Living with the unintended

Life gives us plenty of examples of unintended consequences. As we commented once before, electricity, mechanisation and computerisation freed up immense amounts of our time so that we could all work harder and longer, rather than enjoying our endless leisure time in the eternal sunshine of the pop-science prophesies. Some of us spend more time at the beach than ever before, but there’s a chance we’ll spend a fair chunk of it clutching a laptop and looking for ‘free broadband’ signs in café windows.

Sometimes the impact is so tangential that it would escape most of us, although in the case of George Gruhn, an American musical instrument collector, he no doubt sees the unintended consequence as something of a silver lining (the quote is from Tim Brookes’ enchanting read Guitar: An American Life):

The baby boomers grew up with guitars,” he began, speaking in sentences that got longer and faster, as if history itself were accelerating, “but the baby boomers were different from any generation from Australopithecus to the present in that we grew up from birth onward with antibiotics. No previous generation ever had. Turn-of-the-century life expectancy in the U.S. was about forty-two years, which wasn’t much different from what it was in ancient Greece. As result they had no mid-life crisis and they didn’t have hobbies in mid-life.”

Antibiotics weren’t designed for the benefit of the American luthiery trade, but the increase in middle-aged people with both savings and spare time has meant ‘vintage guitars’ have become hugely prized collectors’ items (if you want to make a vast return, nip back to 1957 and buy the entire stock of a music store – your money will outstrip almost any other investment), and meticulous bearded men who smell of wood shavings can make a comfortable living making arch-lutes in Vermont workshops. The audience for both products had, until recently, not been a demographic that stayed alive long enough for makers or museum curators to survive by courting them.

From an economist’s point of view, this must be pretty much a dream marketing scenario. Items whose age or price, quality and slow hand-made manufacture provide built-in scarcity value and whose marketplace has increased hugely – and will continue to be large until the demographic tide turns. Nor are unintended consequences the preserve of wooly-jumpered hippies strumming away around campfires. As Scott Granneman points out in a Register posting about them:

My British readers at least have one advantage over us Yanks: it appears that so many people in the UK are taking Prozac that the drinking water now contains traces of the drug. Wait a little longer, and security pros in the UK won’t be worrying about unintended consequences: thanks to one that I would have never thought of, they’ll be blissfully unconcerned about them.”

We can be equally confident that the developers of Prozac and of prescription antibiotics didn’t have booming guitar sales and a contaminated water supply on their list of aims, objectives or targets, yet both have come about. I’m not sure that attempting to head off these ripples of socio-economic chaos is achievable. At the moment they hatch, all new innovations are the ideas equivalent of frogspawn – lots of energetic wriggling, but not much sense of direction. How are we supposed to guess which will turn out to be the kind of frog that awaits merely the Princess’ kiss and which will become cane toads (introduced to Australia to control pests in sugarcane fields, they have become a major threat to biodiversity in their own right)? Good intentions provide no clue, as John Wilbanks shows when he refers to:

[…] the lovely example of the microwave oven, whose inventor did not intend to be part of the long term destruction of the family meal (negative unintended consequence) or of the long term movement to liberate women (positive unintended consequence). Indeed, he was a guy fixing a radar system who noticed his chocolate had melted, so it’s safe to say he didn’t have much of a social agenda at all.”

The more important point is that things tend not to get un-invented. Having made chicken curry with Bombay potatoes a viable option in 6 minutes or less on full power, the microwave is not about to depart from our lives. It’s too handy, too convenient and it makes great popcorn: what’s not to like? It doesn’t matter how regal a deckchair we park on this sand, the tide isn’t going to retreat at our command. We have to accept the situation and our responsibility for it, as Tim Healey has written:

The violence of television and the pornography of the Internet are not forced on us. The contribution which the automobile makes to a sedentary life can often be rejected. If we become a slave to our telephone or other like media, it is not the telephone which should accept the blame. Discipline is still a virtue, for ourselves and for our children.”

Likewise with any other change, the outcome of which goes beyond anything we originally had in mind. What’s needed is to accept the unintended consequence – unintended does not, after all, mean undesirable – and adapt to it, perhaps backtracking or changing tack where a new problem has arisen.

Trying to live in the world we planned to live in rather than the one we’re in is not a sensible option, let alone a realistic one. While a new idea is usually adopted – at least by those implementing it, if not those having it implemented upon them – with anticipation and expectation of the realising of its possibilities, that doesn’t mean we can turn an eye to downsides. As Panos Mourdoukoutas wrote for Forbes last year in an article called The Unintended Consequences of Outsourcing

Outsourcing’s unintended consequences for companies and industries that adapt it are not confined to the intensification of competition and corporate complacency. They extend to the relations of these companies with one of their partners – labor. If each and every activity of the value chain is gradually farmed out, what binds labor with management and stockholders? If company engineers and marketers who develop new product ideas can sense that their jobs will eventually be farmed out, why should they be loyal to the company? Wouldn’t it be better to part from the company and pursue their own value chain by farming out the development, the manufacturing and so on, to outsourcing companies?”

But deciding on the best way to house train the proverbial cat depends on whether or not it’s already out of the proverbial bag: we can’t undo history, merely deal in the present with its effects. Am I the only one to spot an irony in a quote from a Jaron Lanier interview with The Edge (a long and rambling interview that takes in social media, the disappearance of the middle class, Marx, the Tea Party and Google), which concludes as follows as he reflects on the ‘lost hope’ of a third way of computing based on micro-payments as a leveller of fields:

We’re not going to be able to test tomorrow because we’ve gone down this path so far that it will be a decade’s long project to begin to explore it, but we must find our way back. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a century after Ted Nelson first proposed this thought in 1960 that this is how the Internet should be. It might be a century before we even start to seriously try to do it, but that’s how things go sometimes in history. Sometimes it just takes a while to sort things out.”

Perhaps Lanier is wrong, and not all our current major corporations will be like Wal-Mart which he sees as in danger of squandering its own future as its actions can be seen as impoverishing its own customer base. Perhaps he is as blind to some consequences, yet to emerge, as the rest of us (although his CV and various writings suggest a far-sharper than average eye as well as mind). But I worry about ‘we must find our way back’. By all means change route, reset the navigation aids, trim the sails a little – but surely the direction has to be forward. If we start turning back time, heaven knows what the consequences might be …

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Filed under: behavioural change, life, organisational development


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