Summary: The following article is a part of the
National Board Technical Series. This article was originally published in the
Winter 1998 National Board BULLETIN. (4 printed
This article by David
Nichols was originally published in the Winter 1998 National Board BULLETIN.
A far-ranging interview with Edward
Tenner, one of America’s foremost thinkers on technology and author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the
Revenge of Unintended Consequences.
Mr. Tenner’s book–published by Knopf in
spring of 1996 and republished in paperback by Vintage in fall of 1997–became a
worldwide bestseller because it articulated what everyone who’s paying
attention has noticed: technology is a mixed blessing. Our best-laid plans to
improve our earthly plight through technological means too often go awry,
leaving us frustrated.
Not only does technology rarely match our expectations of
it, technological innovation often brings what Mr. Tenner calls “revenge
effects”–unintended and often ironic consequences never dreamed of but which
often must be addressed through some other technological means, which, not
surprisingly, may foster still more unintended consequences. In short, in the
best of circumstances human resourcefulness is an up-on-one-end,
This is nothing new, Mr. Tenner argues, but our
contemporary dependence on complex, often sensitive technology in virtually
every aspect of our lives makes us especially aware of its massive
imperfections and of our own inadequacies in contending with it. The fruits of
technology have been marketed as labor-saving and happiness-inducing, yet we
are left with nagging questions: are we really better off, really happier, really safer than our ancestors, whose technology
was simpler and changed less frequently and less radically, and in any case was
more mechanical and thus easier to understand and repair?
While Mr. Tenner charts these frustrations better than
anyone ever has, his viewpoint is not despairing. On the contrary, as he savors
the humor of our predicament, he offers useful ways of thinking about
technological change and suggests means of coping with the inevitable revenge
effects it brings. This has contributed to the warm reception his ideas have
received from an astonishingly diverse readership–from ordinary readers, to
academicians in the sciences and the liberal arts, to government officials here
and abroad, to industry groups specializing in everything from electronics to
the manufacture of bowling balls.
Mr. Tenner, a native of Chicago, holds an A.B. from Princeton
University and a
Ph.D. in history from the University
of Chicago. He worked
for 15 years as an editor at Princeton
When he left in 1991 to pursue his writing career, Mr. Tenner was executive
editor for physical science and history. He was a John Simon Guggenheim
Memorial Fellow in 1991-92 and was a visiting scholar at the Institute for
Advanced Studies. He served as a Fellow of the Woodrow
Center for Scholars
in 1995-96. Today, he holds a visiting research appointment in the Department
of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton
Despite his academic accomplishments, Mr. Tenner is not
an academician in the ordinary sense: he pulls from a multitude of disciplines,
synthesizing as he goes. He lacks the scholar’s reluctance to speak to the big
picture and carefully guards his status as an independent writer and speaker,
believing this allows him greater latitude.
During this conversation, which took place over a
three-week period, Mr. Tenner became fascinated with the National Board and its
mission. He admits he had never given boilers or pressure vessels much thought,
but now finds himself curious about this technology, to the point of recently
arriving at the headquarters of a cable-television network in Manhattan and
wondering where the building’s boiler was–and, more to the point, whether the
boiler had been properly maintained and inspected.
BULLETIN: “Vigilance” seems to be a key word in your
vocabulary. You write of the need for watchfulness, saying, in effect, that new
perils often arise out of our attempts to neutralize old ones. What would be a
good illustration of this phenomenon?
EDWARD TENNER: For most people, automobile air bags would
probably be the most familiar example. Recall this sequence: First, mandated
seat belts. Then, buzzers for drivers who didn’t buckle up, followed by illegal
but easy disabling of the alarms. Then, mandated “passive” restraints: the
motorized shoulder belt, that turned out to increase hazards to passengers if
the lap belt wasn’t buckled. Then, the turn to air bags as passive restraints,
and the establishment of a “conservative” standard that would protect a
300-pound man. Then, many cases of air bags seriously injuring or even killing
children and small women, who now feel threatened by this safety technology and
often petition federal authorities to permit disconnection. Even for
average-sized drivers, air bags detonating inappropriately can cause
significant injury, hence the need to check their condition regularly–another
aspect of vigilance.
BULLETIN: You speak of the human “failure to observe the
repeated rituals that safe operation of advanced technology entails.” And,
elsewhere: “The one thing we will not be able to do is avoid the endless
rituals of vigilance.” Do these statements encapsulate your bottom-line view of
EDWARD TENNER: Yes. My own emphasis is not on rejecting the
new, but on spending the money needed to retain reserve systems. I lost my hard
drive writing the book, for example, but restored files to a second computer I
had recently bought as a spare. If I were looking for a political or social
slogan as a conclusion for my work–and I don’t
get involved directly in policy initiatives–it would probably be something like
the Backed-Up Society. We have life insurance, home insurance, car insurance.
