TEN YEARS AGO, in a small hotel room in Helsinki, Finland, a young tech entrepreneur sat down with a pen and paper and calculated that one of his inventions was responsible for wasting the equivalent of more than a million human lifetimes every day. The realization made him feel sick. That entrepreneur’s name is Aza Raskin, and he’s the inventor of the “infinite scroll,” the feature on our phone that keeps us endlessly scrolling through content with the simple swipe of a finger.
Back in 2006, Raskin was trying to solve the clunky experience of the next-page button that internet users continually had to click. Ironically, his goal was to stop disruptions to a user’s train of thought. “My intention was to create something that could focus our attention and control our tempo when on websites and apps,” Raskin explained to me in a recent interview for my podcast, Rethink Moments. The infinite scroll fixed the problem by making new content load automatically, no click required.
Raskin didn’t foresee how tech giants would exploit his design principle, creating apps to automatically serve more and more content without your asking for it—or necessarily being able to opt out. Finish watching a video on YouTube, the next one loads instantly. Go on Instagram to look at a couple of pictures and you’re still mindlessly swiping half an hour later.
“I think when I look back, the thing I regret most is not packaging the inventions with the philosophy or paradigm in which they’re supposed to be used,” says Raskin. “There was a kind of naive optimism about thinking that my inventions would live in a vacuum, and not be controlled by market forces.” He deeply regrets the unintended consequence of his invention—hours, even lifetimes—of mindless surfing and scrolling.
Raskin is far from alone. Over the years, when I’ve advised successful entrepreneurs, I often hear how they couldn’t imagine the negative effects their ideas would have at scale. The AirBnb founders, for example, didn’t foresee the negative impacts of short-term rentals on local communities. When Justin Rosenstein invented the Like button, he didn’t imagine the effect that receiving hearts and likes—or not—would have on young teens’ self-esteem. I’m not a fan of Facebook (sorry, Meta), but Mark Zuckerberg arguably didn’t start the social media giant as a tool for political interference. Yet we’ve seen how a platform intended to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected,” to quote Zuckerberg, has ended up having devastating unintended consequences, such as the storming of Capitol Hill last January 6. Creators and entrepreneurs want to build products that will “change the world.” And often they do, but not in the way they imagined.
The failure to predict the unintended consequences of technology is deeply problematic and raises thorny questions. Should entrepreneurs be held responsible for the harmful consequences of their innovations? And is there a way to prevent these unintended consequences?
THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES of innovations have been accelerated by new technology, but they are not a 21st-century problem. Microwaves are built for convenience, but their inventor didn’t think about the impact on family eating habits if everyone just zaps their own meal. When Karl Benz first developed a petrol-powered automobile to help people move faster and have more freedom, he didn’t think about the problems of traffic congestion or air pollution. When plastic was first invented over 110 years ago as a strong and flexible material, it was hard to imagine the environmental damage we’re dealing with now because of mass packaging and petroleum extraction.