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Psychology of Technology: The Law of Unintended Consequences

I’ve been called a skeptic, an alarmist, and a doomsayer because the focus of most of my technology blogging is on the risks of and what’s wrong with technology. I realize that I may sound like a Luddite despite the fact that I’m actually an early adapter and readily admit that I couldn’t function in my work without the plethora of technology that is currently at our fingertips. I guess the reason I come across as such a downer at times is that I assume that we all know about the incredible benefits that technology has to offer us; it’s not worth repeating what we all know to be true. At the same time, I recognize that, with the rapid advancements in computer and communication technology in the last decade, we haven’t had to time consider how these developments will shape our individual and collective lives.

I don’t have a problem with technology. To the contrary, it can be a wonderful tool for progress and change. Technology is already changing our lives cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally; psychologically, physically, and socially; politically, culturally, and environmentally. My goal is not to suggest that we should reject technology, but rather to ensure that we have control over it rather it controlling us. The ultimate objective of this dissection of technology is to make certain that we use it with perspective and forethought to enhance our lives instead of indifferently or reactively to damage our lives.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But before we can find answers, we must first ask the right questions. That is what I want to do, to ask the questions that need to be asked in the hope that minds greater than my own will help provide the answers.

With that preface, let me introduce you to the Law of Unintended Consequences and why I am so concerned about the breakneck pace of technological development. According to, this law states “that any purposeful action will produce some unanticipated or unintended consequences.” Furthermore, it is “a warning against the hubristic belief that humans can fully control the world around them.” Finally, “possible causes of unintended consequences include the world’s inherent complexityperverse incentives, human stupidity, self-deception or other cognitive or emotional biases.”

The Law of Unintended Consequences can be seen everywhere in our lives, for example, in the wars in Irag and Afghanistan and the Great Recession. And it is absolutely pervasive in the new world of computer and communication technology. Consider the Internet, the Web, mobile phones, texting, facebook, and twitter. Here’s what twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey had to say about his invention: “Twitter was intended to be a way for vacant, self-absorbed egotists to share their most banal and idiotic thoughts with anyone pathetic enough to read them. When I heard how Iranians were using my beloved creation for their own means—such as organizing a political movement and informing the outside world of the actions of a repressive regime—I couldn’t believe they’d ruined something so beautiful, simple, and absolutely pointless.” Though clearly speaking with tongue firmly planted in cheek, who would have predicted that technology would play a key role in the election of a president or the promotion of freedom in countries such as China and Iran. At the same time, who would have thought that mobile phones would be used by terrorists and drug dealers to further their causes or that texting while driving would increase the risk of an car accident 23 times.

Is there a more powerful force in our lives today than technology? I don’t think so. And, given its increasing influence on our individual and social landscapes, shouldn’t we understand the technologies as best we can?

We can increase that understanding and decrease its unintended consequences by exploiting the incredible technology we now have available to us. Why not employ the same strategies that software companies use – mass collaboration — in which they “leak” unfinished software to the amateur developers. In doing so, these “basement hackers” identify and resolve bugs, “tweak” the software, and, generally, polish the product far better than a team of in-house developers could ever do. Imagine if a new technology was similarly leaked to experts in the fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, as well as laypeople with a passion for the intersection of technology and humanity, and were encouraged to brainstorm on how it might be used, misused, and what its unintended consequences might be. Using the power of technology to harness the creative power of the many to further the value of technology seems like a no-brainer to me.

Of course, we can never know a priori all of the unintended consequences (just as most of us couldn’t have imagined that terrorists would use hijacked airliners as guided missiles), but reducing their number could make the positive effects of new technology all the more beneficial and its negative effects more manageable and less destructive.