Books: November 6, 1996

Edward Tenner '65 exposes the unintended consequences of man's technological advances

Why Things Bite Back:
Technology and the Revenge
of Unintended Consequences
Edward Tenner '65
Alfred A. Knopf, $26
For new inventions unintended consequences are the norm, rather than the exception. As the creator of more than 20 patented inventions and the director of the Princeton Entrepreneurial Engineering Program (PEP), I have seen time and again how technology produces a result that wasn't imagined at the outset.
In PEP, engineering students are encouraged to create commercially viable inventions to solve problems that they have recognized from their own experiences. In the process, the student-inventor often discovers broader applications for the invention, beyond the specific purpose first imagined. Two years ago one of my students, Jose E. Feliciano '94, wanted to help poor people with no energy source living in remote villages in his native Puerto Rico. He and another student invented an apparatus that uses fuel made from animal-waste products to create energy which can be used to produce electricity, hot water, and heat. What the students didn't realize until several months into the project was that the same apparatus could be used to run recreational vehicles.
Unintended positive consequences of technology are probably as numerous and deserve equal exposure as negative consequences. But they are less fun to read about than the snafus created by man's meddling with the medical, chemical, biological, and mechanical aspects of our world discussed by Edward Tenner '65 in Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.
A historian of technology and a visiting researcher in the Department of Geosciences, Tenner offers numerous amusing anecdotes of technological revenge. My favorite is one based on a study by Ivan Illich. "In 1974 the typical American spent over 1,600 hours a year for his car," writes Tenner. "This included the time spent behind the wheel, and the hours of work to pay for gasoline, tires, tolls, insurance, fines, taxes, depreciation, repairs, etc. This American traveled about 6,000 miles per year or about four miles per hour of work. This is as fast as a pedestrian and slower than a bicycle." Illich's numbers are shaky, but his conclusion provides food for thought: Cars haven't saved us any time, and instead have slowed us down. Among the other unintended consequences Tenner observes are that safer equipment has led some skiers to increase their speed and take more risks. And the widespread use of antibiotics, he notes, has led to drug-resistant strains of bacteria.
The unintended consequences of technological advances are often not the result of a deviation from the intended purpose of an invention. They can come instead from the hype created by a publicist who hopes to market the invention. An example in Tenner's book is the so called high-tech computer revolution, often trumpeted by those trying to sell some new electronic gadget or computer program. The hyped promise is frequently an increase in productivity. But business managers have found that new technology does little to make an office run more efficiently or help executives make better decisions. An increase of 110 percent per worker in investment in computers and other high-tech electronic devices in the 1980s, notes Tenner, resulted in a 2.5 percent increase in productivity.
Tenner loses his objectivity in some of his explanations of the revenge of technology. In the era when medical practice was primitive, and probably useless, when bleeding, purging, and mercury compounds hastened the deaths of many patients, he writes, legal suits for malpractice were rare. Then, when medical technology began to actually provide cures and extend life, negligence claims for malpractice exploded. Tenner blames this on the failure of physicians to use technology properly. A far more likely explanation is that as medicine developed, the number of lawyers grew. And as numerous studies have shown, litigation increases dramatically with the concentration of lawyers in a population. Japan, which is home to 20,000 lawyers for a population half the size of this country, has a far less litigious society than the U.S., which has about 800,000 lawyers.
Tenner, whom I have known since this book was brewing in his head, appreciates that science and technology leave most of us healthier and better able to live more comfortable, richer lives. But in Why Things Bite Back, he exhorts us to separate the hype from the facts, and he urges us to be vigilant in our use of new technology. Tenner's most significant contribution is in helping diminish America's blind belief in the powers of technology to solve all human problems.
-Enoch J. Durbin
Enoch J. Durbin, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, emeritus, is the creator of the Durbin tennis racket and an invention to enhance the use of natural gas for motor vehicles.


Children of the Ice Age
Steven M. Stanley '63
Harmony Books, $25
How did we get from ape to human? Paleontologist Steven M. Stanley '63 believes the essential episode in the evolution of Homo occurred 3.5 million years ago, when tectonic forces pushed up the Isthmus of Panama, closing off the flow of water from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The resulting change in ocean currents plunged the world into an ice age, which led to a drier climate in East Africa. Forests shrunk, grasslands expanded. This abrupt environmental change led to the extinction of the apelike and partially tree-dwelling Australopithecus. But an isolated population of these creatures adapted-evolving full bipedalism and abandoning the safety of trees for the predator-infested savanna, where survival required a bigger brain and an advanced social structure that included pair-bonding.
In an age of what he calls "arbitrary academic boundaries," Stanley, a paleontologist at Johns Hopkins University whose specialty is bivalves, has ventured into the field of human evolution at his peril. Some of his theory depends on a reclassification of early hominid species, and he's sure to take heat from experts for his insistence on downgrading the famous Lucy from Homo to Australopithecus. His holistic approach draws on findings in geology, climatology, neuroscience, paleobotany, and anthropology, among other disciplines. Although he's not an authority in any of these fields, Stanley seems to have mastered them for his purposes. He forges a grand synthesis, written in a lucid, jargon-free style for a general reader.
In his conclusion, Stanley hazards a glimpse into our evolutionary future. He worries about genetic manipulation and the impact of unchecked population growth on an environment that has nurtured our genus for 2.5 million years. "Let us hope," he writes, "that our great brain can engage in ample self-regulation, reining in some of its potential to transform itself and its habitat when wisdom dictates."
-J.I. Merritt '66


Tell It to the Dead:
Stories of a War (2nd ed.)
Donald Kirk '59
M. E. Sharpe, $55 cloth, $19.95 paper

The Warrior Song of King Gesar
Douglas J. Penick '67
Wisdom Publications, $16.95 paper

Homosexuality in Modern France
Jeffrey Merrick '73 and
Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., eds.
Oxford University Press,
$45 cloth, $17.95 paper

Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry: Ways of Nothingness
John Gery '75
University Press of Florida, $49.95

The Post-Soviet Handbook: A Guide to Grassroots Organizations and Internet Resources in the
Newly Independent States
M. Holt Ruffin *75 et al.
University of Washington Press,
$19.95 paper

Divided Sun: MITI and the Breakdown of Japanese High-Tech Industrial Policy, 1975-1993
Scott Callon '86
Stanford University Press, $29.50

To Boldly Go: A Practical Career Guide for Scientists
Peter S. Fiske '88
American Geophysical Union, $19 paper

Framing Pieces: Designs of the Gloss in Joyce, Woolf, and Pound
John Whittier-Ferguson *90
Oxford University Press, $45