Technological Nightmares (Lecture): Suffering from Success

Series: Pardee Center Distinguished Lecture Series
Date: October 2003
Location: Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University, Boston, MA

Suffering from Success

The unpredictability of the consequences of our invention can lead to what may be called suffering from success or second-generation problems. These are often wrongly attributed to faulty design or vested interests. But many difficulties are the result of the successful solution of previous problems. Scientific confidence asserts that there is a solution to every problem. Experience teaches us that there is a problem to every solution, and often more than one. Let me give a few examples.

The early emphasis on industrialization in the developing countries showed up agriculture as the slow coach. It was the unexpected success of urban industrial growth that drew the policy-makers’ attention to the rural sector. The Green Revolution, in turn, spawned new difficulties relating to plant diseases, inequality, unemployment, and other second-generation problems. The reduction in mortality rates through cheap and efficient methods of modern death control, itself a welcome phenomenon, without correspondingly cheap and effective methods of birth control, produced the problems arising from rapid population growth. We witnessed modern death rates, while still being stuck with traditional birth rates. When family planning became successful, it produced the problems of aging societies: the social and psychological problems of a world in which for many people their only kinsmen and kinswomen would be their ancestors. It would be a world with more lonely people, without siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, children, or grandchildren. Unemployment is partly the result of high productivity growth. Jobless growth (or jobless recovery) is surely to be welcomed, but only if it is combined with more leisure and an equal distribution of job opportunities.

Education raises the aspirations of the educated and leads to movement to the cities. If there are not enough jobs there, we get educated unemployment. Higher education contributes to the brain drain, to the emigration of skilled and professional manpower. Successful urban development has shown up the need to accelerate rural development. Successful outward-looking trade policies were built on the infrastructure and the industrial and technological base of previously inward-looking policies.

Edward Tenner has written about the revenge effects of technology. In his 1996 book Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, he lists repeating, recomplicating, recongesting, regenerating, and rearranging. Repeating means that when the task is easier, it is demanded more often. Spreadsheets would be an example. Recomplicating occurs when we need a telephone number, an access code, a credit card number, plus voice mail to make a call. Recongesting occurs when an invention like the motorcar, intended to get us more quickly from here to there, slows us down. Ivan Illich estimated that the average American spends 1,600 hours driving or working to support transport costs to cover a year total of 6,000 miles, at 4 miles per hour. This is as fast as pedestrians and slower than bicycles. Regenerating occurs when pest control regenerates pests. Heptachlor and Mirex killed predators of fire ants. DDT devastated wasps, the predators of Malaysian caterpillars, which caused devastation. Rearranging I can illustrate from a personal experience. Once I traveled from Massachusetts to North Carolina by rail in the middle of a summer heat wave. The air-conditioning in the train broke down. The windows, secured in order to make the air-conditioning effective, could not be opened and people started to faint.

Disaster control encourages people to occupy unsafe areas. Medicine has helped to cure acute illnesses and injury, but chronic diseases are more common as a result; miracle crops and new animals let loose in strange habitats have run wild; forest fires have been reduced, but the unburned growth that collects makes fires worse when they do occur. Suppressing forest fires builds up combustible materials for larger conflagrations. Safer cars and sports equipment make people more reckless. The invention of a safer football helmet actually led to more injuries because the new helmets increased the game’s aggressive possibilities. The telegraph, it was believed, would create stronger communal bonds; instead, it permitted greater dispersion. The airplane, it was guessed, would make the world smaller, leading to a new era of peace: instead, it became an instrument of war. “The railway was predicted to spark the dictatorship of the proletariat, the telegraph to engender world peace and the television to revolutionize education,” writes Charles Kenny in “The Internet and Economic Growth in Less-developed Countries: A Case of Managing Expectations?” [1]

Vacuum cleaners and washing machines were intended to free housewives’ time. They did so for working class women but not for middle-class housewives. Previously they had sent their dirty clothes to a laundry; now they had to do their washing at home. The British economist Roy Harrod wrote a pamphlet after World War II entitled “Are these Hardships Necessary?” It was written from the point of view of the middle and upper classes, pointing out the difficulties of getting cheap and efficient home help. He ignored that the reverse side of these hardships was that the working classes had better options for work and higher incomes.

