About a year ago, HVAC technicians added dye to the coolant that was leaking out of the air conditioning system that cools the server room where I work. Tracing the dye stains to their source is a common approach to locating leaks in cooling systems. The technicians scheduled a return visit, but within a few days, we had a much bigger problem. It seems that the dye reacts with water to create a waxy substance. The water, in our case was the condensation that forms at the cooling end of the system, i.e. above the ceiling of our server room. The condensate is normally pumped to a central drain line, but the wax clogged the pump and the water poured into the room.
Was this an unintended consequence of the technician’s actions? Well, I’m sure it was unintended, but this was actually the discovery of a previously unknown property of the dye, albeit with disastrous results – there’s a difference.
About six months ago, I was having dinner at the bar at Jacob Wirth’s in Boston, when I stuck up a conversation with the guy next to me. We started talking about cars, and about the difficulty one has trying to maintain one’s own car these days. I told him that at least I had been able to mount a trailer-hitch receiver on my new Jeep, but I added that I had to ask my mechanic to torque two of the bolts because I couldn’t maneuver my way in while lying in the driveway. He said “I’m impressed that you understand the importance of the torque setting.” Somewhat embarrassed, I said: “…actually, I don’t but I’ve always figured that they gave you those specifications for a reason.”
It turned out that he was an automotive engineer. He explained how a bolt really acts like a spring. For each application, you want to be able to tighten a bolt until it stretches a bit, enough to hold tight, but not so much as to deform the things it is holding together. He went on to tell me how most people, and sadly some engineers, will opt to replace a failed bolt with a larger one, only to damage the items being bolted together. Apparently, a smaller bolt that can be properly stretched is a better choice than a larger bolt that can’t be stretched at all.
Could this lead to a series of unintended consequences? No, you would file this under people acting without a thorough understanding of the facts available to them. This happens a lot, and while the results are clearly unintended, they usually aren’t unintended enough.
Between 1917 and 1919, the people who drafted the Treaty of Versailles spent considerable time arguing over the possible unintended consequences of forcing Germany to accept the treaty. Were the terms and conditions too hard? Were the requested reparations too costly? Apparently, one possibility that they didn’t even consider (perhaps, because they couldn’t yet imagine it) was Germany’s research into rockets. German engineering advances in this area eventually boosted both US and Russian space and missile programs, but I’m not sure the British would agree that there was a benefit to that oversight. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that almost 100 years later, there still doesn’t seem to be complete agreement on any of these issues. Some argue that the oversight encouraged the research while others point to the fact that Germany violated the terms of the treaty in other areas so it really wouldn’t have mattered. The latter argument bolsters the opinion of those who think the treaty was too harsh, and the debate goes on.
Discussions of possible unintended consequences can be a useful exercise in designing products, but they can also be a debilitating and unending march into the weeds of worst case scenarios. We can justify the research when the cost is “just right” as Goldilocks might say. Pharmaceutical companies search and test for possible side-effects. Engineers of all sorts look for the ways in which systems might fail under everything from 100-year storms to routine wear and tear. Governments of all sizes weigh the costs and benefits of economic, social and judicial strategy in seemingly unending debate. In any case, we move forward, taking our chances with nature, random events and our limited understanding of how things, like the dye in the AC unit, interact with other things.
Today, debate is raging over what may prove to be the worst unintended consequence of all – climate change as a result of human activity. As we argue back and forth over whether this notion is science fiction or scientific fact, we build worst-case scenarios that demonstrate economic disaster if we act now and environmental disasters if we fail to act. Who is to blame? Who is to decide? If the historians haven’t closed the books on the Treaty of Versailles, what’s the likelihood that we will build a uniform response to climate change and that that response will be a net beneficial thing for mankind?