A New Level Of Worrying

NIGHTTIME ILLUMINATION AT THE LINCOLN Memorial attracted millions of midges, and spiders that fed on the midges, and sparrows that fed on spiders. Scrubbing away the bird droppings and spider webs made the marble vulnerable to exhaust particles. A modern technology, the jet airliner, has democratized tourism, enabling millions to travel to see Michelangelo's restored frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, where the heat of the visitors' bodies and the vapor in their breath combine with dust in the air to produce indoor acid rain. Warm, humidified, insulated and carpeted modern homes are comfortable not only for humans but also for fleas, which probably outweigh people on this planet.

Laws protecting marine mammals have produced a sixfold increase in the sea lion population, with devastating consequences for their favorite delicacy, steelheads. The proficiency of smoke jumpers at extinguishing small forest fires has produced a ""fire deficit'' by building up flammable materials that feed intense fires dangerous to the many people who, encouraged by firefighting proficiency, build homes at the edges of forests. Federal water projects made America's arid Southwest able to sustain millions of new residents and air conditioning made the region attractive to millions, including many seeking relief from allergies. But the water irrigated lawns, golf courses and wind-pollinated trees and plants that the new residents wanted in order to feel at home. And the allergy-sufferers began to suffer again.

On Alaska's Mount McKinley, where there are wind gusts of 200 mph near the summit, improved outdoor gear and improved safety technologies such as helicopter rescue have increased the number of climbers -- and casualties. Modern improvements -- in nutrition, medicine, training -- have produced bigger, stronger tennis players who, wielding ""improved'' (a complex concept in sport) tennis racquets made of modern materials (no wood racquet has been used at Wimbledon since 1982), can hit 125 mph serves, which can produce boring matches that are mere serving contests. (In one Pete Sampras match at Wimbledon the longest rally was eight strokes.)

Safety measures can make sports more dangerous. Early boxers fought bare-knuckle and floored fighters had 30 seconds to get up. Gloves and the 10-second knockout made hands heavier, decreased the risk of a broken hand from a heavy blow to the opponent's head and increased the incentive to land such blows because a felled fighter was less likely to get up in 10 seconds. Furthermore, the friction of leather on a face rotates the head in a way that increases brain damage. Perhaps World War I, the first large modern war in which combatants wore metal helmets, prompted the development of football helmets. In any case, modern football protections, particularly the hard plastic helmet, have enabled larger and larger players (many enlarged by the illegal modern chemistry of steroids) to produce a ballistic game involving kinetic energy greater than human spines and joints and tendons and ligaments are built to bear, producing an epidemic of chronic ailments. In addition, new anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers, and improved rehabilitation techniques and technologies, enable players to achieve relief from pain at the risk of chronic disability.

Armed carjacking has increased in part as the response of frustrated criminals to automobile alarm systems that complicate the theft of parked cars. Power door locks make drivers feel safer but have produced a huge increase in the number of persons locked out of their cars and exposed to the criminals the locks are supposed to protect them against. Home security systems generate so many false alarms, most from owners' errors, that police resources are squandered, making crime easier.

Depressed? Don't be. But do read the new book from which these ideas are drawn, Edward Tenner's ""Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.'' It explores what he calls ""the strange consequences of nearly everything.'' Tenner, a visiting scholar at Princeton, is not one of those neo-Luddites who believe, as a wit said, that progress was all right once, but it went on too long. He acknowledges a kinship with Mary Shelley, whose ""Frankenstein'' ""first connected Promethean technology with unintended havoc.'' But he is, on balance, cheerful, in his mordant manner, about ""the tendency of the world around us to get even, to twist our cleverness against us.''

One reason he is cheerful is that he believes in the creativity of disaster. To Murphy's Law (""If something can go wrong, it will'') he offers a positive corollary: ""Sometimes things can go right only by first going very wrong.'' As when the tragedy of the Titanic produced the International Ice Patrol. But Tenner's sober theme is pertinent to our political discontents that arise from impatience with the world's imperfections, and misplaced confidence in our ability to manipulate society.

He notes that we are suffering what Lewis Thomas called ""an epidemic of apprehension.'' ""We seem,'' Tenner says, ""to worry more than our ancestors, surrounded though they were by exploding steamboat boilers, raging epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters.'' Disasters foster improvements and improvements foster discontent because they establish standards that are hard for fallible humans to sustain. The U.S. Weather Service has been sued -- successfully -- for failing to forecast an ocean storm that killed some fishermen. There was scant medical malpractice litigation until medicine became proficient.

But proficiency often arouses anxiety because it requires intense vigilance. For example, the pharmacological revolution has multiplied medical options and encouraged people to seek more treatment, so even a small rate of error can produce a large number of casualties. A single hospital can dispense upwards of 3 million medications a year. An error rate of less than 0.2 percent would mean 5,000 mistakes and perhaps 500 adverse events. Welcome to the world of what Tenner calls ""a new level of worrying.'' It is a world of progress and progress's ""revenge effects,'' a world exhilarating in its complexity but chastening to our hubris.

A New Level Of Worrying | News