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

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  337 Ratings  ·  46 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)
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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
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
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
great abook about the unintendedd consequnces of technology. Read before 2000
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.
Darryl Updegrove
Dec 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: engineering
some parts better than others.
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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."
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.
Jan 14, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: technology
While the book is a little dated, its basic premise is still valid. Technology tends to replace acute life-threatening problems with slower-acting and more persistent problems. He used examples from medicine, the environment, computerized offices, and sports. The writing could have been better but the topic was interesting.
Ricky Catto
May 30, 2015 rated it did not like it
Shelves: audiobooks
warning: Don't invite the author of this book to your dinner party. What a downer. I understand the book is about how we mess things up while were trying to do other things but I mean, we do manage to do other things. We haven't come here just to ruin everything. Not that interesting. Wouldn't recommend.
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.
May 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: four-star, nonfiction
Interesting read especially given its age (1997). I'd like to read the meta-book almost implied by this book which would talk about types of risks and instances of each type. The general science and sport read like it was current, but the software/hardware stuff was laughable. 4 of 5.
Jun 27, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Interessante Studie zu den oft unbeachteten negativen Folgen der Einführung neuer Technologien. Beispiele: Was ist aus dem vorausgekündigten papierlosen Büro und dem Freizeitgesellschaft geworden?

Das Buch ist leider schon etwas veraltet, dennoch immer noch das Lesen Wert.
Andy Tischaefer
Mar 28, 2012 rated it it was ok
I didn't read past 200 pages but trust me, I'm finished. They really need an "I quit" option.

Factually interesting, but so, so boring in its presentation. No desire to finish it, though I will keep it on the shelf.
Oct 17, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014
Interesting look at the unanticipated consequences of dramatic change over time. A little slow at the beginning, but it gains momentum. More back injuries after the elimination of much back-breaking work.
Margaret Sankey
Apr 26, 2014 rated it liked it
This is less a study of why and more a catalog of when things have had unintended consequences, from travel and the spread of disease, to the presence of smoke alarms making people more careless about fires.
May 02, 2008 rated it it was ok
Revenge effects that I never even thought of are discussed in excruciating (but somehow not boring) detail ... but few, if any, solutions are offered. As such, I found this book unsatisfying.

The main thing I took away from this is a depressing sense that EVERYTHING has revenge effects.
Sep 04, 2010 rated it liked it
Dated and dry. Still, some interesting
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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.
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“...not that any futurist has ever lost business because of a wrong prediction.” 0 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
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