March 13, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Mundane Consequences of the Unintended

This is a GUEST POST by Richard Helliwell, a PhD student at the Institute for Science and Society.

How can responsible research and innovation frameworks deal with mundane consequences, consequences that although minor add perhaps imperceptibly to the load of daily frustrations and annoyances that emerge through our interactions with various technologies and services. The first part of this post is concerned with a particularly mundane implication of the internet and the unintended consequence that is only revealed when it comes into contact with certain bureaucratic processes. I am of course talking about paperless billing. This is a relatively new trend amongst banks, energy companies, water companies, local government and internet and phone providers to no longer send you paper correspondence. These electronic replacements for the previously paper traces of interaction have numerous benefits. They save paper and postage and hence trees, it reduces transit miles and hence carbon emissions, and the need for the consumer to find organisation space for ever mounting piles of paper.

We need papers please

However, “[innovations] may start out offering positive benefits, but later turn out to have unintended negative consequences” (Bessant, 2013, 2). The first and perhaps most obvious of these unintended consequences of an otherwise positive innovation is the implication of paperless creep on individuals, often elderly, who don’t have access to the internet and are unlikely to gain it (Collinson, 2013). However, given this remains a voluntary service that is posited on persuading us to be more environmentally conscious consumers, this consequence remains a potentiality. The second is more problematic, paperless bills and paper bills share not only material differences, but also differences of credibility. When paperless billing interacts with bureaucratic process that require you to say; prove who you are, where you have lived and live, your income, or all of the above for purposes of setting up a bank account, tax assessment, immigration visa’s, then the currency is hard cold paper and then only paper with an air of officialdom. With regards to visa application, an illegitimate document can result in the voiding of the application, after you have paid the non-refundable and substantial fee of course. Therefore, a shift to paperless leaves you with printed pdfs which are deemed illegitimate and require a wait and payment to get official documents from the many service providers that used to give you mountains of paper for free. What was previously a set of easily jumped bureaucratic hurdles is now laden with additional time, stress and cost implications (This Is Money, 2010).

Seeing the future through popular stories

In this regard, Owen et al (2013), point to an important question – What can be reasonably foreseen? Nerlich, Clarke and Dingwall (1999;2001), show how public attitudes to technology innovations (cloning) are shaped by popular cultural imagery of dystopian futures. If stories play a role in how we foresee and respond to potential threats and risks what do we do when risks are not only of the mundane and minor but we have no stories that may prophesise their coming? The film Ghost in a Shell, explores the interaction between the internet and questions around and about identity (and its loss). But it does so in the context of a world in which we are physically connected to the net. A printed bank statement being deemed illegitimate by a government is unsurprisingly not part of the story.

All things change in a dynamic environment

Finally and again returning to Owen et al (2013) question, how do you foresee an unintended consequence that emerges due to a technology reaching a significant scale of deployment that allows interaction between different sectors and systems in new unforeseeable ways? As already noted, paperless billing is founded on the internet. But, it is an innovation that that only emerges when commercial institutions, the digital infrastructure of the web and our private lives interact on a significant scale. Most obviously it requires a society within which a simple innovation such as email has been widely adopted. But it also demands a mature commercial banking/utility/service industry that is expected to be in regular correspond with its customers. It requires the cost of this correspondence to be significant enough that savings are attractive for companies to push such a shift. It is facilitated by adoption of direct debits that do not require the delivery of a physical bill and returned payment to enable the payment for services and utilities. It requires important online interactions between numerous people and companies to be normalised to the extent that they are commonplace and therefore further digitisation of those communications is not of concern. It plays on contemporary environmental concerns and offers an innocent means of contributing to the cause. Therefore paperless billing is an emerging innovation built around what is by now a relatively normalised technology and facilitated by the way in which this technology allows connections between different people, companies, services and societal issues. Furthermore, its negative consequences remain dormant; only emerging through particular interactions with other bureaucratic processes that many people may never experience.

Reflections for the RRI agenda

Finally what does this mean for Responsible Research and Innovation? Perhaps nothing, but perhaps it points to the way in which many unintended negative implications are both mundane, only revealed through certain interactions and processes, and emerge as the result of maturing technologies reaching a scale of adoption and entanglement that facilitates the realisation of new interactions and innovations. The issue in these instances is perhaps less about formulating an ever more elaborate framework to make sure we foresee the intrinsically unforeseeable and ensuring we have the regulatory tools and the backbone to extract ourselves from these unintended situations more effectively.


Bessant, J., (2013). Innovation in the Twenty First Century. In: Owen, R., Bessant, J., and Heintz, M., (ed.) Responsible Innovation: Managing the Responsible Emergence of Science and Innovation in Society. Wiley, Chichester, pg. 1-26

Collinson, P., (2013). Paper statements of intent over shift to online bills, The Guardian, access March 2013 from

Nerlich, B., Clarke, D.D., Dingwall, R., (1999). The Influence of Popular Cultural Imagery on Public Attitudes Towards Cloning, Socilogical Research Online, 4(3),

Nerlich, B., Clarke, D.D., and Dingwall, R., (2001). “Fiction, Fantasies, and Fears: The literary foundations of the cloning debate”. Journal of Literary Semantics 30, 37-52.

This is Money., (2010). The perils of bank account paper billing, This is Money, accessed March 2013 from

Owen, R., Stilgoe, J., Macnaghten, P., Gorman, M., Fisher, E., and Guston, D., (2013). A Framework for Responsbile Innovation. In: Owen, R., Bessant, J., and Heintz, M., (ed.) Responsible Innovation: Managing the Responsible Emergence of Science and Innovation in Society. Wiley, Chichester, pg. 1-26

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