Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Fall 2011
Edward Tenner WF '65: A World of Unintended Consequence
Analyzing the positive and negative results of technology, innovation.
Edward Tenner. Photo: Jerry Bauer.
Is a safety pin really safe? Why do we use so much paper in a supposedly "paperless" environment? Could the smartphone in your pocket, which contains some of your most personal information, betray you? Throughout his career, technological and cultural historian Edward Tenner has focused on such questions about unintended consequences of technology. A widely read blogger for The Atlantic, Dr. Tenner is also a visiting scholar in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, and a founding advisor of the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.
While observing the results of computerization as a science editor at Princeton University Press, Dr. Tenner began to form an interest in unintended consequences. In the 1980s, an early user of a PC, email, and the Internet, he began to research and write on the history of technology. "I got to know historians of technology as an editor, and I saw that, rather than my original specialty of 19th century German history, as my real scholarly field." The sponsoring editor of Richard Feynman's last scientific book, Q.E.D., which has sold over 500,000 copies, he soon began writing for Money Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
Dr. Tenner sees his 1984 essay "A Study in Style: What differentiates Harvard, Yale, and Princeton-and their alumni"—published simultaneously in all three institutions' alumni magazines—as a particular turning point in his writing. In it, he consciously developed a style based on those of his mentors James Billington, now Librarian of Congress, and William McNeill, a 2009 recipient of the National Humanities Medal. From both scholars, he says, he learned "the knack for combining broad generalizations with telling, carefully researched details."
Having both found his writing style and become familiar with scientific books, Dr. Tenner soon began to contemplate one of his own. "I had the idea in the late 1980s," he says, "that nobody had written on paradoxes that I was seeing around me"—the seeming paradox, for instance, of the increase in paper usage with the installation of more computers and the discussion of a paperless office. In a Harvard Magazine essay called "The paradoxical proliferation of paper," Dr. Tenner examined, for the first time, the reasons for this phenomenon. "When you look at [those reasons] retrospectively, yes, it all makes sense," he says, but it was a challenge to untangle them and to look at the interaction between human behavior and new technology."
Having begun to explore this subject, Dr. Tenner soon envisioned a larger project that would systematically examine the reasons for the paradoxes and negative results of technology. For example, he noted, the safety pin really isn't all that safe; in fact, based on his research into the history of safety pins, the medical literature about swallowing safety pins, and the specialized instruments that were developed to extract safety pins from the windpipes of small children , Dr. Tenner concluded that the safety pin was actually one of the most dangerous household objects.
With these types of unintended consequences in mind, he wrote a Guggenheim Fellowship proposal and won. "It was one of the biggest surprises in my life," recalls Dr. Tenner. "I thought of it as a long shot. Some people had kind of condescendingly said 'That program isn't for people like you,' but I got it!" Upon receiving the Guggenheim, Dr. Tenner decided to leave his post as an editor and become a full-time writer. The book that the award made possible, Why Things Bite Back (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), led to a speaking tour in the United States and Germany and a media tour in England.
During that tour, at a talk in Berlin, one audience member ("he seemed to be notorious for giving speakers a hard time," notes Dr. Tenner) asked what was the most important invention of all time. "Desperate for a comeback," Dr. Tenner recalls, "I replied, 'Eyeglasses, so as many people as possible will read my books.'" The comment inspired him to include a chapter on eyeglasses in his next book, Our Own Devices (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). book also examines other inventions that shape and are shaped by relationships between technology and the body, from reclining chairs to bottle-feeding to keyboards to helmets.
"The purpose of my books," Dr. Tenner says, "is to help stretch people's imagination by giving them examples and analyses of unexpected things. Sometimes events are really, truly surprising. But very often, if you have studied previous issues, when something new comes along you can say, well look, this has the same kind of risk as this or that earlier technology. A lot of people think it's going to do X, but it really could do Y instead. That's not really something that you can discover logically just from looking. It's really a skill that comes from having read a lot about many other examples."
Since Our Own Devices came out in 2003, one technological development really stands out to Dr. Tenner—the smartphone. "Smartphones are capable of doing so many things—taking pictures, recording video, and even banking. They've become navigation devices and teaching machines. So many of the things that people developed massive, specialized computers for in the late 20th century now are all being packed into these portable devices."
And the unintended consequences of smartphones? As users pour more and more of their personal information into them, Dr. Tenner asks, "What happens when people lose these portable devices? I say 'when' they lose it because anything that people are carrying around like that is going to get lost, and people now are very apprehensive about the risks of hacking. So this little miracle in your pocket also has a demonic side. It might very well betray you."
But, Dr. Tenner observes, many people have now started to recognize potential unintended consequences and react cautiously to technological change. Through speaking at the research laboratories of Microsoft and Intel, Dr. Tenner discovered that scientists and engineers are also very much aware of the kinds of negative unintended consequences he has written about. "In fact, I couldn't have written about it if I didn't have dozens of articles by people like that, about these very problems," says Dr. Tenner. "They have methodologies for dealing with them. So in the technical culture, I'm really not controversial at all."
In some technical quarters, however, Dr. Tenner might not be so welcome. He admits that robotics and artificial intelligence, for example, depend heavily on optimistic forecasts. "I'm not against that research or those technologies at all," says Dr. Tenner, "I just think that many things are really much harder than the people who are working on them believe." He acknowledges the need for a certain amount of self-deception in order to advance knowledge. He cites the Panama Canal as an example: "It's very often a good thing that we can't predict a lot of the problems that we're going to run into, that we undertake things that are not fully understood. A lot of these are going to be failures, but the successes may depend on it." While a visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Dr. Tenner met Professor Albert O. Hirschman, who first called attention to this phenomenon known as the "hiding hand."
As a non-scientist drawn into scientific publishing after the academic job market crashed in the 1970s, Dr. Tenner observes, he has had personal experience of the positive unintended consequences of negative events. He is now at work on a new book on the subject, having learned first-hand about the value of using historical examples to be more resilient. "But gradually, as I've seen the response to the economic emergency, there are structural problems that make it harder now to be resilient," he says. "It isn't just about what individuals do, it's about social and economic institutions and technology that work against resilience. I call that 'counter-serendipity.'"
Many of the people Dr. Tenner is studying for his new book did work they hadn't expected to do, and perhaps weren't qualified to do. "The inventor of the Michelin steel-belted radial tire actually came from the company's graphic arts shop," Dr. Tenner explains. "They kept him because he seemed to have a creative way to approach problems and he came up with the geometry of the steel-belted radial tire. Their most important product came from somebody who would have been disqualified by a resume screening program for having the job that he did."
In recent years, Dr. Tenner has taken his work into the blogosphere. Having previously written for The Atlantic, he was invited to provide outside commentary for the magazine's website. Since 2009, his blog posts have addressed a wide variety of subjects, including current political issues, the ongoing debate over replacing cursive handwriting skills with keyboarding in schools, and an article on the unintended consequences of chess software, called "Rook Dreams," discussing the impact of chess computers on the game of chess. His blog can be found at http://www.theatlantic.com/edward-tenner.
Dr. Tenner says that his Woodrow Wilson Fellowship meant "participating in a mode of an incredible optimism about mass education and about the future," which he strives to sustain today. "After I left the mainstream of a tenure track career, I've been trying to keep that promise alive on a more independent basis and to sustain the mission of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowships with new means—especially with the web, with blogging, with my personal website. Even though the employment situation has changed, to me the goals of the program are still very much alive."