Bionic Duckweed: making the future the enemy of the present

This is a short post to try and pin down a tricksy phenomenon you see from time to time in debates on technology and innovation, but which doesn’t have a good name. In homage to Roger Ford, a legendary commentator on railways, I suggest we call it bionic duckweed.

Pretty much everyone agrees that some new technologies are good, some new technologies are mediocre, and some are downright bad. Everyone also agrees that when people are evaluating technologies, they often fall prey to certain biases.

One type of bias is technophobia, the irrational or self-interested fear of new things. It’s what the founders of The Economist called, with wonderful Victorian magniloquence, “an unworthy timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. The flipside to technophobia is that sometimes the future is overhyped — technomania, if you like. Critiques include David Edgerton’s Shock of the Old or Rachel Coldicutt’s Just Enough Internet; it’s The Maintainers; it’s the “Responsible Innovation” movement.

Different people will disagree on whether technophobia or technomania is the bigger problem, and somewhat oddly both sides see themselves as an embattled minority. But almost everyone agrees that both types of errors exist.

One special case of technomania is what the IT industry calls ‘vapourware’. You need a piece of software that can profile your customers, predict their future requirements, and design products to meet them? “Sure thing, our software does that!” say your IT consultants — and then they desperately try to work out how to design it, and not infrequently fail. (Apparently the original vapourware was various upgrades to Microsoft Excel.) If you know your competitor’s product is better and cheaper than yours, vapourware can be an attractive Hail Mary tactic: “our product does everything theirs does, and, er, loads more!” you say, in the hope that if you win the contract, you can actually build the technological wonder you have promised. (I’m told this is a common occurrence in the defence world, where American firms offer list-price off-the-shelf kit, and struggling domestic competitors offer the moon on a stick to compete.)

Now, vapourware is kind of bad. But it’s bad in a quotidian, predictable way: “man is rarely so innocently employed as in the getting of money,” as Samuel Johnson said. And a lot of very worthwhile innovations started off as vapourware in the minds of over-optimistic inventors and entrepreneurs.

But occasionally I encounter a special subset of vapourware that feels more knowingly malign. Sometimes when someone is hyping an as-yet-non-existent innovation, their aim is not to sell it or to invent it, but simply to put the kibosh on the actually-existing competition, which they dislike for other reasons.

Which brings us back to the duckweed. Back in 2007, Roger Ford, a railway engineer and journalist, was giving evidence to the UK’s Parliament. He criticised a Government White Paper that had decided against electrifying rail lines, on the grounds that “because we might have… trains using hydrogen developed from bionic duckweed in 15 years’ time… we might have to take the wires down and it would all be wasted”. I suppose this refers to actual biotech innovations that could generate green hydrogen, but the name is too good to leave on the pages of Hansard.

In its broader sense, bionic duckweed can be thought of a sort of unobtainium that renders investment in present-day technologies pointless, unimaginative, and worst of all On The Wrong Side Of History. “Don’t invest in what can be done today, because once bionic duckweed is invented it’ll all be obsolete.” It is a sort of promissory note in reverse, forcing us into inaction today in the hope of wonders tomorrow.

In the case of rail electrification, it’s not clear that the Government’s underlying motivation was malign (though you can never discount HM Treasury’s pathological antipathy to capital investment). But there are plenty of other examples where it’s hard not to suspect that duckweed promoters have an ulterior motive.

One example is self-driving cars. It has become something of a standard line for opponents of high-speed rail in the UK to say “self-driving cars will mean we don’t need trains, so why invest in faster ones now?”. Some people using this line may genuinely have wanted investment in self-driving cars. But many of them seem to have shown little interest in self-driving cars, but have always opposed high-speed rail investment. (Jack Stilgoe’s excellent book on self-driving cars includes a US example.)

Historical examples abound. David Edgerton points out that some long-standing opponents of nationalising Britain’s coal mines came up with the argument in 1945 that nuclear power would make coal irrelevant. Greg Stone pointed to the 1957 Defence White Paper. I’m sure there are more.

Turning back to the present day, I wonder if some of the enthusiasm for domestic hydrogen power is another case of bionic duckweed. An existing way to low-carbon home heating is heat pumps (which are electric, and so can be low-carbon if you can decarbonise the electricity grid, a feasible project). But many vested interests (including both capital and labour) dislike heat pumps and like the existing system of gas pipes and boilers. While I don’t doubt there are some good-faith enthusiasts for hydrogen home heating, I wonder if a lot of the enthusiasm is about deploying a warm fuzz of futurism to block the present-day threat of heat pumps.

When I raised this issue on Twitter yesterday, I got several good suggestions for what it should be called: tech-crastination, futurewashing and Verarschung were among my favourites. But bionic duckweed wins it for me.

(Thanks to Charlie Goldsmith for pointing me in the direction of bionic duckweed in the first place.)