We need to regard prevention–from design standards through regular
inspection–as a form of social insurance.
BULLETIN: But the very concept of social insurance is
based on historical memory. Aren’t Americans long on mechanical know-how and
short on historical memory?
EDWARD TENNER: It’s human, not just American, to put aside
unpleasant memories, although it was the US psychologist B.F. Skinner who
replied to a question about the value of history by saying he believed in
letting bygones be bygones! Use of history is a human, not a national,
question. I agree with the engineer and historian Henry Petroski that
historical sense is important in recognizing danger points in new, as well as
established, designs. History is the only resource we have for stretching our
imaginations concerning change. It is worth studying not so that we can keep
with the old, but so that we can stretch our imaginations about the new. Even
so, I believe that professional forecasters still make too little use of history.
BULLETIN: Most people sense that there’s a down side to
technology. But what many folks haven’t thought about, and which you speak of
in your book, is that even technological efforts that improve our health and
safety bring unintended consequences–“revenge effects,” as you call them. What might these revenge effects be for
National Board members, whose predecessors–working with the American Society of
Mechanical Engineers and with manufacturers–steadily reduced the number of
boiler and pressure vessel explosion fatalities from some 50,000 per year in
the early years of this century to a much lower number today?
EDWARD TENNER: Two revenge effects directly concerning
boiler inspection seem likely. One is that the very success of standards and
inspection programs undermines the sense of urgency that led to them in the
first place. Electrification, central heating, motorization, and diesel
locomotives hardly eliminated boilers–counting water heaters, we might have
even more of them now–but they removed this hazard from public view. And
whereas the boiler used to be the weak link in a chain, it may now, thanks to
both engineering and inspection, be the strong link.
The other is that the lifetime behavior of new materials
used in boiler construction may be difficult to simulate and evaluate. New,
lighter materials have allowed boiler and pressure vessel manufacturers to
reduce the weight of their finished products while, apparently, increasing the
safety factor. But how accurately can engineers model stability and performance
of new materials over time, especially under novel conditions? We’ve seen
similar developments in other fields, such as aluminum wire and plastic pipe
Our ingenuity in improving processes and materials poses
this choice: to be conservative about innovation, which is not a fashionable
approach these days, or to tolerate many concealed risks that can prove deadly,
or at least costly, to future generations.
BULLETIN: Would you
encourage us, then, to be wary of technological “success”?
EDWARD TENNER: We should be careful what we wish for. We
have to keep in mind that every widely adopted new technology brings unforeseen
new social patterns with it. The more “successful” it is, the more demand it
may generate. First photocopiers and then laser printers multiplied the use of
paper. Automatic-teller machines have multiplied transactions and must be
serviced by skilled technicians. And while computerization makes it easier to
catch small errors, it also opens the way for more systematic and costly fraud.
BULLETIN: You mention
Henry Petroski, the engineer and historian. In Why Things Bite Back, you cite Petroski’s notion that new
engineering ideas often derive from great disasters. You also say, again citing
Petroski, that the engineering profession’s growth has made possible the error
of overconfidence in a new design’s safety, “the defects of which too often
remain hidden until some new disaster occurs.” Are we, in effect, doomed to
endure periodic disasters with or without technological attempts at
EDWARD TENNER: We are never doomed. As societies, if not as
individual producers and consumers, we keep control. But we have to be deeply
concerned about problems that recur so regularly. Petroski, in his book Engineers of Dreams, suggests there’s a
30-year cycle of forgetting in technology. Failure of an old
design–suspension-bridge disasters, for example–leads to a new concept,
cable-stayed bridges. But younger engineers may forget how the evolution of the
old technology produced disasters; they become bolder in exploring the
possibilities of the new design until they have new disasters of their own.
Then, yet another design takes over and perhaps goes through the same cycle.
It’s very likely that, with shorter generations, similar
forces may be at work in software architecture. Potentially fatal deficiencies
in software may not appear for decades. Consider the possible $1 trillion cost
of the once-sensible decision to use two- rather than four-digit date fields:
the so-called Millennium Bug.
30-year-cycle notion reminds me of proposals from public officials to cut
safety programs. With some frequency, state legislators around the country
consider severe cuts in their boiler- and pressure-vessel-safety programs,
believing, it seems, that it’s foolish to spend taxpayer’s money on these
efforts when explosions of these devices kill so few people these days. Do such
proposals surprise you?
