BITING THE HAND
SEPTEMBER 5, 1996
Technology intended to improve our lives often has the opposite effect. David Gergen talks to an author who has explored many "advances" that carried unexpected backlash.
JIM LEHRER: Now a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," talks to Edward Tenner of Princeton University, author of "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences."
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Ed, you have an arresting and playful title to your book. Tell us the thesis.
EDWARD TENNER, Author, "Why Things Bite Back": The thesis is that technology really has made things better for people, but we are often unhappy about it, and Iím arguing that itís because the complications of things have been much more complicated and much more interesting than we ever thought theyíd be.
DAVID GERGEN: And there are surprises lurking in new technologies that we donít expect?
EDWARD TENNER: Thatís right.
DAVID GERGEN: And they can often be bad surprises.
EDWARD TENNER: Often but occasionally good.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. The whole country is still haunted, I think, by that picture of Mohammed Ali lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta just a few weeks ago. He seems to be a walking example of what youíre talking about.
EDWARD TENNER: Yes. It was a real tragedy, and I think it was a case of how an improvement, how something that seemed to be making boxing safer and more humane, actually made it more unhealthy and crueler. It used to be in the days of 19th century fighting that boxing matches could be really bloody, really brutal, however, it was self-limiting because fighters also couldnít swing too high. They didnít want to break their hands.
Once you put gloves on fighters and change some other rules, youíre also encouraging the round house punches, and youíre doing something thatís insidious but very, very dangerous. Youíre landing these rotational blows, and itís the rotational blows that caused Mohamed Aliís Parkinsonís Disease and other neurological illnesses. We found that only--tragically--only decades later when physicians really began to study the process.
DAVID GERGEN: And, interestingly enough, the same phenomenon occurs in football with these helmets. It seems to be that weíre built to be much tougher, let the players hit harder.
EDWARD TENNER: Thatís right. The practice of spearing, using the head as a battering ram, really took hold only after the Howard helmet was introduced after the Second World War, and what happened was a tremendous load was placed--is placed when this practice continues--on the spinal cord. And there many cases of paralysis, and finally spearing was outlawed, so that, again, something that seemed to be protecting the athlete made the game more dangerous. Rugby is closer to that 19th century bloody pattern. It is a very, very tough, very violent sport, but itís self-limiting in the old way.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, your discussion of technology ranges not only across sports but across medicine and the environment. I was quite struck by your example of asbestos.
EDWARD TENNER: Asbestos was once a symbol of technological protection from the characteristic 19th century catastrophic problems--for example, theater fires or boiler explosions. It was a great age of the terrible catastrophe that made the newspapers, and so the asbestos curtain promised the spectators this protection from the back stage fire. And it was only decades later that we saw that at least certain kinds of asbestos fibers in the atmosphere could really produce not the old style catastrophe but a new style of chronic health problem through the consequences of inhaling the fibers.
DAVID GERGEN: And in medicine, in general, what we find is, as weíve introduced all sorts of new technologies that help to lengthen life, weíve also--the chronic illness has now become more common so that people live longer but can be sicker.
EDWARD TENNER: Thatís right. In fact, thereís even a school not confirmed scientifically yet but provocative that says that it is the accumulation of lots of little so-called insults in the course of a life-time that promotes chronic illness. This was a result of medical records in 19th century England.
DAVID GERGEN: Tell us where you think we might be going in the area of cyberspace, the newest technology, one that everybody is now trying to figure out, what impact that is likely to have on our society.
EDWARD TENNER: Cyberspace is already having tremendous impacts, and I think many or even most of them are good. But there are also revenge effects.
DAVID GERGEN: Thatís--
EDWARD TENNER: My term. And one revenge effect of cyberspace is that if you exaggerate the resources that are available in cyberspace and you donít pay enough attention to conventional printed sources, you can overlook some very important things. I know people who have tried to do some research using only the electronic resources.
And they think they have covered all the important material. And then they later discover that there is and will be in the foreseeable future many things that arenít there. So we have to remember itís only a supplement. The other thing is that using cyberspace requires a tremendous amount of whatís called tacit knowledge, i.e., you really have to know a lot about whatís out there to be able to navigate your way on the World Wide Web, for example. You canít expect this electronic world to do your looking for you, to ask questions for you.
So it becomes even more important to have a good basic education and to have an education based on traditional printed sources before you navigate cyberspace.
DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. It often seems that weíre now being saturated with more information because of cyberspace. But we have less understanding.
EDWARD TENNER: Itís very easy to be swamped, yes.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Your broad conclusions then, looking over these range of new technological improvements, are what?
EDWARD TENNER: There are two conclusions really. One is that technology has been very, very good at dealing with catastrophes. For example, after the Titanic sank, there was never another case of a ship being sunk by sea ice again in the North Atlantic. So a well-placed catastrophe can work wonders for society; however, we have converted catastrophic problems, as these examples from sports show, into chronic ones. The other lesson is that technology and improving things doesnít do it automatically, that the more technology does, the greater the burden on us is to be vigilant, to read those dials, to perform the right maintenance.
If you compare letís say an 18th century wagon driver with a 20th century long haul truck driver, the wagon driver actually was in much greater danger, for example, from runaway horses, but the truck driver really has to be much more educated, much more alert, and many more things to watch and monitor, so there is this burden of vigilance.
DAVID GERGEN: It also--you suggested in your book--affects our psychology, this paradox of living better and feeling worse. Early in the century we were very optimistic about technologyís promises. But now we have, as we face these new realities, our optimism is tempered.
EDWARD TENNER: Well, we have lost some of our faith, but I think thatís because we misled ourselves into thinking what technology can and canít do for us. And so I wrote the book to show what we can reasonably expect and how to prepare ourselves to get the best out of it.
DAVID GERGEN: So your answer for the future would be that we approach technology in a different way as we introduce the technologies who are more realistic about what they can produce, and weíre also--you used the word finesse--we ought to have more finesse as the way we approach these technologies.
EDWARD TENNER: Yes. Iím saying that we should look at things not with a view to intensify, to clobber a problem, to wipe it out of existence, because, after all, when we tried this with the fire ants, what we did was not only wipe out most of the fire ants but nearly all of their natural predators, so that they came back in greater numbers and fiercer than ever before. What we have to do is to use not just one thing but a combination of things, not just chemicals very carefully applied, but also natural control, also changing the environment, where appropriate.
DAVID GERGEN: So we may enter the 21st century with a very different view of technology than we had, as we ended the 20th?
EDWARD TENNER: I think we can have a much more sophisticated and effective view.
DAVID GERGEN: All right. Thank you very much.
EDWARD TENNER: Thank you.