The Law of Unintended Consequences

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I have always had a fascination with stories related to unintended consequences. Hollywood is ripe with story lines of young men falling in love with beautiful women, only to discover the relationship deteriorating to a tempest of tipping dominos and unlikely sub plots.

The same is often true with technology. We need to look no further than our country’s battle with growth following the Revolutionary War. We all know of Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin. However, many of us might not know that his invention — which was thought to possibly end the need for slave labor – actually increased the need as the world’s appetite for cotton grew due to the Cotton Gin’s efficiencies. Slave labor increased from an estimated 700,000 in 1790 to over 4 million in 1860 just prior to the Civil War.

In 1863 there was Joseph Wilbrand who while attempting to develop a yellow dye, discovered trinitrotoluene. However, it was soon determined that trinitrotoluene had rather enormous explosive and destructive power. By 1902, under the name in which we are all familiar, i.e., TNT – the chemical became used extensively during the two World Wars to kill and conqueror.

Thomas Midgley who like me is a former NCR employee, later became an executive at DELCO and discovered Chlorofluorocarbon Freon as a safe refrigerant to replace the commonly used but highly toxic refrigerant ammonia. We know this discovery today as CFCs — which have caused extensive damage to the Ozone Layer.

Midgley later went on to discover that adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline to be a remedy for engine knocking. As we all know today that discovery led to global health and environmental issues that include deaths from lead poisoning and serious damage to our environment. Mr. Midgley’s own death was due in large part to his exposure to such chemicals.

So it is not surprising that today is no different. One discovery begets yet another use or creates a complication not formerly considered.

I had to laugh while driving into my office yesterday when hearing the story of an Indiana Farmer losing a lawsuit to Monsanto. The famer had apparently purchased soybean seeds that were marketed to be used for feeding livestock. However, knowing that the seed had been harvested from genetically enhanced soybean plants that were impervious to certain weed killers, he decided to plant the seeds rather than feed them to livestock. He later harvested the resulting soybean plants to be sold – while also harvesting some of the seeds for replanting and then growing in subsequent years.

His thinking: Why pay for a product each year if it can actually reproduce itself?

According to the Wall Street Journal, “The court unanimously found that farmer Vernon Bowman violated Monsanto’s patent on herbicide-resistant soybean seeds by using them to grow successive generations of similarly endowed crops, rather than consuming or selling the seeds.”

To put it simply, if you replace the word soybean with music, Mr. Bowman “was stealing copyrighted material.” By purchasing one version of the seed and replicating it – he had somewhat created the “the agrarian version of Napster.” Well… Maybe that’s a stretch.

We are truly living in a new world. While most of us know that it is illegal to download music from iTunes and then make multiple copies for your friends — who would have thought that soybean seeds were the equivalent of software licenses?
To that end, who would have thought that the large, awkward cell phones that we see on syndicated shows like Seinfeld would have evolved into the small, powerful devices we use today to play games, communicate with friends and family and post videos onto places like Facebook or Twitter’s VINE? (Yes Vine… another social media app that is on a growth path.)

This evolution of technology also requires an evolution in parenting skills. Parenting today is a much different animal than in years past. For example: I can recall purchasing our oldest daughter a cell phone when she turned 16 and began driving. Our rationale related to safety. If there was an accident or flat tire, she’d simply give us a call.

Four years later when our youngest daughter turned 16, text messaging had begun to grow in popularity. By 2002 text messaging became ubiquitous due in part to it being agnostic in terms of wireless carriers. It allowed a user to multi-task without regard to time constraints – and it was very portable. You could send a text during a movie; while in a meeting; from the backseat of your parent’s car –or, from just about anywhere at any time.

Soon, text messages became the primary means by which young people communicated, eclipsing voice calls by a wide margin. However, just like Joseph Wilbrand’s synthetic yellow dye ultimately became better known for its explosive characteristics — today’s wireless technology has had its own share of unintended consequences.

Three years ago I would not have thought that teens would send naked pictures of themselves using text messages. Yet today, about 25% of teens have used the technology for this purpose now known as sexting.

Although bullying has existed since the days of the Neanderthals – did we understand that cell phones would be used in some cases to humiliate, bully and intimidate other young people?

Did we understand that social media sites and apps would open the world up to our children – while opening our children up to the world?

Did we think about these issues before handing the phone or tablet over to our children without any education or boundaries?

As of this writing on May 15th, 2013, I have spoken to over 70,000 students on the issues related to technology. In the three years that we have been making these presentations much has changed. In 2010, the Android phone only had a 33% global market share of smartphones shipments. By 2012 Android phones represented 75% of the global smartphone market. Moreover, it had a 90% market share in China.

Additionally, by 2012 there were over 700,000 apps available for the Android market with over 25 billion downloads.
According to Flurry Analytics, the U.S. consumer spends an average of 2 hours and 38 minutes per day on smartphones and tablets. 80% of that time (2 hours and 7 minutes) is spent inside apps and 20% (31 minutes) is spent on the mobile web.

What does this mean to parents? Simply put, the ways our youth culture communicates is significantly different than even 5-10 years ago. While much of this change is for the good, it is incumbent upon us as parents and grandparents to understand and monitor the technology that our children and grandchildren are using.

I have often used the analogy of New York City when discussing technology. I first traveled to New York in 1982. It was the biggest and most fascinating city to which I had travelled. It had the best art, music venues, food and diversity of culture I had experienced. But I would never allow my child to visit New York without being accompanied by my wife and I.
As I discovered on my first visit — It’s easy to get lost in New York. It is easy to turn down the wrong street at the wrong time. Grabbing a cab back to LaGuardia at 4:00pm is almost impossible. There were people who wanted to sell me “authentic” Gucci and Rolex products at steep discounts. And there were very hospitable young ladies offering to escort me around the city for “a good time.” I felt much like Gomer Pyle being transported from Mayberry to Times Square. I was not prepared. I didn’t know the rules of engagement.

The internet, which was at one time limited to clunky desktops in your family-room is now available 7 x 24 on your child’s phone. Much like New York, the Internet is a fascinating place to visit. But you need to be prepared and understand how to get around. You need to know what sites you access – and what people don’t have your best interest at heart.

Additionally, there has been an explosion of growth in smartphones apps. While we often think that the Internet is the biggest of our concerns, the reality is that Apps might represent the biggest challenge for parents. Smartphone apps such as Instagram and SnapChat are often unknown to parents. In fact, in recent presentations I have asked the question, “how many of you have heard of SnapChat?” The majority of parents had no idea what it was. However, when we asked students, “How many of you are using SnapChat?” The overwhelming majority of the students raised their hands in affirmation.

How can you keep with with this constant evolution? Since the start of 2012 we have partnered with uKnowKids to provide up-to-date information on how students are using technology. I encourage you to access the site periodically to better understand the apps that kids are using; the websites they’re accessing; the new technologies they’re using and the fads related to these technologies.

Lastly, if you are interested in me visiting your school, church, hospital or business to present on these issues, please feel free to contact me at 513-841-5151. Or email me at

Best of luck to you as you navigate this ever-changing digital landscape with your child, attempting to avoid “the tempest of tipping dominos and unlikely sub plots.”


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