Francis Spufford

  • Why Things Bite Back: New Technology and the Revenge Effect by Edward Tenner
    Fourth Estate, 360 pp, £18.99, June 1996, ISBN 1 85702 560 1

This book is presented as a pessimist’s primer, full of circumstantial evidence for the vanity of human wishes. It offers a portfolio of sharp blows to the back of the head, as good intentions boomerang. Dieting makes you fatter. Green washing-powder only replaces the algal blooms in the Adriatic Sea with mats of floating slime. But Edward Tenner’s book is dedicated, half-successfully, to subtler propositions about the contrariness of stuff. His argument, you could say, turns on the implicit difference between Sod’s Law (everything goes wrong) and Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong, it will). While the first is vacuous – or a matter of the psychology which ensures we remember the times things go wrong and forget the times they don’t – the second is an engineer’s motto about the scope we allow to disaster. After a record-breaking run on a rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base in the Forties, Captain Edward Murphy Jr discovered that all the recording instruments had been mounted backwards. The axiom he put in joke form had less to do with the human error involved than with the way the mechanical system had tolerated the error. The design of the gauges permitted them to be fitted wrong; the complexity of the system prevented the mistake from becoming apparent until results failed to appear. Why Things Bite Back, likewise, directs its attention towards the behaviour of systems, and our relationship with the particularly susceptible kind described as ‘tightly-coupled’, where the components act jostlingly on each other. It is about managing the unmanageable; it seeks intelligent responses to a world of malfunctioning cash dispensers.

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