Tenner, Edward. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. New York: Knopf, 1996.

"Use of paper has continued to soar. It is as though paper is taking its revenge on futurists—not that any futurist has ever lost business because of a wrong prediction. And I wrote an essay titled 'The Paradoxical Proliferation of Paper'46 that in turn made me look at the strange consequences of nearly everything, results that seemed to contradict every reasonable scenario. Paper seemed to have an existence of its own that defied the human will to control it. Things seemed to be fighting back."

Tenner warns us that it is often difficult to predict the effects of introducing new technologies (or existing technologies into new situations). He says that his book is for "people stumbling through a Rube Goldberg world and trying to make sense of it." Tenner points out a number of historical and contemporary examples of unintended consequences. Most fall into what he calls a "revenge effect," which is when technology has the exact opposite effect of the purpose for which it was introduced. Though most of his examples are negative, Tenner points out that it is also possible to have "reverse revenge effects: unexpected benefits of technology adopted for another reason."


An important lesson is that the world into which we introduce technologies is extremely complicated and interdependent. We can make an educated guess about the long-term effects of a given design decision, but we are quite likely to be surprised by the actual results. Information and communication technologies provide many advantages, but they also introduce risks, which are often hidden from our immediate view. Our reliance on complex, interdependent systems often carries with it the "burden of attention." We must be constantly on the lookout for breakdowns in the systems.

When investing in ICTs, it is important to be aware of such tradeoffs. Moving a paper-based work process to computers can increase efficiency and minimize many types of errors, for example, but introduces the need for ongoing training, technical support, system maintenance, security, data backups, and periodic hardware and software upgrades. If the original intent was to perform a given activity more cheaply or easily, all of these new burdens on an organization can constitute a revenge effect. As Tenner points out, human reactions to a new technology are also an important contributor to unexpected effects. Introducing a new communication system into a rural community, for example, could actually reduce socially valuable dialog, if it displaces some existing system and members of the community resist its adoption for cultural reasons. There is no absolute cure for unexpected consequences, but many approaches described in other readings in this bibliography can help: critical analysis of goals and risks, user-centered design, early prototyping and iteration, maintaining realistic expectations, adoption of open systems and building slack into systems to avoid brittle design.

  1. Tenner, 1989.

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