Skip to main content



Summer 1997 | Volume 13 |  Issue 1

When Readers Bite Back

HAVING RECENTLY READ WHY THINGS Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences , and having assigned the book in my undergraduate course “Society and Technology,” I was delighted to see an interview with its author, Edward Tenner, in the Spring 1997 issue of American Heritage of Invention & Technology . Because the book leaves the reader with some key ambiguities, I looked to the interview for clarification. I am afraid the interview only reinforced these ambiguities.

Despite the claim in the book and the interview that it’s important to recognize when unanticipated consequences of knowledge are beneficial or otherwise positive, Tenner’s argument suffers from a lopsided asymmetry. His apparent zeal to reaffirm his clever terminology (biting back and revenge effects) not only gives short shrift to unanticipated “feasting back” and “serendipitous effects” but forces him into an awkward logic. Unanticipated technological positives become in Tenner’s terminology “reverse revenge” effects, a phrase whose meaning and logic are challenging.

This is not simply a carp about terminology. Rather, it leads to deeper issues that mar a book with an idea of tremendous potential. The fact of the matter is that we are equally ill equipped to predict positive or negative unintended consequences. As a result, to know “why things bite back,” the claim of the book’s title, we need to understand not only bad bites but good ones too. Furthermore, the idea of unanticipated consequences itself was anticipated by a parade of historical giants, including Sir Francis Bacon, Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and was developed by such diverse modern scholars as Robert K. Merton, Peter Medawar, and Jacques Ellul. Indeed, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations , the first explicit formulation of our capitalistic system, explains the emergence of society’s welfare as the outcome, via the invisible hand of the market, of the unintended consequences of the myriad economic actions of members of society. In the modern era the idea was codified by the sociologist Robert K. Merton, who extende’d it with his perceptive notion of the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In neither his book nor the interview does Tenner seem fully mindful of the importance of understanding positive surprises as a part of our overall feebleness at making precise predictions about technology. Nor does he seem mindful of our forebears who contributed to the development of the powerful idea of unintended consequences.

Eugene A. Rosa
Edward R. Meyer Distinguished
Professor of Natural Resource and
Environmental Policy
Washington State University
Pullman, Wash.

Edward Tenner replies: Professor Rosa’s points are important, and I appreciate the chance to comment. My book does emphasize the negative, or at least the disconcerting. Why not more attention to the unintended positive? It was partly the need to keep the book to manageable length, partly the existence of a successful television series and book, James Burke’s Connections , that deals with strange but positive linkages.

I am gathering material for an eventual sequel that will include much more of the positive unintended side of technology—for example, the story of how Weimar decadence in the form of goldtipped cigarettes (and the need to bind the gold particles more firmly to the paper) led to magnetic tape recording technologies. Then there are the contributions of nuclear weapons engineering to the development of automotive air bags. But these are a different kind of unintended effect. They reflect the ability of human creativity to respond to the unexpected, not the limits of human imagination in modeling the interaction of technical, biological, and social systems.

As for social unintended consequences, I originally thought of writing a whole book on them alone. But it began to look like a book about everything. Conservatives say that welfare programs perpetuate poverty, and their opponents charge that their market economics promote monopoly. I would be refereeing dozens of debates and no doubt be unpopular with both sides. There are a number of excellent books by social scientists. And then there are all the theologians’ reflections on the place of evil in God’s plan.

Why Things Bite Back is a broad but necessarily incomplete look at what I think is a neglected set of questions. I’ve only begun the really hard part, which is responding to the challenges that revenge effects raise. Reviews by engineers and computer professionals have been encouraging, as indeed Professor Rosa’s letter is. I agree that there is a lot more to be done.

Daddy’s Dome

YOUR FASCINATING ARTICLE ON THE 1901 West Baden Springs dome (“A Hidden Wonder of the World,” by Ronald Buckler, Spring 1997) gave due credit to the Houston Astrodome, of 1965, but missed five significant domes that preceded Houston’s.

