Human history is the history of brilliant ideas with disastrous, unintended consequences.
Prehistory is anybody’s guess, but one doesn’t have to stretch his or her imagination too far to conclude that the first sharpened stick led to the first stabbing. We don’t have to go back that far, though. We can start our exploration of this subject with our 10,000 year-old ancestor who discovered the secret of plant propagation. From the moment the first seed was intentionally planted, humans were freed from their animal nature, at least in terms of sustenance. Not having to follow the seasons in order to hunt and gather food allowed for permanent settlement–for villages that became towns that became cities that led to countries. One seed eradicated famine and birthed civilization.
That’s the story, but rather than eradicate famine agriculture compounded the problem. The human population exploded as a result of abundant food, so when farming hit its limit in a given area due to any number of factors (weather, arable land, population), people starved. And then there were the sanitation issues that came with all of those people living in one place, not to mention the resource wars that inevitably rose between communities.
Was agriculture an evil invention? No, it was a compassionate invention with some very dark consequences. Climate change, overpopulation, urban sprawl, and the mass extinction of non-human species all can be traced to that first planted seed.
For the last ten millennia humans have stepped in this same mud puddle over and over again. We innovate with every intention of making the world a better place only to be blindsided by unintended consequences.
The problem of powered flight, for example, had been kicking around for at least 2,000 years when the Wright brothers finally cracked the nut in December 1903. Painting them as two bicycle mechanics in love with the idea of flying is romantic but inaccurate. Like most inventors, their motives were a mixture of curiosity and commerce, but they also recognized that their invention had military implications. Interestingly, the Wrights didn’t envision their plane as a flying weapons platform but rather an observation tool far superior to the manned balloons used at the time. The brothers assumed that when each side had equal ability to see the battlefield, the supply lines, etc., they would realize the futility of war. The aircraft would lead to peace.
Less than ten years later, observation pilots were dropping grenades from their open cockpits, tossing bricks into each others’ spinning propellers, and firing handguns at each other. By the end of World War I, purpose built bombers were raining death and fighter planes were mounted with machine guns synchronized to fire through their whirling props.
After World War II and the airborne atrocities at Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, Orville Wright told an interviewer: “We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong. We underestimated man’s capacity to hate and to corrupt good means for an evil end.” The airplane: Brilliant idea–dark, unintended consequences.
One can entertain this same thought experiment on any human invention or innovation: religion, medicine, internal combustion, water purification, animal domestication and husbandry, television, the wheel, on and on. We are bulls in the china shop of nature, and we can’t so much as bat our tails without knocking something over. One may reasonably conclude that the Garden of Eden story is an allegory for this very thing: Once we tasted the sweet fruit of knowledge, we stepped away from the natural paradise of our animal nature and into a hell quite literally of our own making. If that analogy doesn’t suit you, there’s always Pandora’s Box. Dating to roughly the same time and paralleling the Eden story, this myth tells the tale of the curious Pandora who opens a box and lets out all of the evils in the world. Both stories have the same moral: Defying nature leads to unintended consequences.
Truly transformative innovations like agriculture and powered flight come along very rarely, and when they do their enormity as Pandora’s Apple makes itself manifest without an ad campaign. Usually when we’re told something is a game changer we’re being fed a marketing line rather than a fact. For example, inventor Dean Kamen famously said that the “Segway will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy,” an assertion that I’m guessing even he knew was 99.9 percent hype and 0.1 percent wishful thinking. The automobile may have altered reality, but with exception to mall security guards and Kamen himself, nobody’s life changed due to his little scooter.
If you were born prior to December 1994, your life has spanned one of these rare innovations, and it was neither the Segway nor Big Mouth Billy Bass. I’m not referring to the LCD television, the hybrid car, or Crocs, either. No, December 1994 saw the initial release of Netscape Navigator, the first commercially popular graphical web browser.