It is noteworthy that the safest part of the New Jersey Turnpike is the crowded metropolitan portion north of New Brunswick. The more rural South Jersey section has twice its accident rate. Congestion compels vigilance.

Rivers get their own back on those who try to tame them. Dams silt up. River embankments encourage faster flows and more violent floods. Irrigation projects are plagued by bilharzia and by salinity (as the water flushes harmful mineral salts to the surface of the soil, where they destroy its fertility). The Principle of Opposite Effect states that most new policies contain something unexpected in them that tends to offset the original intention. Computers are not immune from it.

The Internet also follows the law of unintended consequences. The Net was originally an effort by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) at the Pentagon to find a way for users of computers in one place to communicate with computers in other places. (It is the same agency that proposed futures markets in terrorism. Mr. Poindexter of Watergate fame was the head of it.) The initiative, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was one of many by the United States after the Russians put Sputnik into orbit in 1957 and gave rise to the feeling, half true and half panic, that suddenly the Soviet Union was ahead of us in science.[2]

There are technologies that are counterproductive in terms of their own aims. The troubles arise not from side effects, as in the case of nuclear energy, but the very purpose of the invention is negated. It is rather like the prohibition of an obscene book leading to increased sales.

I already mentioned cars that produce [[transportation congestion|congestion and lead to a slowdown in traffic jams. Medicine and hospitals cause iatrogenic illnesses. There was a recent article entitled “How to prevent the hospital from making you sicker.” Schools and universities make us stupid; schools produce illiterate students. George Orwell wrote about “the sort of thing that you could learn only at the university.” Prisons produce criminals. Sixty-three percent of freed prisoners are jailed within three years for serious crimes; prisons make for more prisoners and spread AIDS; there are more recidivists than cured criminals. Agriculture ruins the soil; irrigation produces salination. Fertilizer and irrigation lead to soil erosion, contaminate the water, and later poison human communities. Sanitation systems pollute. Filters for water purification turn out to be breeding grounds for bacteria and cause cancer. Helmets and other protective gear have made football more dangerous than rugby. Neck and spine injuries have tripled after the debut of football helmets. Antibiotics have removed the horror of some of the 19th century’s most feared infections, but have also promoted the spread of even more virulent bacteria. They led to the development of drug-resistant strains. Laparoscopy (where an instrument is inserted into the abdominal wall) can mean post-surgical complications. Weapons that are intended to protect us destroy. Insurance companies that insisted on second opinions before surgery in order to reduce surgeries, found that more surgery was required. Speed limits and compulsory seat belts make drivers more reckless. Devaluation of the exchange rate can worsen the balance of payments. Tourism kills tourism. The barrier coral reefs in the Caribbean have been destroyed as a result of effluent; beaches in Thailand and many other places have become unsafe for bathing; skiing in the Alps has led to the destruction of trees. Voice mail, intended to save time, doubles the time to complete a telephone call. Airplane seats are getting smaller as planes get larger. Suntan lotions can cause skin cancer. Cushioned running shoes, designed to protect the knees, do so at the expense of increasing stress on the hips.

In 1965 Paul Jennings wrote about Resistentialism (intended as a parody of existentialism). Les choses sont contre nous. He argued that “man’s increase in [an] illusionary domination over Things has been matched, pari passu, by the increasing hostility (and greater force) of the Things arrayed against him.”


  1. ^ Oxford Development Studies, vol. 31, Number 1, March 2003, p. 108.
  2. ^ See Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up; The Origins of the Internet, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

This is a chapter from Technological Nightmares (Lecture).
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Longer-Range, F. (2008). Technological Nightmares (Lecture): Suffering from Success. Retrieved from


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