The life-principle of unintended consequences

The life-principle of unintended consequences is an oft-used street wisdom strapline, it is somewhat related to “be careful, you might get what you are wishing for!”, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and other wisdobots we may use as decision making tools.

Cory Doctorow, great guru of all things blog, activist, accomplished writer and the co-editor of one of the most popular blogs around , traces the life-principle of unintended consequences, from Jewish grannies to inventors whose inventions (‘are you there, Igor?’) moved away from their intended purpose. Doctorow offers three examples of what he terms ‘repurposing‘ – the telephone was invented to broadcast opera into America’s living-rooms, Krazy-Glue was originally invented to be used as a field suture, and the Web, who was invented to help high-energy physicists exchange research papers.

The life-principle of unintended consequences can be traced back to a 1936 article titled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action“, by American sociologist Robert Merton . Merton identified five sources of unanticipated consequences, namely — ignorance (we aren’t aware of the consequences of the process we put in motion), error (a mistake in our calculations,) imperious immediacy of interest (we want it to happen so much so we ignore potential pitfalls), basic values and self-fulfilling prophecies (a term that Merton is said to have coined, together with terms like “role model”. Self-fulfilling prophecies belong to the “I told you it will never work, it never does” school of putdowns.)

In his article “The law of unintended consequences” (The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics: Library of Economics and Liberty,) , eCompany Now magazine columnist Rob Norton makes two interesting references – one, to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” where each individual seeking gain, “is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” but of public-interest which, nevertheless, happens as a result on one’s regard to his own self interest. This, according to Norton, is a positive manifestation of the law of unintended consequences.

The second reference – a negative example – is of a law promulgated by the state of Vermont who, in 1968, “outlawed roadside billboards and large signs in order to protect the state’s pastoral vistas. One unintended consequence was the appearance of large, bizarre “sculptures” adjacent to businesses. An auto dealer commissioned a twelve-foot, sixteen-ton gorilla, clutching a real Volkswagen Beetle. A carpet store is marked by a nineteen-foot genie holding aloft a rolled carpet as he emerges from a smoking teapot. Other sculptures include a horse, a rooster, and a squirrel in red suspenders.”

Another example of unintended consequences comes from the The International Herald Tribune – “The very success of environmentalism threatens to undo two of mankind’s most significant environmental victories. The first is the near stabilization of humanity’s agricultural footprint, expansion of which is the single largest threat to biodiversity worldwide. The second is the spectacular reduction in chronic hunger and malnutrition without which the pressure to convert land for agricultural use would have been stronger.”

And so, some good intentions paving the road to hell may be the unfavorable outcome of decisions we make today, which reminds me of an old story my late granny used to tell —

During the 1960’s, a black activist wanted to make the point that racism and anti-Semitism are one and the same.

So, he took the train to New York and sat there, reading a Jewish newspaper.

A Jewish guy was on the same train – and watched this black guy, sitting opposite him and reading a Jewish newspaper, so the Jewish guy says to him

“What, being black isn’t enough?”