Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences” as Want to Read:
Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  390 ratings  ·  55 reviews
In this perceptive and provocative look at everything from computer software that requires faster processors and more support staff to antibiotics that breed resistant strains of bacteria, Edward Tenner offers a virtual encyclopedia of what he calls "revenge effects"--the unintended consequences of the mechanical, chemical, biological, and medical forms of ingenuity that h ...more
Paperback, 448 pages
Published September 2nd 1997 by Vintage (first published 1996)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Why Things Bite Back, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Why Things Bite Back

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.54  · 
Rating details
 ·  390 ratings  ·  55 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences
Jun 04, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: technology
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 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 manage ...more
Leo Walsh
May 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
You know the old saw. "The best laid plans of mice and man soon fall asunder.""Why Things Bite Back" a real fun exposition of clever humans doing clever things which backfire. Tenner discusses subjects near and dear to my heart -- like how computers, created to simplify rote secretarial work and thus save organizations money by eliminating support staff, but instead leads to the need to hire higher-priced IT talent. And he also discusses things I've learned about in different contexts, like the ...more
Sep 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
This is a book about the "revenge effects" of technology. In technology there are trade-offs (gain a certain benefit at the cost of something else) and side-effects (a trade-off that has impacts other than what was intended). Revenge effects are when you try to solve a problem using a technology and that technology ends up just making the problem even worse. Some examples: antibiotics fight diseases while simultaneously strengthening the microbes that cause disease. Titanic, the ship that was so ...more
Dennis Littrell
Aug 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
A reminder that life is always two steps forward and one step back

In medicine we conquered (to some extent) the catastrophic only to succumb to the chronic. This is an example of what Tenner means by things biting back. My house has very good water pressure. I can put a lot of water on the lawn in a hurry. Unfortunately, the pressure is so great that the water hose cannot be set down on the lawn with the water on since it will jump and squirm and shoot about until something anchors it. The other
Jul 25, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: readyourown
This was a really intriguing read, regardless of how dated it can feel since it talks about technology as it was in the late 90s...and a lot has happened since then! Despite this, the concept of "revenge effects" is a helpful schema, especially when contrasting its definition with side effects, rearranging effects, repeating effects, recomplicating effects, regenerating effects, and recongesting effects. He goes on to describe examples of all of these in a wide range of fields - medicine, the en ...more
Pietro Condello
Nov 01, 2019 rated it liked it
The concept of unintended consequences is fascinating because it affects so much of modern life: natural resources, technology, politics, healthcare. Revenge effects are ideas or technologies that are devised to solve a particular problem, but end up either making it worse, or create additional problems in their wake.

Although Tenner's concepts on technology are a bit dated given he wrote the book in 1996, the rest is still quite relevant.

