When Technology Takes Revenge - Deepstash
When Technology Takes Revenge

When Technology Takes Revenge

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When technology bites back

In many ways, technology improves and enriches our lives. Yet, there is a sense that we have lost control of our technology in some ways and end up victims of its unintended consequences.

Author Edward Tenner coined the term "revenge effects" to describe how technologies can solve one problem while creating other worse problems, new types of issues, or shifting the harm elsewhere. In other words, technology bites back.


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Considering the bigger system when introducing new technology

When we introduce a new piece of technology, it is wise to consider if we are interfering with a bigger system. If we do, we should reflect on it's wider consequences.

But, if the factors involved get complex enough, we cannot anticipate them with accuracy. Understanding revenge effects is mostly a reminder of the value of caution and not of specific risks.


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Types of revenge effects

  • Repeating effects: This occurs when more efficient processes end up making us do the same things more often. Better appliances have led to higher standards of cleanliness, tempting people to spend the same amount of time on housework.
  • Recomplicating effects: As technology improve, the processes become more complex. A lighting system that needs to be operated through an app, making it difficult for a visitor just to flip a switch.
  • Regenerating effects: Attempts to solve a problem end up creating additional risks. Pesticides can create superbugs that are resistant to harm.
  • Rearranging effects: When costs are transferred elsewhere, so risks shift and worsen. Vacuum cleaners can blow dust mite pellets into the air, making it easier to breathe in.


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Recognizing the unintended consequences of technology

The more we try to control our tools, the more they can make it worse.

  • Before the Industrial Revolution, technology was a tool that served as an extension of the user. In a complex system, the machine is more than a device. It needs parts that interact in unexpected and unwanted ways. For example, the fear of a plane crash prompts the creation of greater safety standards.
  • Many revenge effects are the result of attempts to improve safety. To control the acute, it indirectly promotes chronic problems. The removal of asbestos reduced fire safety but moving the material is more harmful than leaving it.


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Technology: Not all effects exact revenge

  • A revenge effect is not a side effect. It is a revenge effect if it reverses the benefit for at least a small subset of users. Typing on a laptop has increased carpal tunnel syndrome, while the physical effort using a typewriter protected workers from some of the harmful effects.
  • The revenge effect is also not a tradeoff - exchanging a benefit for another.


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Expecting revenge effects

  • We can expect revenge effects, even if they cannot be predicted.
  • In chains of cause and effect within complex systems, the real benefits are not the ones we expected, and the real threats of not those we feared.
  • We should be careful about becoming overconfident about our ability to see the future. The revenge effect may depend on knowledge we don't yet have.
  • Before we intervene in a system, assuming it can only improve things, we should be aware that our actions can make it worse or do nothing at all.


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