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Section 2. Innovations are unpredictable (DDT, automobiles, and the Internet)

Section 2. Innovations are unpredictable (DDT, automobiles, and the Internet) Innovation is always good > Innovations are unpredictable (DDT, automobiles, and the Internet)

2. Innovations are unpredictable (DDT, automobiles, and the Internet)

But the WHO soon observed strange things in places where DDT was used. Scientists realized that this new chemical had unexpected and complex collateral effects. The story went like this:

The mosquitoes were effectively eliminated; however roaches, less sensitive to DDT, survived, absorbing the poison. Small lizards happily ate the roaches. Those lizards developed nerve damage from the DDT (providing the widowed roaches with bittersweet glee), who, in their slow, near-drunken stupor, were easily consumed en masse by the local cat population. The cats, more sensitive to the DDT than the lizards, died by the thousands, opening the door for an explosion in the rat population. And the kicker to the whole sordid tale is that the rats brought the threat of the plague to humans. [**]

[**] This is a careful combination of several different accounts. There are many secondary reports that provide similar, and in some cases, more dramatic tellings of the events. See and

For all their confidence, the technological leaders of the world were dumbfounded by the chain of events their actions put into play. At first, the WHO and many scientists refused to believe that DDT could be responsible for everything they observed. It was unimaginable to the best scientific minds of the 1950s that one little chemical could cause so much damage. And since DDT was so new, and there were no mass uses of chemicals like DDT on record, everyone was ignorant of the possibilities. Much like the major innovations of the last decades—cell phones, wireless Internet, personal computers—DDT changed so much about how things worked that it was impossible to predict its impact, positive and negative, before it was used (see Figure 10-3).

Figure 10-3. DDT and airplanes were a perfect match. Here, DDT is being used on cattle to give them extra special flavor.

Before DDT, people had little reason to fear pesticides or chemicals of any kind. It wasn't until Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, that people became aware of the negative impacts of DDT, and the modern environmental movement was born. [Section 2. Innovations are unpredictable (DDT, automobiles, and the Internet)Section 2. Innovations are unpredictable (DDT, automobiles, and the Internet)] Before-hand, there was little public knowledge about the possibility of chemicals moving up the food chain, or the unpredictable nature of shifting the species' balance in ecosystems. The science community did not understand the interconnectedness of ecologies and had little experience with the new kinds of chemicals they were producing. DDT's greatest value was its staying power, yet it was nearly impossible to predict that this very property would have intense destructive effects.

[Section 2. Innovations are unpredictable (DDT, automobiles, and the Internet)Section 2. Innovations are unpredictable (DDT, automobiles, and the Internet)] There are still debates about the true risks of DDT, the Borneo tale, and whether the studies done of DDT on birds were accurate. Regardless of how much of this particular truth we surface, my point holds steady: all innovations have unpredictable effects, both good and bad. And often, as perhaps in the case of DDT, it takes a long time to understand the true impact of an innovation. See

Other major innovations show similar patterns of diffusion with unexpected consequences arising as a result of successful adoption. Automobiles are one of the great successes of the early 20th century. They revolutionized society, enabling unprecedented commerce, travel, and leisure for the middle classes around the world. But their success has created many sizable, perhaps inescapable problems; for example, over one million people are killed annually in automobile accidents (nearly 40,000 in the U.S. alone). Automobiles require expensive road development and upkeep, and they are major contributors to pollution (see Table 10-1).

Table 10-1. The two sides of innovations
DDT Controlled malaria, elevated living conditions in third-world nations, inspired professional Wrestling move [1] Disturbed ecology, collateral species impact, DDT-resistant mosquitoes evolved
Automobile Personalized transportation, empowered individuals, boosted commerce and urban development Creates half of pollution in urban areas, 40,000 annual U.S. fatalities, traffic, gave birth to suburbs [2]
Personal computers Individual empowerment, communication, learning, the Internet Rate of upgrades creates landfill, production uses and creates hazardous materials [3]
Cell phones Wireless communication, mobile access, convenience, portable emergency and safety system Public annoyance, bad drivers become unguided missiles, that annoying person next to you in a restaurant




This is an essential paradox of innovation: no one knows, not even the inventors, how their creations will impact the world until they are used. Ford did not imagine pizza delivery boys. The McDonald brothers didn't imagine epidemic obesity. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not consider software viruses. And Gutenberg, with all of his bibles, didn't envision The Da Vinci Code, nor the New York Times bestseller list it disgracefully (at least to him—he was printing bibles after all) dominated for months. For all the wishful thinking of innovators, innovations always have unintended consequences. They are free for use by others, and because everyone has different needs, values, idea, and desires, there's no telling how the innovations born of one mind will be used by another.

A popular opinion held among inventors is that true breakthrough ideas are so different from our current thinking that we have no idea how to use them. This means that not only is the use of an innovation unpredictable after it has been accepted, but the time and motivation for its acceptance is unpredictable as well. Gordon Gould, one the inventors of the Laser, said:

The triode…was invented in 1910, but it took years before a vacuum tube was ever sold commercially. Nobody knew what to do with them. They just knew that a triode provided a wonderful way to control a current with an electrical signal instead of a mechanical switch. Like the triode, the laser is also very basic and important invention. But for the first five years or so of its life, there was a saying that the laser was "a solution in search of a problem." [double daggerdouble dagger]

[double daggerdouble dagger] From Inventors at Work: Interviews with 16 Notable American Inventors.

Many researchers take pride in this uncertainty, as it proves that they are as far out as possible in front of what we know, satisfying their drive to work in territory where breakthroughs are possible. But they downplay their lack of control, or their concerns, for how their discovery will be used. The intention of goodness doesn't bind the movement of ideas in any way. Barbed wire, designed to control cattle, which had innocent intentions (well, unless you're a cow), found its way into a pivotal role in WWI, limiting soldiers' movement across trenches and enabling some of the bloodiest warfare in the history of mankind. [§§] Einstein's theory of relativity revolutionized our understanding of the universe, but despite Einstein's initial disapproval, led to the atomic bomb. From every wonder comes a horror, and no one can claim certainty over what future the pursuit of an innovation will create.


To be fair, the movement of innovation works the other way just as easily. Technologies developed for warfare—including the Jeep automobile, MedEvac helicopters, jet aircraft, trench coats, and microwave ovens—often find important commercial, mass-market, and humanitarian uses. [||||] Even the technologies used to develop the Internet originated in U.S. Government defense projects and with government funding. Guerilla warfare inspired guerilla marketing, and on it goes. The lesson is that morality, or any philosophy, is invisible to the forces of innovation, and any innovator who takes his work seriously must operate with this in mind.