An Instinct for the Regrettable

Thomas Midgley, Jr. was born into a family of inventors. Carrying on the family tradition, Midgley studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University. When he graduated from Cornell, he started his career at General Motors.

Five years into his career, Midgley discovered a way to prevent engines from knocking. Engines were prone to emit a hammer-like sound. What Midgley discovered was an additive for gasoline which would prevent the knocking from occurring. Midgley was given a major award from the American Chemical Society for his invention.

Shortly after the award, Midgley had to take a break from work to resolve a case of lead poisoning that resulted from his work on the anti-knock chemical. Midgley wasn’t the only person affected. The production facility where the chemical was produced started experiencing deaths and mental illnesses.

As a result of the unintended consequences of the production and use of the anti-knock chemical, the federal government banned its use.

Midgley went on to work on another problem for GM. Air conditioning and refrigeration systems used chemical compounds which were unstable and could catch fire or explode. Midgley and a team took a new approach to the development of a chemical which was less hazardous. The chemical they developed was called Freon. Midgley died three decades before freon was banned because of its impact on the environment.

What are often hailed as breakthroughs are later discovered to have unintended consequences. Could these unintended consequences have been anticipated? And if so, what should be the role of the federal government in their anticipation? The FDA is a federal agency which has the responsibility for evaluating the potential effects of drugs before they are approved. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has responsibility for other products with unintended consequences. But its work is primarily after the product has been introduced and problems become evident.

Just imagine what it might take to reduce unintended consequences before they occur? Could advances in technology (e.g. simulation modeling, artificial intelligence) be channeled to an investigation of possible dangers of innovations? Just imagine the legislative remedies that might be needed to raise attention to the advanced exploration of unintended consequences? Just imagine how a concern for unintended consequences could become a component of the design process?

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“There are downsides to everything; there are unintended consequences to everything.”  – Steve Jobs

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