It is trite to talk about the law of unintended consequences because at this point — I think — everyone knows everything they do has unintended consequences, that is consequences other than the ones they were looking for. Well, almost everyone. I still hear people say things like “We should outlaw x” and never thinking of what that will mean for x, y and z. More interestingly, I heard people saying “we should compel x” and never think of the consequences of evading that particular law.
But the really funny thing about unintended consequences (and by this I don’t mean funny ah ah) is what I call the third ending problem.
What third ending problem?
Well, when we were starting out in writing, we were told to reach for the third ending. When you’re reading a novel or a short story, you expect one of two endings (the good and the bad.) Depending on your level of sophistication, or the book’s accuracy of foreshadowing, you might anticipate the ending in precise and exquisite detail. You just have to see which of the endings. (For instance in the book I’m reading now all the characters seem to be mentally impaired, and I’ve guessed the ending and the little surprises all along all the way. Yeah, it’s a disposable romance [not all romance is like this] because that’s what came to hand when I reached for a book. Yeah, I have better things to read, but this sort of works because it’s almost at the Disney comics level.)
So we were encouraged to reach for the third ending. Not precisely a surprise ending, but one that will close the book with a bang.
I’m not sure this is right, btw. It is appropriate for a certain time in the history of the field, and for a certain level. And yep, in mystery it’s a good idea to at least partially surprise the reader. This is not necessary in science fiction. Or not necessarily necessary. There are science fiction books that are mysteries. At the end you find out who was behind it all, say. But still in the main, we want to know sort of how it will end, and are reading for the details.
Take Witchfinder (please. I could use the cash) the ending I’m sure surprises no one except for one minor, personal detail.
But anyway, that’s a digression and I know you’re shocked. The thing is that in real life, even those of us who know that actions have consequences and that the broader the action, the more general the up to down push, the more likely that the consequence will be the third ending, as it were.
For instance, take solar panels. The intended consequence is to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. The unintended consequence is to roast birds on the go. The third ending consequence is that it convinces people who know nothing about energy or its storage that it would be a good idea to artificially burden fossil fuels with taxes and to make mining for them impossible, in order to make people go “solar.” Because it exists, they imagine it could supply all our energy needs. (I’m sorry, I’d say “he” but I’m not sure it’s all or even mostly his idea.) There are other third ending consequences (there always are) like the flushing of public money down the unending rat hole of charlatans promising better and more abundant solar energy.
Or take the boondoogle the consolidated after many mergers publishing houses thought of: we can deal with the big conglomerate bookstores and tell them what to carry. They’ll have sensible business men who don’t read the books and argue with us, and this will make the public buy the “correct” books — or at least those we want to push.
The intended consequence was the ability to manufacture bestsellers on command; to pick who would be a best seller (mind you, it wasn’t even political at first, or at least it’s unlikely it was just political. Creatives are hard to work with. They often have trouble working with themselves. Being able to pick the “sensible” creatives for success would be enough of an enticement. The fact those aren’t usually VERY creative is something that would never occur to the publishers.) The unintended consequence was the spiraling down of print runs. For decades publishers had been allowed to think they were in tune with the readers’ tastes, and later that they could form them without consequence.
But for decades, stuff had become hits that the publishers didn’t anticipate. Under the old, chaotic system, enough small bookshop owners reading your book and hand-selling it to enough clients could make you a bestseller that no one had seen coming.
The new system closed that loophole and controlled completely which books even got seen, and certainly which got “buzz” and which got bought.
As I said, the unintended consequence was a lot of power readers (me!) retreating to other genres or to their libraries to read their old stuff.
The third ending consequences are … well, the least hard to see is Bezos.
But there are others. The most important was the hardening of thought and belief in the small and incestuous publishing industry, by self-feeding loops.
If they can make whatever they want sell a bazillion copies, then they have an unerring ability to pick what’s good and what people will read, right? This means that they are that in tune with the public taste that clearly what they favor and think is wonderful must be what everyone wants. Even though they are the result of maybe a handful of colleges and the culture of one or two big cities, they can pick for everyone in the country.
