, and planning tools saved money on wages, but it required the hiring of programmers, system administrators, and other (higher wage) employees. It also forced managers and professionally trained individuals to devote a much larger part of their day on the tasks that secretaries once handled. *In sports, new equipment that increases the safety of a sport tends to allow the game to be played much rougher before people get hurt - which ultimately makes accidents far more deadly when they happen. * Almost all of the carp in the United States were introduced through a program that promoted carp as a tasty, sustainable and cheap food source. This proved not to be the case (they were not tasty) and then the carp got into US rivers and lakes and destroyed most of the ecosystem that supported the natural fishstock and waterfowl, ultimately reducing foodstocks.
Tenner does a terrible job of being explicit about any sort of over-arching take away from this book but there are a few themes that can be picked out across the chapters:
1) Technology tends to displace or lessen the impact of discrete problems and replace them with chronic ailments that have to be constantly nursed. This effect is, interestingly, credited with creating the feeling amongst the general public that life getting continually worse despite the fact that by most objective measures people live longer, healthier, more affluent, better lives than they once did.
2)That what is underestimated in nearly every aspect of technological improvment are the damping effects that come from the environment's response to the new technology.
3) That "intensification" of a technology almost always results in a revenge effect (such as increasing the safety, speed, or size of a thing without thinking about how those factors might change how it is used.)
These themes, however, are anything but explicit in Tenner's book. He mentions them in the first and last chapters, but the rest of the book reads like a recitation of interesting research findings with no particular clear ordering or framework to tie them together. Tenner's bibliography, however, is impressive and contains a very good list of works for readers actually interested in frameworks that explain how technology and culture interact. Why Things Bite Back ultimately never addresses the question posed by the book's title in any satisfying way. Instead it appears that Tenner has consulted with the literature of others who have grappled with this question and merely repeated the interesting evidence used in justifying their theories, but not the theories themselves. Why do these revenge effects matter and why do they happen? Tenner is silent on this matter and offers no good or coherent explanatory framework, which is a shame considering the title suggests one will be offered....more