Book Review / Murphy's new law

WHY THINGS BITE BACK: New Technology and the Revenge Effect by Edward Tenner, 4th Estate pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
HAVING worked for a besuited twit who swamped our in-trays with memos about how we were a paperless office, I can confirm the essential truth of the cover illustration for Why Things Bite Back. The three-pin plug poised on its cable, like a rattlesnake about to strike, is a fine image of our new technology: we do not know where it is taking us and we have problems in handling it. The difference between snake-oil vendors and computer salespersons is not always apparent.

My word-processed words reach you via just such an electric rattlesnake plugged into my modem; yet on a bad day those paranoiac sci-fi tales of the Sixties, in which people are savaged by their own labour-saving devices, seem more science than fiction.

Today we suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury; once it was "sprout-picker's thumb" and "stitcher's wrist". As those examples show, Edward Tenner casts his net - or Net - very wide. He quotes a "fire historian" (a new career to me) on the new skills used for detecting and extinguishing conflagrations: it turns out that forests benefit from moderate flames which get rid quite literally, of the dead wood. Yet rangers who start controlled fires can often burn their fingers, and a lot else, in the more lethal infernos that often result.

We are damned if we do, singed if we don't. Talk about Sod's Law. Tenner does not identify the original Sod but he does reveal the man behind Murphy's Law: Captain Edward Murphy Jr, an American engineer who declared, "If there's more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will end in disaster, then somebody will do it that way."

The case of the walking Asian catfish is a further reminder of the dangers of tinkering with the local environment. These are the ones that got away from a breeder and walked all over South Florida, terrorising the native fish and even climbing into fishtanks for a quick snack.

More daunting is the concept that when things go right, they still go wrong. This could be termed Scud's Law, after the Iraqi missiles which did more damage when blown into tiny pieces by Patriot missiles than when left to explode. The "revenge effect" is how Tenner describes a result which, worse than a side effect, has the opposite effect to that intend- ed. George Washington was very ill until his doctors prescribed mercury, after which he died. Modern medicine is littered with revenge effects: immunisation against one disease can, by devastating the immune system, lay us open to assaults by others.

Convinced that the Titanic's hi-tech construction made her unsinkable, the crew were blase about details like icebergs and lifeboats, after which they learnt the hard way that she wasn't that unsinkable. The Chernobyl meltdown was also a kind of revenge effect: ironically, the safety systems had been over-ridden to test an emergency procedure which, with hindsight, really did need testing. A future edition could incorporate the beef crisis; farmers economised by stuffing cattle with sick sheep's brains and end up bankrupted because of the mad cows raving in their fields.

The good news is the "reverse revenge effect", where one step back leads to two steps forward. A gunshot wound in the leg during the American Civil War might well have meant amputation; but it also meant giant strides, if that's the word, in the artificial limb business.

Where does all this leave us? Deeply sceptical, in Tenner's case. He is not a Luddite and is prepared to use a word-processor; but he regrets that this year's state-of-the-art model is tomorrow's out-dated junk with the trade-in value of a shop-soiled abacus. He warns against embracing gizmos for their own sake. He urges us to spot the revenge effect before it spots us. The writing is not on the wall but on the hard disc; yet a virus may wipe it out and the moving finger may soon suffer from RSI.

This is the plain truth, but it is a little too plain. Tenner is careful to quote his references; but so many paragraphs are decorated with the number of the relevant footnote that I felt like altering the figures at random and rearranging the book in whatever order they suggested. It sometimes feels like chunks of research material rather than a book with a life of its own.

Maybe he did write a more ringing clarion call but it fell into a black hole in a hard disk: the revenge of the RAM Raiders, now showing at a work station near you.