Unintended Consequences

I know a contractor who jokes anyone he hires who brings a cell phone on the job should be paid $10.00 an hour less. They are so distracting. Sometimes the unintended consequences of improved technology can cut into the bottom line.

For every good thing in life, there’s often a negative and unforeseeable side effect. This is the law of unintended consequences, and it’s everywhere. Driving habits and car design are a case in point. Popularization of antilock braking and four-wheel drive should have reduced accident rates, but something happened. People drive more aggressively when vehicles are built to safer standards, erasing some of the gains we could have enjoyed. In 2008, Airbus introduced the new A380, an airliner with a cabin environment quieter than any other in history. Trouble was, a quieter plane let the sounds of well-used washrooms waft into the aisles. The sounds of crying children, coughing and conversations came through all the louder. Airbus recalled these early A380s and devolved the design to allow more naturally occurring, engine-generated “white noise” to bring passenger comfort back to where it had been.

During the 1980s, Chinese ladybugs were introduced to control aphids in parts of Canada. Today these have turned into an invasive species, breeding and eating native North American species into oblivion. The imported ladybugs are rude, too. They find their way into homes, clothes drawers and vehicles in a way that old-time ladybugs never did. When Steve Jobs set out to “change the world” by popularizing smartphones, he envisioned a world with easy access to communication and information. That’s a great goal and it’s a reality today. But I doubt Jobs could have seen a world so addicted to little screens that it cuts mental focus and productivity by hours each day. I know a contractor who jokes he should pay anyone he hires $10/hour less if they smoke and bring a phone to the job. How much do phones really cost you? Depending on who’s delivering the statistics, North Americans spend 2 to 4 1/2 hours a day looking at little screens. What’s the cash value of that across society? How much does this cut your bottom line?

The thing about the big unintended consequences of life is that none of us have any control over when they hit the world. Little guys like us didn’t start these balls rolling; we just have to live with the results. Maybe the most profitable change you can make this year is to outlaw phones for everyone on your jobs except during breaks. Will the world really come to an end if Facebook goes unviewed during the workday or calls go to voicemail for a few hours?

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