Often referred to as “The Father of Capitalism,” economist Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations,” is credited with one of social sciences most famous metaphors, the “invisible hand.”
Smith said that the individual, even one working purely for his own gain, is “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” and that end is the benefit provided to the public interest or the public good. It is a prime example of what is called a positive unintended consequence.
When asked about the effects of the technologies he and his then-company develop, Steve Jobs said,
“There are downsides to everything; there are unintended consequences to everything. The most corrosive piece of technology that I've ever seen is called television—but then, again, television, at its best, is magnificent.” Staying with the example of television, writer Aaron Sorkin spoke of the juggernaut paid-cable channel HBO saying it “is less interested in how many people are watching than in how much the people who are watching are liking the show. They didn't set up their business model to make writers happy. It's just a nice unintended consequence.
Again, due to the perspective of the speakers, both Jobs’s and Sorkin’s statements are examples of positive unintended consequences.
So, what about negative unintended consequences? George Carlin once said:
“It's not in the mainstream media yet, but the biggest jump in skin cancer has occurred since the advent of sunscreens. That kind of thing makes me happy. The fact that people, in pursuit of a superficial look of health, give themselves a fatal disease. I love it when 'reasoning' human beings think they have figured out how to beat something and it comes right back and kicks them in the [expletive]. God bless the law of unintended consequences. And the irony is impressive: Healthy people, trying to look healthier, make themselves sick. Good!”
Although—as he tended to do—Carlin revels a bit too much in the irony and tragedy of the example, it is not the only case of a negative unintended consequence. Although it depends much on the perspective of the person experiencing the consequence, I contend that the ratio of positive to negative unintended consequences is about 3 to 1. For every time we have a sore neck that prevents us from raising our head and leads us to finding a quarter on the ground, there are more occasions in which saving a kitten from a tree results in a painful rabies shot.
Whether positive or negative, these instances are so common that unintended consequences are referred to as a law.
So how do we take the law into our own hands? The best, and only, approach is to surround ourselves with the tools and knowledge to reap our vigilante justice.
To facilitate that knowledge, check out “The Changing Face of Additive Manufacturing Inspection,” “A Corporate Commitment to Quality Requires a Digital-First Approach,” and everything else we have to offer in this month’s Quality.
Enjoy and thanks for reading!
Darryl Seland is the editorial director of Quality magazine.