EDWARD TENNER: I don’t know the details of the proposals you
speak of, but, no, they don’t surprise me. When I was a fellow at Harvard and
newspapers reported the collapse of a local parking garage, an architect
colleague suggested that our buildings don’t collapse often enough, a sign that
they were being constructed to inefficiently high standards. I’m sure he would
have felt differently if the chandelier of the dining room in which we were
eating had fallen on our heads!
Perhaps there’s an analogy in today’s higher speed limits,
and the weakening in California
of pedestrian right-of-way laws–results of a gradual decline in fatality rates.
California once was famous for protecting
the pedestrian’s right-of-way with marked crossings. Now it’s removing markings
and restricting pedestrian rights partly because the outrage over
vehicle-pedestrian accidents has faded. And the more people decide to drive
because it’s so dangerous to walk, the lower the vehicle-pedestrian-accident
rate becomes, weakening the perceived need for protection.
BULLETIN: You write that “We seem to worry more than our
ancestors, surrounded as they were by exploding steamship boilers, raging
epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters. Perhaps this
is because the safer life imposes an ever-increasing burden of attention.” Are
you implying that, at some level, we yearn for what we perceive as our
forebear’s simpler existence?
EDWARD TENNER: I am, yes. But it’s important to point out
that people are fascinated by a sanitized
version of the past that omits its discomforts. For example, apart from a
handful of luxury Pullmans–especially those of the air-conditioned years–most
railroad transportation was uncomfortable, often crowded, too hot or cold.
Cinders blew through the windows, and schedules were inconvenient. Once the
steam locomotives reached the cities, the passengers and
freight–pre-electrification–had to be moved around by bigger and bigger horses
and wagons. City streets were filthy with horse manure and urine. (There were
good reasons for old-style boots.) Interestingly, it was the fear of boiler
explosions that made horses such an urban problem. There were too many
explosions of early steam-driven tramways. And while electric streetcars did
appear toward the turn of the century, they did nothing to solve the freight
So the automobile seemed the best solution for the
sanitation problems posed by horses–a clean alternative to the by-products of
the steam engine and the stable. Today, however, cars have become easier and
easier to use, and at the same time mechanically much more sensitive. But,
there’s a price to pay for easy operation–first, the owner’s loss of
understanding and, second, dependence on highly paid technicians with expensive
diagnostic instruments who often don’t really repair devices but, instead,
replace subsystems. Some of these components may cost as much as an entire car
BULLETIN: Does our having to pay more attention to
technology make us less happy than we might otherwise be?
EDWARD TENNER: Yes, there is discontent. Very often people
find that the complexities of machines lead to all kinds of disappointment. In
fact, it’s been argued that such disappointment is a mainspring of the system
because it causes us to buy more machines in the hope of getting the results
we’re after. Whatever the case, though, we must remember that earlier
technology could be frustrating, too. Just as today’s computer user may need
software suites that cost more than the operating system, early Model-T Ford
owners supported a large market for third-party add-ons, some of which Ford
should have built in. But the Model-T was cheap. We’re even more upset when expensive technology turns
Social obstacles are also more important than they were. For
example, many consumer-electronics retailers are in trouble because of delays
in the appearance of fundamentally new technologies and because of confusions
and disputes over technical standards. Concerns about copyright forced Digital
Audio Tape (DAT) from the consumer market and are holding back the Digital
Video Disk (DVD). Digital television is technologically possible but may be
delayed for years by financial, marketing, and legal issues. Industry
spokespeople treat these problems as “transitional.” But the consumer faces a
series of transitions with no promise of stability; the delay of new formats is
a long truce rather than a resolution. And as we acquire more phone lines for
our computers and faxes, portable telephones and other devices, area codes are
split so often that our computerized address books quickly become obsolete.
Here our attention takes the form of manually correcting each of those entries,
as there is no computer program I know of that will go through even a
computerized address book and recognize which 312 codes should be converted to
773, and so forth. So, ironically, we are harder to reach as a result of
becoming easier to reach.
For social reasons often beyond the control of technical
people, the promise of innovation is unfulfilled, and this leads to
BULLETIN: “Technology,” you write, “demands more, not
less, human work to function.” In some countries, the government demands this
work–creates and enforces standards, makes citizens pay attention. The United
States relies on a combination of
government and private sector efforts–the National Board, for example–to keep
our attention focused. Which strikes you as the more successful approach?