My father, Dr. Gustel R. Kiewitt, emigrated from Germany and in 1928, when he was twenty-six, designed the St. Louis Arena (which opened in 1934). It has a clear span of 242 feet, with cantilevered steel trusses carrying a timber lamella structure of 165-foot span. In contrast with the 1901 Indiana structure’s radial trusses, a lamella is a highly efficient indeterminate shell arch, with a characteristic diamond pattern. Half-domes were used at the ends of the arena with a lamella barrel vault in between, to give a building length of 440 feet. It served St. Louis well, mainly for hockey, until two years ago. It now stands unused.

During the 1950s my father developed the lamella dome in steel and designed the roof structures for field houses and coliseums at San Angelo, Green Bay, Wichita, and Memphis. His last work was the Astrodome, with its span of 642 feet, and after his death his firm did the New Orleans Superdome, which is structurally identical to Houston but 30 feet larger in span. All these remarkable structures are serving their communities well.

Cathryn Kiewitt Mollman
St. Louis, Mo.

Hedy And Who?

“ADVANCED WEAPONRY OF THE STARS” (Spring 1997) carries a photograph on page 16 showing Hedy Lamarr, George Antheil, Mrs. Antheil, and two “people [who] apparently slipped into the picture to be with celebrities.” In fact the unidentified man is the Austrian-born movie actor Carl Esmond. The woman bears such a resemblance to Esmond that she might be his sister or mother.

Doris McClure Humphrey
Rockville, Md.

Keeps On Ticking

KIRK JEFFREY WROTE AN EXCELLENT AR ticle on pacemakers (“Many Paths to the Pacemaker”) in the Spring issue. What was missing was a discussion of the battery problem.

As long-term pacing became practical, battery replacement came to necessitate not infrequent operative procedures. I served (with Wilson Greatbatch) on a government committee that was asked to consider the advisability of using plutonium 238 in a power source. This is not the isotope of plutonium employed in reactors and nuclear weapons; apart from rare spontaneous fissions, virtually all the energy is emitted as alpha radiation, for which complete shielding is a simple matter.

Calculations showed that the fission neutrons would transmit reasonably small radiation doses to the wearers of these devices and to people near them. There was concern, though, that a battery might be breached, causing dispersal of plutonium into the environment. Extreme scenarios, including being shot and being run over by railroad wheels, were considered. It was finally decided that the power source was rugged enough, and approval of the pacemakers was recommended.

Some of them were in fact implanted. They were quite expensive, but unlike many mercury cells, these batteries were sure to outlive the patients who wore them (the plutonium had a halflife of more than eighty-five years). Quite soon, however, lithium batteries with much longer lives than other chemical cells became available. They became the principal power source for pacemakers.

Harald H. Rossi
Upper Nyack, N. Y.

A Little Dab Would Do Ya

WHILE ENJOYING YOUR EXCELLENT AR ticle “Postfix: How Cars Got Colors” (by Michael Lamm, Spring 1997), I kept remembering DAB. In the late forties I painted my 1930 Ford with DAB. It was advertised as permitting the common man to paint his car with a brush, or even a rag, and have the paint job come out looking as if the paint had been sprayed on. For once the promotion of a product lived up to its billing. The result was beautiful, with no brushstrokes showing. I have never been able to find out what happened to the product. I wonder if any of your readers can tell me.

Gordy Melvey
Sequim, Wash.

The Beach Subway On The Big Screen

THE Ghostbusters movies, while not cleaving to absolute factuality throughout, are nonetheless scrupulous about the city in which they are set—which is, of course, New York—and when the Winter 1997 issue featured the story of Alfred Ely Beach building his pneumatic subway in 1870, several readers called our attention to the fact that Beach’s aborted transit system made a cameo appearance in Ghostbusters II . Here, as the streets above seethe with paranormal eruptions, Dan Aykroyd is lowered into a wholly accurate reconstruction of the waiting room of the long-abandoned subway to investigate the hellish ectoplasm that is flowing through Beach’s brick-lined tunnel.

—The Editors

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.


Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.