unintended consequences

“Welcome to Magic School. Here is your schedule.”
“Thanks! But…”
“This is just ‘Ethics’ and ‘Human rights’ and things like that.”
“Correct, that’s the first year curriculum.”
“Do we have to learn all this?”
“Of course! What do you think this is, software engineering?”

  • Some unintended consequences of automobiles are pollution, gridlock, and manslaughter.
  • An unintended consequence of using cement as our primary building material is large CO2 emissions.
  • An unintended consequence of Facebook is false narratives.
  • An unintended consequence of consumer social media platforms is a surveillance economy.
  • An unintended consequence of a digitally mediated society is constant outrage.
  • An unintended consequence of online services like Über is “low-paying work that deliver on-demand servant services to rich people“.

When making decisions that may affect others, we should take time to consider the unintended consequences. Too often we are blinded by factors such as — over-confidence, lack of perspective, or eagerness. This is particularly necessary when building tools and platforms that millions may use. One simple tool to examine technology is the Media tetrad developed by Marshall & Eric McLuhan in the 1980’s. It still holds true.

Every medium —
extends a human property,
obsolesces the previous medium (& makes it a luxury good),
retrieves a much older medium, &
reverses its properties when pushed to its limits.

The reversal — when a technology’s properties are pushed to its limits — is a potential unintended consequence. A technology can have more than one, as shown by the automobile example above. When developing a new technology, or deciding to implement one in your organization, it would pay to have some deep conversations about these effects. Just because these consequences are unintended does not mean they are unknown.

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