EDWARD TENNER: Both systems can be effective; both can be
negligent. The American way promotes creative experimentation, including local
insistence on higher standards. It also permits local foot-dragging. The
European way ensures greater uniformity and reliability. It also can frustrate
necessary innovation and creative initiatives. German industry, or some branches
of it, has suffered from premature efforts to standardize. Europeans believe
strongly in standards and emphasize them greatly, but technological change
across the board is so rapid that their standards quickly become irrelevant.
places access ahead of qualification. Ours is a society where it’s much easier
to start a new business, a new school, a new religion. The problem is, at the
other end of the process there can be individuals or a whole society left
holding the bag. The other side of our freedom to innovate is the freedom to
walk away from consequences. Today, for example, we’re paying a high price for
freedoms our fellow citizens had a generation ago. The ideal might be somewhere
between the two approaches. But because Americans and their representatives
aren’t in the mood to emulate Europeans or anybody else, our best strategy is
probably to get the most out of the real advantages of our own arrangements.
BULLETIN: Earlier, you referred to Europeans’ fondness
for standards. You mentioned the Germans specifically. I have the sense that
the Germans are quite rigid about public safety issues. Is this so–and, if it
is, how does this work for them?
EDWARD TENNER: Your impression of the Germans is right, but
it’s not always clear that there is a payoff in actual safety from some
measures, especially the thoroughness of TÜV, the Technical Supervision Society
that inspects automobiles and many other things. Germany
remains outstanding where strict standardization is valued: in automobiles,
machine tools, and optical equipment, for example, but has fallen short in
electronics, where standards have become so fluid.
At least since the 1930s, many aspects of German society
have been extremely regulated. For example, qualifying as a hunter requires an
apprenticeship and examinations in wildlife biology and hunting customs. The
specialized German hunting vocabulary is said to contain over 13,000 words!
Americans hate that kind of thing. Yet our government is sponsoring initiatives
like “intelligent vehicle-highway systems” (IVHS) that can succeed only if cars
are maintained at levels even beyond those German authorities demand. Something
will have to give. I am skeptical about IVHS for this reason.
I should add that the Germans–once they have taken their
elaborate driving examinations, put their cars through stringent inspections,
and paid sky-high vehicle and fuel taxes for high-performance cars–believe it
is their divine right to drive them to the max. Drivers of less-powerful
vehicles defer to them, as I can attest from having been driven from Mainz
to Stuttgart during my German tour
by a driver from the ZDF German television network. We were sometimes pushing
200 kilometers per hour, and the people in the passing lane just moved over
when they saw us coming. Of course at such speeds any little mishap would have
meant no more brain waves, let alone email, from me on matters technological.
And we were held up for 10 or 15 minutes on approaching Stuttgart by a large
pile-up, probably the result of the high-speed, disciplined, tight traffic on
the Autobahn going awry. This probably wiped out our time savings from the
breakneck speed. So I have mixed feelings about German ways.
BULLETIN: We’ve talked a lot about high technology during
this conversation. I wonder: do we tend to take older, lower-tech devices
(boilers, for example) for granted in our fascination with high-tech gear–the
new and exciting stuff? Is there a revenge effect waiting to happen here?
EDWARD TENNER: I think so. In some ways, computers have been
the enemy of technological literacy, a distortion of the technological
enterprise. Over the past fifteen years, journalists and educators alike have
begun to think of computers, and especially of software, as synonymous with
technology. The computer has so monopolized public attention that other vital
things have been ignored. Technology has gone in for a fashion system. Older
technology becomes quaint because of some new fashion.
If the view gets established that there’s a software
solution to everything, when technology that isn’t computer-related or
computer-based is considered dull and unworthy of attention, there will be very
serious consequences down the road as a result of our inattention. Boilers are
an excellent example of technology that doesn’t get its share of attention. The
chemistry of lubricants and the economic cost of friction is another. A
lubricant that improves power-plant efficiency by a very small percentage could
have a larger multiplier effect in the economy. And consider antenna design.
Nobody thinks about all those wires, dishes, and triangular pods sprouting from
automobile trunks and on building roofs, but they are as essential as the
software that manages our communication systems.
Like antennas, which seemed obsolete with the rise of cable
television years ago, mature technologies like boilers have a way of coming
back with new features to meet new demands. A society with a balanced interest
in technology is best able to deal with the problems that can arise from these
innovations. Yet we seem to know less and less about many important things in
our lives. I have even argued that in some ways new information systems have
contributed to an “information implosion”–a practical reduction of the
availability of knowledge or an increase in its cost.
To avoid revenge effects, Americans need to remember
technological fundamentals–and what better place is there to begin than in the
Editor's note: Some ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code requirements may have changed because of advances in material technology and/or actual experience. The reader is cautioned to refer to the latest edition and addenda of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel
Code for current requirements.