The Law of Unintended Consequences

Sep 09, 2004

September 2004 Issue

One of my more perverse hobbies is keeping track of my local city council. And yes, living in the People's Republic of Boulder means that it's a lot more entertaining than it might be in mainstream America; what other city would redefine dog owners as "animal guardians" or prohibit front-porch sofas within six blocks of the University of Colorado campus? (When sofas are outlawed, only outlaws will have sofas.)

What I always find interesting is when, in an attempt to address the problem of congested roads, a city chooses to build more lanes or a parallel street. More often than not, that simply attracts more traffic, resulting in the same standstill as before. This is, of course, a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, an object lesson to be mindful of one's actions.

But we never learn. Look at digital video recorders. They were initially marketed as a convenient way to time-shift your television viewing. But with the increase in advertising minutes per hour (to 25% of your viewing time), TiVo's big attraction became the ability to skip over all the ads. The unintended consequence of the broadcasters' decision to increase the number of ad-minutes was that it drove viewers to find ways of avoiding ads altogether.

We see similar examples in the info-pro world. In their enthusiasm to push as much content to the desktop as possible, some info pros find themselves in the awkward position of having to justify the "additional" expense of an in-house library when the organization spends hundreds of thousands of dollars in enterprise-wide licenses. While the content manager simply intended to make high-value information available to all the knowledge workers within her organization, the result was the perception that there was no need for specialized researchers or a centralized information center.

Take the electronic delivery of periodicals as another example. Struggling to find the space in a small corporate library for the ever-expanding collection of serials, I was delighted to buy a site license and have full-text-searchable issues available at the desktops of every employee. Everything was fine until publishers increased subscription prices for electronic subscription packages, and I was forced to cut back. Since the back issues were housed on the publisher's server, I lost access to the archived issues when I didn't renew my subscription. Had I maintained a print subscription, I would have retained those back issues; my switch to all-electronic copies meant that I lost ownership of the material I had paid for.

A distressing example of this involves the decision of the federal government to publish many of its reports only in electronic format. At first, government document librarians (those under-appreciated mavens of the world of government information) were happy to have the content reside on the Web sites of the various government agencies and to simply provide a link to the electronic report in their internal catalogs. No dead trees, and instant access for all. However, after September 11, 2001, the feds decided that some published information was no longer appropriate for public distribution and they simply "depublished" reports from government sites. For those among us who immediately thought: "Ah ha! The Wayback Machine!" and sallied forth to that archival site (, no luck; copies were removed within days. Some of the content has since been restored to agencies' sites, but it was a sobering reminder that letting someone else maintain your collection means that you can lose access to it at any time.

The flip side of the law of unintended consequences is the phenomenon of repurposing. While Avon was coy about this for years, they sold a lot of Skin-So-Soft hand lotion to people who knew of its reputation as a bug repellent. Backpackers carry Efferdent tablets to clean out their water filter in the back country.

Likewise, the creative info pro will look at any new information resource and think about how to hack, er, repurpose it for other uses. I use the search functionality of the Wayback Machine to track the emergence of a catch phrase or hot-button issue over time. eBay is a great source for images of virtually any object, as well as a way to find old (but often still useful) textbooks. And some of the Whois domain name registries can be used to glean information on emerging customer dissatisfaction by locating what are delicately called "sucks sites," since many of the domain names are some form of They are also a way to monitor upcoming product launches, by watching for new domain names. A company registers and you can guess what's coming.

I am still waiting to see the eventual impact of social networks. Will companies use them as a way to facilitate communication across divisions and cultural borders? Will a new class structure emerge, based on how many people you are "connected" to? I look forward to watching how the law of unintended consequences plays out yet again.