We are all students at the University of Unintended Consequences

How situations may be vastly different from what anyone could have reasonably expected…

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

I’ve always been interested in how events develop that had little to do with the intended results.

I don’t mean failure or even when things go “wrong” necessarily.

My focus is on how situations or reactions are vastly different from what anyone – supporters or sceptics alike – could have reasonably expected.

This dynamic has shown itself in small or personal ways or global, internationally significant ways.

One small change, like setting aside a savings account or a new exercise regimen might have minimal effects at first, or even for the first year or so.

Even negative consequences are rarely noted immediately.

A single cigarette, for example, has little impact one way or the other.

A pound, gained or lost, has little, if any impact on life or health.

Over time, however, that cigarette or that pound or that money saved, has repercussions that multiply – geometrically.

And not exclusively in expected ways.

Many of us have “elective surgeries” to change or enhance our appearance, or in some cases, to improve our health.

But these too, do not always come out as expected.

Many years ago I worked with a young woman who was ambitious, focused, optimistic and trim, if not athletic.

One day I noticed a group photo on her desk.

She casually challenged me to find her in the picture.

I couldn’t do it.

She pointed out a dangerously overweight woman on the edge of the group.

“That’s me,” she said, “before my weight loss surgery and program.”

I looked at the photo and then at her, and then back again.

“Your boyfriend must have been thrilled,” I clumsily responded.

“He dumped me. He never cared for me. He used my weight to control me. When I took charge of my weight, I took charge of my life, and he couldn’t control me any more so he left.”

I had never met him, but I could not believe what a fool he was; she was bright, optimistic, attractive and creative and, she had implied, she had gone through this excruciating and expensive process largely for him.

At least that’s what she told me.

But the lasting results were nothing that he, or she, could have expected.

Her weight loss impacted her self-image which changed her career trajectory and her energy level which impacted their relationship which changed both of their lives forever.

If you’ve ever watched a single equation change ripple through a spread sheet, you see how a slight change can make a difference on virtually every aspect of the business.

It may or may not make a difference in the ultimate “bottom line”, but each aspect of the business landscape has been impacted.

Factor in a large or irreversible change, and you have impacts ricocheting and multiplying all over the place.

The iPhone, for example, has changed our lives dramatically in ways none of us could have foreseen.

From use by elementary school children, to hacking and cybersecurity issues to the loss of privacy for virtually all of us to, of course, how we communicate, nothing is as it was just a few years ago.

According to a recent survey, there is no technology, no object in any category in fact, that we love – or hate – as much as our “smart” phones.

Three out of four Americans consider themselves “addicted” to their phones.

And the vast majority of us “check” our phones every nine minutes (for an average of 160 times a day).

The average American spends more than 50 hours a week in front of a screen.

We might call it “doom scrolling” but we can’t resist it.

Most children spend vastly more time staring at a screen than they do outside.

“Digital natives” (those who were born and have grown up in the “digital” world) have a whole host of health issues previous generations never knew – or imagined.

From eye-strain to posture and spinal problems to obesity to distorted socialization skills, to entirely different categories of hand and finger dexterity, these “digital natives” inhabit a dramatically different – if not alien – world from the rest of us.

Little, if any of this, was on the minds of the engineers, developers and visionaries that came up with the iPhone a bit more than a decade ago.

Yes, they may have imagined that little device becoming convenient, multi-purpose, even ubiquitous. But who of them, or any of us, could have imagined this, or any technology becoming essential to the point of becoming one of our ‘vital signs”?

Our “digital footprint” defines us perhaps more accurately – and certainly for many more years than our IRL (In Real Life) actions or decisions.

There’s a saying among the “digital” generation – “If there’s no pictures, it didn’t happen.”

In other words, if there is no corroboration from social media, any life experience, no matter how dramatic or life-altering, is of no interest or value, or even recognition without the “proper” documentation.

The fact that online “documentation” can be faked, hacked or manipulated is only one more complicating factor on the digital landscape.

But that, for better or worse, is the “digital universe” that we have built – and is the “real” world for a generation – and generations to come.

And, as I mentioned above, technology has become something like a vital sign – an indicator of life support for almost all of us.

This is true to such a degree that one company (https://www.reviews.org/internet-service/digital-detox-challenge/) has offered $2,400 to go 24 hours without access to technology.

That means no selfies, no video games, no social media, no text messaging or emails, no cell phone, no smart watches, no lap top, television or smart speakers or fitness trackers. And no memes or gifs.

But you do get a special “safe” to lock your precious e-devices. For a hundred dollars an hour, could you drop off the digital grid?

Could you read a physical book? Talk face-to-face with neighbors or friends?

Could you claw your way back to IRL, even for 24 hours?

Would this be the ultimate release, a taste of long-forgotten freedom? Or would it be the opposite – a rejection, almost an evaporation or disappearance, something like a death and loss?

Would this be paradise or seemingly end-less exile?

After all, if “If there’s no pictures, it didn’t happen” is the first principle of existence in the digital age, would a life, or even a day without digital affirmation be like falling into an eternal abyss?

I think we are all too afraid to even consider such a possibility.


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