FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, January 24, 2005

Pondering Unintended Consequences

One of the biggest challenges for futurists is trying to forecast unintended consequences of technologies and trends. It's easy enough to speculate on how a certain technology or innovation will affect the future, but time rarely travels that linearly. More typically, unseen events, people and other factors interact with the innovation to affect its outcome for better or worse.

The UK IT journal The Register has an interesting piece on the history of unintended consequences, illustrating how supposedly minor and harmless decisions can have dramatic, often catastrophic outcomes years later. For example, the article highlights the US decision to sell the Shah of Iran high-quality printing presses for producing paper currency in the 1970s. No harm done there, right? Well, fast-forward about 20 years, when the Mideast became flooded with counterfeit $100 US bills. The culprit was Iran, now in the hands of anti-American Islamic revolutionaries... and the bogus currency was being used to, among other things, finance terrorist activities.

The article offers sage advice for futurists:

The law of unexpected consequences is one that we simply can't afford to forget, and even though they're impossible to adequately plan for, we can minimize their effects. We have to worry about it, and we have to always ask the hard question: given this new thing foo, what are all the possible results that could happen? Brainstorm. Think out of the box. Don't be afraid to consider whatever crazy idea pops into your head. Trust me: it's never crazy enough.

The piece summarizes with an observation that so many people in the UK are taking Prozac that traces of it are showing up in the water supply. If that's happening, could that be the case with other drugs? Narcotics? Viagra!?!? Now that's an unintended consequence to ponder!