Sudden, acute catastrophic hazards that were once discrete
Bryan Whitehead
Apr 27, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 1998
Really this book should have been called “How Things Bite Back,” inasmuch as it was really long on the history and awfully short on the explanation. I’m also not sure I follow some of Tenner’s definition of “revenge effect.” For example, I can understand how over-medication’s production of super-germs could be considered a revenge effect of technology, but I’m not quite so clear on how “revenge” comes into play when the cures for diseases that commonly kill young people increase the incidence of ...more
Aug 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
This was more of a descriptive catalog and less prescriptive than I’d hoped. I was already painfully aware of the problems, and was hoping for approaches to avoid and mitigate the hurt that I am bound to inflict in my life as an engineer.
Rebekah Theilen
Mar 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
This ended up being more of a skimmer for me. There was nothing wrong with the book, but after awhile I began to lose interest in all the different ways he was saying “Technology has done some amazing things for us, but it also comes with consequences”.
Tenner's _Why Tings Bite Back_ is now a quarter century old. While many books that address present concerns in technology age quickly, becoming quaintly outdated, his consideration of technology revenge effects remains fresh and compelling. ...more
Peter Tillman
Jul 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Recommended to Peter by: David Pogue
Started well, then got political. I quit then. DNF.
Janice Sheufelt
Nov 08, 2017 rated it liked it
20 years old, but probably even more relevant than ever. As in a more recent book, Pandora's Lab, all "progress" and technological advancement has a cost. ...more
Darryl Updegrove
Dec 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: engineering
some parts better than others.
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
great abook about the unintendedd consequnces of technology. Read before 2000
Typo, page 231: “Questions that begin with seatpans and backrests, forward and backward tilts, micro-switch clicks and wrist supports turn out to be have answers that are psychological, organizational, and even political.”
Dec 26, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: engineering
This is a study of technology gone bad - a pastiche of Robert Sheckley's "Watchbird", Murphy's Law and those ancient Greek stories about gods punishing mortals for their hubris. Better emergency medicine in the second half of the 20th century meant that wounded soldiers or civilian accident victims, who would have died before, now survive for decades permanently disabled, physically or mentally, and require either paid caretakers or family members to care for them. Antibiotics cause antibiotic-r ...more
Quality of the writing: 4
Quality of the content/organisation/research: 4
Impact on my perspective: 2
Personal resonance: 4
Rereading potential: 3
Overall score: 3.5

The reason I read it: Researching technology, also wanted some new input on unintended consequences.

This book, written in the late 1990s, is a compendium of what the author calls 'revenge effects' - instances of technology which turns against its users, producing negative consequences that can override its benefits. The more we try
Sep 06, 2007 rated it really liked it
This book challenges its readers to rethink the assumptions we place in our technological world. There are many examples given in the book, but there is one I thought that was quite interesting. There has been a study done with physicians and level of patient care. There are initiatives coming from both government and private sectors to create much documentation concerning patient information. The assumption is that the providers can give better diagnosis and create less errors with more informa ...more
Nov 06, 2015 rated it liked it
Interesting. Tenner's thesis is that "revenge effects" often (if not always) accompany innovation: no matter what it is, any new way of doing things will have not only unintended consequences but often ones that specifically counter the very achievement being aimed for--e.g. the so-called "paperless office" actually leading to more paper use, or better antibiotics leading to more virulent bugs--are the revenge effects. The book is formidably researched. Tenner covers a lot of ground, from things ...more
Dec 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
Though I expected this book would take a deterministic stance (based on how it is marketed? when it was written? I'm frankly not sure), I was pleasantly surprised by how Tenner's account instead provides a lucid historical trajectory of the many technological changes that characterize the 20th century. He aims to demonstrate that such change -- though often understood as a type of teleological progress -- is often, equally, negative. Coining the term revenge effects, Tenner describes the uninten ...more
Continuing with my interest in human factors and technology, I checked this out from the library.

Tenner discusses the "revenge effect" - where improvements in technology cause related problems - such as building seawalls to protect beachfront property causing the property on the edges of the seawall to erode even more quickly. He looks at these effects in terms of medicine (antibiotic resistant bacteria), the environment (kudzu and killer bees), the computerization of the workplace (carpal tunn
Apr 23, 2008 is currently reading it
the story so far...

i'm enjoying this book a great deal. the 'history of science-and-technology'-thing is sooo my schtick. i've owned this book for a number of years; high time i got around to reading it.

the book itself is a bit other-than-expected, in that it does read like a bit like an academic monograph. it is more readable than the average one of those, though. so far it appears to center on an author-generated construct. but it's an interesting construct that is anchored in reality; and i a
Jun 08, 2009 rated it it was ok
This is a book that must be read to the end. The beginning and most of the book goes to excruciating detail about various things and convinces one of revenge and other effects. But only in the quite last chapter where conclusions are drawn do we get a peek at possible solutions. The details are sometimes quite surprising and even entertaining. How can a well-intentioned action turn into a truly bad result and how can it happen all the time all over the world? These are questions the book shows a ...more
Oct 27, 2016 rated it liked it
Why Things Bite Back is about the revenge effects of technology. When you try to improve life with technology, there are certain trade offs. For example, although antibiotics have reduced deaths caused by common bacteria, it has actually created many superbugs that have become immune to them. Antibiotics have inadvertently made bacteria more deadly to all humans.