The internet existed long before Netscape, of course. If you prefer, you can push this timeline back to Tim Berner-Lee’s 1989 invention of the world wide web. Either milestone works just fine for purposes of this conversation, but Netscape Navigator turned the home computer into a tool that anyone in the family could use regardless of technical background. Almost immediately the unintended consequences began. First came the porn, as it always does with any new visual technology (printing press, camera, VCR, etc.), and then shopping. Jeff Bezos founded Cadabra in 1994, but re-branded his site Amazon the following year. He was only one of literally thousands of retailers who joined the new gold rush that would come to be known as “the internet bubble.” Unintended consequences: A stock market crash and the slow destruction of brick and mortar retailing that continues to this day.
The 1999 appearance of Napster did for file sharing what Navigator did for web browsing. People were sharing audio files online long before Shawn Fanning made it easy, but once Napster was up and running all bets were off. The once mighty music industry has never recovered from the evil that Fanning let out of that box. And then there was print journalism. Newspapers and magazines continue to struggle to find their place in the online world. Why buy what we can get for free, right?
But this is all ancient history, as those early innovations evolved into the monolith we now call “social media.” The overwhelming majority of our online viewing is filtered through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, etc. Social media sites essentially function as portals into the online world, and as such they wield a tremendous amount of power. The unintended consequences of that concentrated power are transforming our world in ways that those of us old enough to remember the world pre-internet find hard to believe.
Until recently the most frequently cited consequence of social media was the “echo chamber.” One can easily filter his or her social media feeds to the point that only concurring perspectives are seen. We can’t really do this in our waking lives, where inevitably we have to sit down for a meal with Crazy Uncle Jerry, get along with coworkers with whom we’d never otherwise associate, and maybe even make peace with a spouse with differing opinions. Not on Facebook, though. In that world we can unfriend, unfollow, and block our way to homogeneity.
For quite some time I’ve worried about the unintended consequences of the echo chamber, but those concerns seem trite compared to the latest, much darker, unintended consequence of the internet in general and social media in particular: propaganda. The popular term for this recent phenomenon is “fake news,” and though I use it too, that phrase seems imprecise. “Fake news” connotes satire along the lines of The Onion, where the “news” isn’t true while the underlying subtext is. “Biden Forges President’s Signature On Executive Order To Make December Dokken History Month” read one recent headline. Only the most gullible reader would believe that the vice-president committed a felony to honor a hair band. What makes the Onion’s jabs at Uncle Joe funny is that they’re poking at the stereotype of the vice-presidency as a frivolous position with no real power.
Is it a lie? Sure, in the sense that any joke or work of fiction is a lie, but propaganda–the more sinister form of fake news–that’s a different story. While many filter proof of such from entering their echo chambers, the evidence remains overwhelming that a flood of propaganda masquerading as “news” and originating from outside the United States swayed the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and how did this fake news metastasize so quickly? Through social media. The unintended consequence: A foreign government was able to influence who Americans voted for.
That’s not all. Comet Ping Pong’s owners had their business shot up after fake news outlets fingered them as the epicenter of “Pizzagate,” perhaps the most ludicrous conspiracy theory ever concocted. A Florida woman was arrested for making death threats to the mother of a Sandy Hook victim after getting suckered by one too many fake news stories about that massacre never happening.
On and on–the unintended consequences of lies masquerading as truth pile up and we wring our hands and fret. Meanwhile, we’re told that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” itself a powerful piece of propaganda, and social media remains the fire hose that spews this bizarro doublespeak at us.
I genuinely think that social media’s unintended consequences are pushing us toward a new world precisely as every other transformational innovation has done. The direction we’re currently heading is a frightening one, but perhaps it’s not too late to right the ship. How we get there is unclear to me, but I think a good first step is accepting that there is such thing, fortunately, as facts, and that platforms designed to share selfies and cat videos aren’t the best place to find them.
Satire is an entertaining, informative art form. Propaganda is malicious. The purveyors of fake news will continue to generate Pizzagate-like stories as long as they generate clicks and ad revenue, and readers will continue to post those stories on their social media feeds if they support those readers’ biases. The unintended consequences of doing nothing might range from an Idiocracy-like future to global warfare.
So what’s the solution? Please, tell me. I’m listening.