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 pages)
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, down-on-the-other proposition.
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 University Press. 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 Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1995-96. Today, he holds a visiting research appointment in the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton University.
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 technology?
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 production.
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 problem-solving?
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.
BULLETIN: Petroski’s 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 problem.
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 once did.
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 temperamental.
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 frustration.
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.
America 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 boiler room?
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 of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code for current requirements.