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Cover of "Why Things Bite Back: Technolog...

Cover via Amazon

In “Why Things Bite Back,” by Edward Tenner, we are introduced to the concept of technological “revenge effects.” Tenner explains “[a] revenge effect is not the same as a side effect. If a cancer chemotherapy treatment causes baldness, that is not a revenge effect; but if it induces another, equally lethal cancer, that is a revenge effect” (p. 42). One of the revenge effects of the internet, I would venture, is the seemingly impossibility of legal regulation. The internet gives us unparalleled freedom of information, freedom of speech, and freedom from the law. This is not always the case, for online activity has also sparked criminal investigations, such as the Vancouver Riot suspects being apprehended through photos posted on Facebook, however, hate groups can practice hate speech online with apparent impunity. Does it matter where the author resides in determining if a crime has taken place? And if so, is it where they permanently reside – or where they were at the time their hate speech was produced on the internet? Does it fall onto the Internet Service Provider to conclude illegality? What about the location of the domain that is used – is that the locale from which a crime took place? This ambiguity is cause for concern.

At the same time, increased regulation such as the attempted introduction of  the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act, including the amendment of the Canada Criminal Code and other acts’ “would, among other abominable violations of civil liberties:

Require Internet service providers to give subscriber data to police and national security agencies without a warrant, including names, unlisted phone numbers and IP addresses.

Force Internet providers and other makers of technology to provide a “back door” to make communications accessible to police” (Karlin, 2012).

If this was actually put into action, even those who were doing nothing illegal on the internet could have their online activity monitored and their privacy breached by the police without needing to acquire a warrant. The revenge effect of attempted regulation would be the introduction of a “Big Brother” surveillance state. Is it even possible to strike a balance in the middle? I’m horrified by both hate speech and the possibility of a surveillance state – who is responsible for keeping us safe both from the internet, and for the internet?

A new theme is emerging in our Communications and Technology course: privacy and surveillance in the digital world.

Courtesy of

Tenner explains:

The real revenge is not what we do intentionally against one another. It is the tendency of the world around us to get even, to twist our cleverness against us. Or it is our own unconscious twisting against ourselves. Either way, wherever we turn we face the ironic unintended consequences of mechanical, chemical, biological, and medical ingenuity – revenge effects, they might be called (p. 41).

In searching for possible solutions to the revenge effects of technology, I came across an incredibly interesting video. It is the introduction to a documentary created by The Venus Project. It was instantly appealing to me because they are attempting to address social problems such as inequality, discrimination, poverty, and power imbalance – to name a few, and also access to healthcare and proper environmental practices. They are acknowledging that the revenge effects that came along with the advent of machinery have lead to incredible social problems. What I find most interesting, is that they are proposing the responsible use of technology as the solution to the problem. Removing patents, and giving everyone equal access. Their documentary is appropriately titled “Paradise or Oblivion.”

Critique of “Why Things Bite Back,” Chapter 1: Ever Since Frankenstein by Tenner, E.:

I found this reading quite interesting in some parts, but somewhere around the middle it was a bit of information overload. Tenner provides so many examples of revenge effects from bugs in machinery that was designed to help us, to flame retardant children’s pajamas that ended up being carcinogenic. Despite my initial interest in the topic, because of the mid-term slump and the reading being long in comparison with others – it was hard to read right through to the end. It would have been easier if the examples were narrowed down somewhat.


Karlin, M. (2012, February 17). The Threat of ‘Big Brother’ Internet Monitoring in Canada. Retrieved from

Tenner, E. (1996). Chapter 1: Ever Since Frankenstein. In Fernyhough, L. (Ed.), Comm 105: Communication and Technology. Course Package: Winter 2012, (pp. 39-54). Victoria, BC: Camosun College Bookstore. (Reprinted from Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, 3-32).