End result, more bleeding of readership which is never attributed to their taste — because after all, look how well they “predict” what will sell (after they close off every other avenue, of course, but never mind) and what won’t — so it must be people aren’t reading anymore. People are watching TV and playing games. That must be it.
And then the third solution walks in wearing the name Bezos. And they’re so shocked all they can do is boo.
But there are other third solution consequences they never even thought of. The very system encouraged conformity and anodyne writing. They didn’t notice it because the conformity was to their beliefs, and the anodyne writing involved “shocking” non existent old ladies in Podunk whom they thought should be shocked. For the last several years the problem with most “pushed” fiction is not that it’s shocking, or distasteful, or human-hating (though it usually is human-hating) but that it’s predictable and boring.
And then there’s the third solution consequence of that consequence, so far off they couldn’t anticipate it.
I’ll do them the courtesy of thinking that they knew they would be wasting a lot of talent. I.e. that they realized that they would be cutting short the careers of people they plain didn’t like (for political or other reasons) and therefore destroying talent before it developed.
What I don’t think they realized is that those of us who managed to escape the scythe for years despite refusing to sing in the choir of their thoughts and beliefs would be versatile, able, and very, very resilient. Or that, if we found a way to bypass their rigged system and get to the public, the public would like us better.
Sometimes third ending solutions are a right b*tch.
So, when you’re tempted to despair or to think we’re ruled by evil geniuses, think of the third ending solution. They’re not geniuses (though they might be evil) and they usually don’t think beyond the obvious solution.
Take importing millions of unskilled laborers into a high tech economy. They do think that they can tax those of us already here and give them benefits and it’s a way to compensate for being richer than other countries. They might take as an unintended consequence that it will displace our own unskilled workers, and therefore create an aggrieved proletariat which they can incite against “the rich”. It’s an unintended consequence but not one they dislike.
What they don’t think of are the third ending consequences: that it will also fatally damage the economy, that rich people will leave the country and shelter their income (for some reason this always takes communists/socialists by surprise. Every d*mn time.); that the reduced economy/benefits will cause those immigrants to go back to their homeland; that the stagnant economy will cause our best and brightest to go elsewhere looking for jobs; that the only businesses who can survive are massive corporations; that the discrimination they see everywhere will actually make a come back.
In the same way when they create ever higher minimum-wage, they can see that those who remain employed will have more money; they might see that it will cause a lot of people to be let go, but they think “generous welfare benefits.” What they don’t see is that it will bias towards big companies who can pay that sort of beginning wage and deal with the paperwork for ever increasing regulations will be the only ones surviving. And if they saw it they might think “well, they will deal better with the government, so that’s fine.”
What they don’t see is that choking off small business, not only chokes off innovation but results in a slow throttling of the economy. They don’t see this because they believe in fixed pie economics. They can’t be grown, and they can’t be shrunk.
They can look at Europe and see their future, but the third ending consequence is always a shock.
And that is why top down control, in publishing or in business or in government is always ruinous.
The third ending consequences multiply and by being surprises they are inherently unanticipated.
Reading older science fiction, I come across government by “smart men” sometimes aided by “large computers” who anticipate everything.
Real life is more difficult. There are too many intersecting plot threads, too many intersecting individuals and goals.
No one can know when their great scheme of controlling distribution will result in a Bezos and their ruin… metaphorically speaking. And nobody can know how their wish to work with “sensible” creatives can destroy the very field they work in… metaphorically speaking.
The horror of this is that people who never think of the third plot solution will continue to pile their top down “remedies” on us and that we’ll also have to suffer the consequences.
The good news is that in an era when technology and creativity are key, there is a good chance we can survive and thrive.
Build under, build around, build over. Create your own systems around theirs.
Be the unintended third ending consequence.
Be not afraid.