Unintended consequences are everywhere

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange just claimed that as a consequence of widespread politically-motivated blocking of payment channels to the controversial Whistleblower platform around the year 2010, it started investing in Bitcoin — with a 500x return. While this means little if Assange would have invested only 1 USD back then, let’s assume it was an amount significant enough to make for a massive profit.

What would one call this? Unintended consequences. U.S. Senators wanted to cut off all revenue streams from WikiLeaks, which it turn led to that the platform found a much better way to fund its operations than being reliant on donations.

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This is just one of many examples of unintended consequences, which are ubiquitous these days. The phenomenon in itself is nothing new. But in a networked world, it appears to happen more often, and at a larger scale.

Some other examples:

  • Ridesharing/Ride-hailing was supposed to reduce the overall use of cars. New research suggests the opposite happens — at least when it comes to the commercial models of Uber and its U.S. competitor Lyft.
  • People wanted a way to connect with their friends online. An unintended consequence of this: Elections are being manipulated, democracy is eroding und those in charge of the platforms have lost control over them. Those who built the foundation to all this are in shock, according to a Vanity Fair piece, which contains this nugget: “Most of the early employees I know are totally overwhelmed by what this thing has become”.
  • When Starbucks allowed people to order ahead of their arrival through the phone, as an unintended consequence, the coffee chain subsequently was forced to change the store layout, as now instead of the cashier area, the pick-up area got clogged. In comparison to the next unintended consequence, this is definitely a luxury one to have.
  • Progressives in the U.S. put their focus on improving life for minorities and disadvantaged people. Very well meaning. Unintentionally though the employed methods allowed someone like Trump to rise to become President. Now minorities and disadvantaged people are worse off than before, as is essentially everybody else — in the U.S. but to some extend even worldwide. Except people on the far right.
  • Prisons are supposed to keep criminals away from society and to ensure that people who broke the law get punished so that they don’t break the law again. But the evidence is mounting that prisons, at least those following a traditional penalizing approach, actually make people worse and, essentially, “create” repeated offenders.
  • The most famous unintended consequence in recent times: The Streisand effect. Barbara Streisand tried to suppress photos about her beach house in Malibu, but ended up with everyone and their grandmother knowing about the house.

Why do these things happen? Part of the answer is an inability or unwillingness to think long-term. The desire for short term gains/rewards is being favored over long-term thinking by actors who are involved in pushing an action/decision/idea — whether it is a single person, a group of people or a crowd. It’s the Marshmallow Test all over again. A lack of understanding for and application of Systems Thinking also plays a role. Even if people manage to look beyond the short-term reward and try hard to see possible unintended consequences, the complexity and interdependence of a lot of (often hidden) systems makes it almost impossible to predict what will happen.

While precisely predicting unintended consequences is presumably impossible, acknowledging their existence and past decisions/actions that clearly look like mistakes in hindsight, and using this awareness to make decisions and perform actions with a high likelihood for the intended outcome to be massively greater than the unintended outcome, is not impossible.

Right now, I am asking myself what the unintended consequences of crypto currencies will be (unintended from the standpoint of those who develop them and promot the underlying philosophy).

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