No good deed ever goes unpunished -- nature punishes those who intervene

April 21, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

It first occurred to me as a correspondent in Washington, reporting on agriculture and transportation policies, among other things.

The national agricultural mission: Stabilize the farm economy and the family farm. Result: Government intervention vastly accelerated the growth of huge industrial farming, crushing small-farm life.

The transportation mission: Provide Americans with greater access to places and goods, making movement cheaper and safer: Result: Killing off a magnificent national rail system, vastly increasing real costs of transportation and turning tens of thousands of citizens into annual road kill in the bargain.

Those are sweeping generalities. But discovering those two indisputable - if simplistic - facts led me to ask: Does every long-range government initiative ultimately produce the precise antithesis of its original intent?

Now comes "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences," by Edward Tenner. (Knopf. 329 pages. $26).

Sure enough! Or something very like it.

Mr. Tenner is a scholar based in Princeton, a historian and a cultural generalist. His book revolves around this initial declaration: "It is the tendency of the world around us to get even, to twist our cleverness against us. Or is it our own unconscious twisting against ourselves?" By book's end, the answer is "both."

He begins by noting, "It was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that first connected Promethean technology with unintended havoc." That was 1818. From there, he develops an elaborate consequential structure, in which the star player is what he calls the "revenge effect."

Titanic case

That is very specific. Revenge effects are not side effects or other random anomalies. A clarifying example: "If a cancer chemotherapy treatment causes baldness, that is not a revenge effect; if it induces another, equally lethal, cancer that is a revenge effect." And one more: "When a safety system encourages enough additional risk-taking that it helps cause accidents, that is a revenge effect." The Titanic's ostensible near-invulnerability navigated it to catastrophe.

Contrived? Abstract? Selective? Too clever? Consider:

* Gypsy moths were imported to the United States for passionately argued beneficial reasons, as were, of course, starlings and carp. They have massively killed off native trees, songbirds and good fishes.

* At huge expense and effort, kudzu, valued in Japan, was disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve American land use. Result: disastrous, explosive strangling of land and other plant life.

* America's desert Southwest, once famous for drawing people with respiratory afflictions, also drew with them ornamental grasses and trees that have given the area a 10-month season of new airborne pollens and allergenic molds that make the atmosphere acutely unhealthy for many and fatal to no small number.

* X-rays, asbestos, killer bees, eucalyptus trees all have come back to bite their hosts.

Mr. Tenner shifts from birds and bees and vines and trees to the office and computers and business. There he finds "what had promised to make work painless unexpectedly attacks muscles, tendons and vertebrae. The revenge is also financial: What has promised to make services more efficient has returned astonishingly low net benefits."

And then to sports: A main effect of new protective sports gear has been to increase risk-taking, and thus often to make that particular sport even more physically damaging.

Mr. Tenner provides dozens of other well-documented examples. But enough.

(Though he does not cite it, I know of no more telling example of the revenge effect than the U.S. government's policies concerning tobacco smoking, superbly traced in Richard Kluger's new "Ashes to Ashes" - and examined in Terry Teachout's Argument on these pages today.)

Tons of detail

The amount of information in this book is enormous. Mr. Tenner has absorbed and draws upon an immense bibliography of risk and progress and general history. The citations are fluent and innumerable. Beyond the text are 46 pages of footnotes plus an elaborate bibliography.

The book appears written for the general reader of fairly high lay technical appetite and intensity. Gradually it becomes more and more cluttered with technical detail that, though understandable the lay reader, become cumulative, and a bit numbing.

There is one overarching weirdness about the book: Here is a work devoted to the core ironies of life, and yet I got not a single laugh from the whole thing. Toweringly worthy, earnest, painstaking, it seems, to me at least, totally humorless. Somehow in the manner in which he treats it in the book, the humor potential gets lost by trickling degrees, as the ostensibly ironic principle grows into ossified doctrine.

But in a perhaps perverse way (could it be a revenge effect?), this intensifies the book's power.

Finally, Mr. Tenner's message: "If we learn from revenge effects we will not be led to renounce technology, but we will instead refine it: watching for unforeseen problems, managing what we know are limited strengths, applying no less but also no more than is really needed."

He is an optimist and a moderate. His ultimate call: "Reducing revenge effects demands substituting brains for stuff." And then the final sentence of the book: "Revenge effects mean in the end that we will move ahead but must always look back just because reality is indeed gaining on us."

That's its hot breath on the back of your neck - right now.

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