Larry Magid: Unintended consequences of well-meaning innovations and laws

Larry Magid: Unintended consequences of well-meaning innovations and laws

I think a lot about unintended consequences.  That’s certainly the case when it comes to laws. Some of the best-intentioned legislation designed to help a great many people winds up hurting or inconveniencing some of those same people or perhaps

Larry Magid 

others. It’s also true when it comes to changes in products. I can think of numerous cases where a company has revised a piece of software or even hardware in ways that some users may love but others may hate.

The potential downside of wonderful technology is well documented. Despite President Trump’s suggestion to the contrary, I’m pretty sure the wheel wasn’t invented in the United States. Credit for that invention, in the form of a potter’s wheel, goes to the Mesopotamians about 5,500 years ago. When it comes to transportation, the wheelbarrow was invented by ancient Greeks.  Since then, we’ve seen many great products built on wheels, including automobiles. But I wonder if those Greeks thought about wheelbarrows crashing into people or even imagined wheels being used in vehicles —  like carriages and cars –that could run people over.

We’re not exactly sure who invented the automobile, but early prototypes go back to steam propelled vehicles from 1769. Robert Anderson invented the first electric carriage in the 1830s, but then around 1885, we took a step either forward or backward,  depending on your perspective, when Karl Benz invented the gasoline car.

Benz and subsequent inventors like Henry Ford, who released the Model T in 1908, deserve praise for ushering in an era of great mobility for people of all income groups. The value of their inventions cannot be overstated. But I wonder if either of them put much thought into unintended consequences. I suspect they did consider the possibility of people being injured or killed by accidents. But did they think about the negative impact cars would ultimately have on cities? I wonder if they thought about gridlock or the impact of gasoline cars on the environment and people’s health?

And, although I realize that electric cars might not have been practical when Anderson was around, there was a period, beginning during the turn of the 20th century, when they began to catch on. The U.S. Department of Energy has a great timeline ( that chronicles the history of electric cars, which says that in 1899. “Compared to the gas- and steam-powered automobiles at the time, electric cars are quiet, easy to drive and didn’t emit smelly pollutants — quickly becoming popular with urban residents, especially women.”  But, after falling into obscurity, it took more than a century for them to be once again taken seriously.

Product updates that take us backward

This is a first-world problem, but I’m frequently disturbed by the unintended consequences of product updates. Microsoft is famous for making changes that not everyone appreciates. Windows 8 – with its radical “tile” interface, was hated and ultimately replaced by Windows 10, which looked a lot more like the familiar Windows that many of us were familiar with. Microsoft has done an amazing job updating and evolving Microsoft Word and other products that are part of Microsoft Office. But in 2007, changed the user interface to replace many of the familiar menu items with a ribbon that I’m still trying to fully decipher. Recently, they changed the way you save files, disabling a convenient shortcut that let you easily save or not save a file by pressing a single key.

Of course, it’s not just Microsoft. There have been several examples of Apple releasing new versions of its iOS operating system for iPhones only to have to quickly introduce a fix because of bugs. And Tesla is infamous for introducing new bugs when it updates the firmware on its fleet of connected cars.

Well meaning laws with bad effects

Laws, too, can have unintended consequences. California’s AB 5, which went into effect Jan. 1, was intended to protect gig economy workers from being exploited by the likes of Uber, Lyft, Facebook, Google and other companies who were using freelancers or contractors to do jobs which would normally be done by employees.  But the law affected a lot more people, including freelance writers and musicians who may prefer being contractors to employees. Some are having to limit the number of jobs they can access each year, others are having to sign-up as employees and not only having taxes taken out of their checks but losing some of the tax write-offs that independent contractors enjoy. For some, it’s even worse because the companies that were hiring them as contractors are no longer hiring them at all.

Privacy laws are another example of extremely well-meaning legislation with unintended consequences. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) gives consumers the right to control how their information is used, but it also restricts teen’s ability to post on social media. Until she turned 16 about a year ago — some European countries would have required parental consent for Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg to use Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to help fight climate change. Likewise, for Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who could have been kicked off social media when she became an activist as a young teen, had this law been in effect. While requiring parental consent may seem reasonable, it adds a level of complexity that causes some companies to simply ban users under the specified age.

I’m not calling for legislators to stop making laws that improve our lives, and I’m certainly not asking inventors and entrepreneurs to stop making new products or improving existing ones, but I am asking everyone to think about the full range of consequences of whatever great ideas they’re thinking about implementing.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.

Published at Thu, 30 Jan 2020 12:30:49 +0000