However, Tenner's book lacks organization. He goes from one topic area such as pests to another such as sports, pointing out all the in
Sep 16, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People who feel like their computer hates them.
Why Things Bite Back really is a study of "unintended consequences". Tenner illustrates how modern inventions and human achievements have had negative, unforeseen side-effects that often take on a hefty dose of irony in their context. Anti-biotics, for example, that result in new generations of anti-biotic resistant bacteria. I'm pretty sure Stephen King already turned this concept into a horror novel, yet as is often the case, reality is a little scarier. Good luck if you're reading this on an ...more
ReImagine Science
Apr 28, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Science and technological endeavors are the source of many improvements to human survival and ability - yet the risk of unintended consequences will always be present (think of asbestos, or thalidomide). Avoiding unpredictable and dangerous consequences is not likely unless we all become Luddites. Quick response, transparent communication, and the fast development of effective remediation is the key - all of which are facilitated by collaboration, removal of barriers to communication, and a sens ...more
Mark Terry
May 16, 2011 rated it liked it
Details the "revenge effect" of many technologies in which the effect is opposite that intended. For instance, light cigarettes intend to reduce risk, but increase risk because the tendency is to smoke more of them to get the same nicotine - producing more exposure to other hazardous chemicals. There were many good examples of unintended consequences. Ultimately though, I found it a good thesis in which there were many examples that were stretched to fit. ...more
Jun 01, 2012 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Young scientists
This book is written by someone who fears technology. As a tech-loving scientist this book made me angry BUT I must say that despite the unfairly biased descriptions of tragedy and failures I did leave this book sobered by the impact one can have from a few oversights. The cheapshots in this book were just that cheap but the shots themselves hit home. A boring and grueling read that is a must for budding scientists.
Jun 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
- from the jacket: "From football padding that actually makes football more 'low tar' cigarettes that compel smokers to smoke more, from antibiotics that breed new, resistant strains of bacteria..." "If computers really eliminate paperwork, why is the office recycling bin always overflowing?"
- from the New York Times: "A layman's compendium of the perverse consequences of technology...lively, and provocative reading."
Dec 11, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science-writing
This book starts with an interesting idea and then proceeds to dig its own grave with way too much research (stained glass and zebra mussels were never more obtusely rendered) and long winded, dull prose. Tenner has his heart in the right place, but god only knows where his writing is at. Other people have articulated these ideas in far more intelligible and interesting ways. Best avoided.
« previous 1 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia
  • The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850
  • The Lewis Man (The Lewis Trilogy, #2)
  • The Chessmen (Lewis Trilogy, #3)
  • To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
  • The Anatomy of Fascism
  • A Man Without a Country
  • The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth
  • A Gentleman's Murder
  • Slow Horses (Slough House, #1)
  • The White Rock
  • Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America
  • Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life
  • The Existential Pleasures of Engineering
  • The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts-From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers-Came to be as They are.
  • Interference
  • Exhibitionism for the Shy
See similar books…
Edward Tenner is the author of Our Own Devices and Why Things Bite Back, former college teacher and executive editor in book publishing, now an independent writer and speaker on technology and society and contributor to major newspapers, magazines, and web sites.

Related Articles

For more than a decade, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the world-renowned astrophysicist and host of the popular radio and Emmy-nominated...
86 likes · 17 comments
“...not that any futurist has ever lost business because of a wrong prediction.” 1 likes
“Dr. Frank Daschner once infuriated his colleagues by declaring: "You can sit on any toilet seat without the least risk, but don't, whatever you do, shake hands with your doctor” 0 likes
More quotes…