Unintended Consequences

with Anne Pollock

This research revisits the term “unintended consequences,” drawing upon an illustrative vignette to show how it is used to dismiss vital ethical and political concerns. Tracing the term to its original introduction by Robert Merton and building on feminist technoscience analyses, we uncover and rethink its widespread usage in popular and scholarly discourses and practices of technology design.

The phrase “unintended consequences” found widespread usage in contemporary discourses on technology and policy after canonical sociologist of science Robert Merton’s (1936) article titled: “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.” In this paper, Merton identifies three obstacles that limit one’s ability to anticipate the consequences of purposeful action to achieve a particular goal: ignorance, error, and ideological blindness. The term “unanticipated consequences,” however, has been overwhelmingly replaced in usage with the all-too- common “unintended consequences,” often used as its synonym. Used in this manner, the term enables a tacit argument that perfectly predictable entrenchment of social and political challenges are outside of design’s purview and a way to marginalize the profound ethical questions at the heart of technological design choices. The overemphasis on intent— understood predominately in its individualistic interpretation—forecloses consideration of the complexity of social systems in such a way as to lead to quick technical fixes. In this way, the term “unintended consequences” becomes a barrier to, rather than a facilitator of, vital discussions about design.

Related Publications

  1. Unintended by Design: On the Political Uses of “Unintended Consequences” Nassim Parvin and Anne Pollock | Engaging Science, Technology, and Society (ESTS). 5:1 (June 2020).