Unintended consequences.

Finally made it to history class yesterday. A large chunk of the lecture was on the Schlieffen Plan, the 1914 German strategy to defeat France in a six-week campaign that would allow them to then move the bulk of their forces to the eastern front for a longer campaign against Russia.

It didn’t work out that way. There were a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was this: If you follow the link and look at the map, you’ll see the campaign sent several armies on a wide flanking maneuver to the north of France’s fortress towns south of Luxembourg. Put your fingertips on a table and rotate your hand around your index finger. Your little finger has to cover a lot more ground to make it around the semi-circle, doesn’t it? The guys on the little-finger path arrived at their destination emaciated and exhausted, having fought and marched and fought and marched and then marched some more, cut off from their supply trains.

In other words, the plan didn’t take into consideration the simple and obvious human factor. The human factor — so often the cause of those bedeviling unintended consequences. Ask the soldiers in Iraq if anyone has thrown flowers at them lately.

One of the things I thought a lot about in the past year is how people use technology in ways different than the inventors perhaps intended. Kids swap iPods as a shorthand way of saying, “This is who I am.” Text messaging is a new way to cheat on an exam. The inventor of the birth-control pill was a devout Catholic who thought he’d finally found a “natural” method of planning children that would be used primarily by women in their 30s and 40s who had completed their families; oops, he caused the sexual revolution. TV was supposed to be a great educational tool, which it is, I suppose, but not in the way we thought it would be.

You can never predict exactly how people are going to use new tools at their disposal. In my husband’s family, women cook the same meals they’ve been making since the ’50s; there’s no quicker way to freak them out than to take them to a restaurant where the phrase “pesto mayonnaise” is on the menu. But they all embraced the microwave oven like a long-lost friend. The MP3 algorithm was written to solve the problem of bulky sound files, and now it’s changing a whole industry. You want white-collar job outsourcing? How about having your MRI scans read by a radiologist in India, who can pull them up in an instant and charges a fraction of what the American guy does?

I don’t know where I’m going with this, except that it’s interesting. Because this is a blog post and not a newspaper column, I don’t have to have a nice concluding paragraph. Except maybe this:

Have a nice day. I’m off to have lunch with Ron.

Posted at 10:45 am in Uncategorized |

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