The Effect Effect

Technically speaking

3 min read
They are revenge effects, and they are less the malignant ironies of a spiteful world than the results of a lack of human foresight.
--Edward Tenner

Scientists and technologists have long used the word effect --as in the Doppler effect , the butterfly effect , and the greenhouse effect --to good effect. In fact, effect has been so, uh, effective at naming things that it has branched out into the mainstream.

For example, the recent economic downturn has created the poverty effect , a reduction in consumer spending caused by a feeling of relative poverty upon seeing the diminishing value of 401(k)s and the like. This comes after years of wallowing in the wealth effect , an increase in spending based on the perception of new wealth.

During a recession or slowdown we also see the lipstick effect , the tendency for consumers to purchase small, comforting items such as lipstick rather than large luxury items. As the rich hunker down and practice inconspicuous consumption , purchasing goods or services that convey a lower socioeconomic status, we’re less likely to see the snob effect , the desire to purchase something because it is extremely rare or expensive.

Television is the source of a few of these coinages, including the CSI effect , the unrealistically high expectations some jurors have for the prosecution’s case in a criminal court proceeding, expectations created in part by exposure to CSI and other forensics-oriented TV shows. Closer to home, it’s a truism that TV types want us to plunk ourselves down on the couch, tune in to their network, and stay right where we are until bedtime. Saturation coverage of fascinating or controversial events not only achieves this goal but also presents wars, famines, hurricanes, and the like so dramatically it can influence public policy, a phenomenon that has come to be called the CNN effect .

Just in case you missed the 2008 U.S. presidential election and all its talk of the Bradley effect , that phrase refers to African-American politician Tom Bradley, whom preelection polls had winning his 1982 run for governor of California. Bradley lost to his white opponent; the alleged effect is that some white voters will vote for the white candidate after telling a pollster that they plan to vote for the black one. In 2008, however, it looks like the reverse Bradley effect occurred--voters declaring publicly that they would not vote for a candidate because of his race but then selecting that candidate in the secrecy of the ballot booth.

Turning back to technology, there’s the Slashdot effect (aka /. effect) , an often overwhelming increase in a Web site’s traffic, particularly after the site is featured on and the iPod halo effect , the increase in the sales and perceived prestige of Apple products based on the massive popularity of Apple’s iPod digital music player (and, yes, there’s also an iPhone halo effect ).

Then there’s the NASCAR effect , the display of a large number of logos or advertising images on a Web site, T-shirt, or other object, as NASCAR race cars are garishly festooned with sponsor logos; the Gulliver effect , which occurs when a large target succumbs to an attack by numerous smaller adversaries; and even the Streisand effect , the widespread dissemination of information caused by an attempt to suppress that information. In 2003, when Barbra Streisand sued a photographer documenting coastal erosion to remove photos of her seaside mansion from his Web site, the pictures ended up plastered all over the Web.

Perhaps the chanteuse should have recalled the spotlight effect , the tendency to believe that other people are paying closer attention than they really are. I like this effect because it reminds me of Rule No. 2 in Roger Rosenblatt’s great little book, Rules for Aging: Resist Normal Impulses, Live Longer, Attain Perfection: ”Nobody is thinking about you.”

Finally, there’s my favorite tech effect, the revenge effect , coined by the writer and academic Edward Tenner in his book Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and mentioned in the quotation that opens this column. It refers to an unintended and negative consequence of some new or modified technology--like the effect effect.

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