Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences

Front Cover
Knopf, Jan 1, 1996 - Social Science - 346 pages
1 Review
Technology has made us healthier and wealthier, but we aren't necessarily happier in our zealously engineered surroundings. Edward Tenner is a connoisseur of what he calls "revenge effects" - the unintended, ironic consequences of the mechanical, chemical, biological, and medical forms of ingenuity that have been hallmarks of the progressive, improvement-obsessed twentieth century. In seeking out these revenge effects, he ranges far and wide in our cultural landscape to discover an insistent pattern of paradox that implicates everything from black lung to bluebirds, wooden tennis rackets to Windows 95. His insatiable curiosity embraces technology in all its guises: televised competitive skiing, which is much less exciting now that state-of-the-art cameras have eliminated the blur and lost motion of older broadcasts; low-tar cigarettes, which may encourage smokers to defer quitting altogether; justified margins, which became de rigueur just as psychologists and typographers were realizing that uneven right-hand edges are both more legible and more attractive; the meltdown at Chernobyl, which occurred during a test of enhanced safety procedures; and much, much more. While Tenner is fascinated by these phenomena in their own right, Why Things Bite Back is not merely a compendium of technological perversities. There is a historical and, indeed, ethical agenda behind his "new look at the obvious." After all, Murphy's Law as originally uttered by a frustrated military engineer was meant not as a fatalistic, defeatist principle but as a call for alertness and adaptation. Tenner heartily concurs. Things do go wrong, with a vengeance, and assigning cause can be as tricky as unscrambling an egg.Reducing revenge effects demands substituting brains for stuff - deintensifying our quest for more, better, faster, in favor of finesse. And in Tenner's estimation, humanity is perfectly capable of this adjustment.

From inside the book

What people are saying - Write a review

Why things bite back: technology and the revenge of unintended consequences

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

Believers in Murphy's Law-"if something can go wrong, it will"-might think this book proves it. Historian of science Tenner, who holds a visiting research appointment at Princeton University's ... Read full review

Review: Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences

User Review  - Mysteryfan - Goodreads

While the book is a little dated, its basic premise is still valid. Technology tends to replace acute life-threatening problems with slower-acting and more persistent problems. He used examples from ... Read full review


ONE Ever Since Frankenstein
Conquest of the Catastrophic
Revenge of the Chronic

8 other sections not shown

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

About the author (1996)

Edward Tenner, former executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press, holds a visiting research appointment in the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton University. He received the A.B. from Princeton and the Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and has held visiting research positions at Rutgers University and the Institute for Advanced Study. In 1991-92 he was a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow and in 1995-96 is a Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Bibliographic information