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Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Vintage) [Paperback]

Edward Tenner
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Oct 1997 Vintage
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 have been hallmarks of the progressive, improvement-obsessed modern age. Tenner shows why our confidence in technological solutions may be misplaced, and explores ways in which we can better survive in a world where despite technology's advances--and often because of them--"reality is always gaining on us."  For anyone hoping to understand the ways in which society and technology interact, Why Things Bite Back is indispensable reading.  "A bracing critique of technological determinism in both its utopian and dystopian forms...No one who wants to think clearly about our high-tech future can afford to ignore this book."--Jackson Lears, Wilson Quarterly

Product details

  • Paperback: 429 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; Vintage Paperback edition (1 Oct 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679747567
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679747567
  • Product Dimensions: 2.4 x 13 x 20 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 927,866 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

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Product Description


‘A joyous celebration of the ways in which the world is a more complex place that we realise’
The Financial Times

‘By rights it should become a classic text about problem-solving’
Irish Times

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Edward Tenner was executive editor for science at Princeton University Press. He has taught at Princeton and conducted research at the Institute for Advanced Studies. He is the author of Tech-Speak, a send-up of techno-babble.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
One of industrial and postindustrial humanity's parennial nightmares is the machine that passes from stubbornness to rebellion. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Technology is not your friend 28 Jun 1997
By A Customer
Why is it that any step forward seems to be followed by three steps back ?
This guy knows, he also knows why:

* Bigger roads lead to more traffic jams

* New "cheaper" technique for gallbladder operations actually increased
the expenditures (more operations performed).

* Introduction of PC's in the office did not actually lead to an overall
productivity increase.

* Mandatory use of gloves in professional boxing actually multiplied
cumulative, chronic damage.

Covering a broad variety of subjects like antibiotics, killer bees, DDT,
computers and zebra mussels.

Exceptionally well researched, did you know for example that good old Murphy
was a captain at Edwards Air Force Base ? or that during the American War of
Independence, 75% of American troops treated in hospitals did not survive
(disease, often not related to wounds caused nine out of ten casualties) ?

In his mission, the author occasionally (well, no make that often) loses the
concept of common sense: any flaw in any invention or technological advance
is made to be bigger than life. Something along the line of: since
airconditioning equipment raises the temperature outside, the net effect is
zero, duh.

If more thinkers like this man would be around, we certainly wouldn't use
cars, hospitals or pain killers and certainly would not want kids.

Notwithstanding the pessimistic tone, this definitely gives you something to
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By A Customer
I can't recall reading another book on technology that was as well-balanced as this is. For this reason alone, Why Things Bite Back is good reading.
But Tenner achieves much more than balance. He identifies useful categories, like revenge effects and reverse revenge effects. Within the former, Tenner identifies repeating effects (e.g., doing the same thing more often rather than gaining free time, as happened with time-saving devices like home clothes washers and dryers when we quit taking as many clothes to the laundry), recomplicating effects (e.g., being expected to remember more numbers as we go from rotary to push button telephone "dialing"), regenerating effects (e.g., Patriot missles breaking up Scuds into multiple, smaller projectiles), and recongesting effects (e.g., the transformation of apparently limitless electromagnetic bandwidth to congested, largely filled bandwidth).
Whew! When reading this, I wondered how Tenner would later use these categories, which he introduced at the beginning of the book. Well, he does return to them and, in doing so, seems to be taking a first pass at crafting a useful nomenclature.
My main problem with the book is that Tenner presses some of the arguments too hard, such as the perceived link between defeating TB and facilitating AIDS. I was disappointed to see this argument pop up again 260 pages after its first mention--this time in the book's conclusion.
Tenner concludes that we can best manage revenge effects by retreating from intensity through three means: diversification, dematerialization, and finesse. Tenner provides numerous examples of each strategy, such as fostering diversity in plant species, substituting brains for stuff, and allowing a fever to play its role in fighting infection.
Read more ›
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but terminally repetitave. 26 Mar 1998
By A Customer
This is a whole book built around a single premise, that once the simple problems have been solved the problems that remain are more difficult. This point is mode over and over again using medical, ecological, technical and social examples. In fact there are so many examples that after a while they all seem to merge into each other. You can only hammer a nail in so far, Mr Tenner.
Personally I would have liked to have seen slightly fewer examples examined in more depth but you cartainly can't complain about the choice.
Another problem with the book is that it is written with 20-20 hindsight. So many times whilst reading it I was tempted to say, "Well OK, given the limitations of knowledge and funds available to the protagonists in the examples, what would you have done instead?"
Despite all the examples the book is a little short on alternatives and solutions and that, perhaps, is its main failing. Nevertheless, it is still a good book and one I would be happy to recommend.
(c) Vince O'Sullivan.
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By A Customer
Edward Tenner, author of Why things bite back: Technology
and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, weaves an
interesting set of stories involving technology to show
that because of its unintended consequences technology
can "bite back." The subjects Tenner covers are based
upon topics in medicine, the environment, animal and
vegetable pests, the computerization of the workplace
and the area of sports. Tenner uses these areas to point
out that technology in many cases has led to unintended
consequences. I think that Edward Tenner has the ability
to make strong connections in his examples. His topics,
that range from medicine to sports, are not meant to
frighten the average reader with jargon from those fields.
His ability to capture my attention early and his ease
of reading, I believe, makes this the perfect gift for
this season.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Good anecdotes
I got to understand revenge effects and can see them everywhere now, slightly out of date and wrong in a few predidctions but extrememly enlightnening
Published 17 months ago by symon paul
4.0 out of 5 stars Examples of The Law of Unintended Consequences
Tenner's book is a short history of things going wrong -- from the introduction of carp and mollusks into the American great lakes to industrial accidents. Read more
Published on 29 Sep 1998
1.0 out of 5 stars Not 'Why Things Bite Back' but "How things Bite Back'
This is an interesting catalog of the how of technological unintended consequences but is lacking in the why. Read more
Published on 4 Aug 1998
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly iconoclastic in the the age of progress...
The author simply points out that progress is fraught with irony; however, mass consumer capitalism requires an uninformed, compulsive, infantile consumer and planned obsolescent... Read more
Published on 21 July 1997
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read for cynics
After reading this book, it's hard not to see unintended consequences everywhere. A great insight into the fallability of man, and the need for an in-depth understanding of... Read more
Published on 21 Jan 1997
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book, but it fell short of the goal
While Tenner presents a large number of cases that fall under the umbrella of his subject, he does not spend enough time examining lessons; what, beyond the obvious, was learned... Read more
Published on 4 Nov 1996
3.0 out of 5 stars Sheesh! Of course the world is screwed up, but...
Why not ignore the parts of the world that you dislike and enjoy the parts that are
agreeable? There are enough people who complain, dare to be different. Read more
Published on 15 Aug 1996
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