Miracle tech that is anything but: a taxonomy of bionic duckweed

18th February, 2021

Is bionic duckweed a dire threat to our health and prosperity? It just might be. But lest you fear that it is a fresh torment to test us alongside Covid-19, wildfires and murder hornets, I should reassure you that it is not a Triffid-like killer plant. Bionic duckweed is, instead, a metaphor for a glorious future technology, which might sound good — but isn’t because it keeps us from acting.

The term was coined by a journalist and railway expert named Roger Ford. In evidence to a UK parliamentary committee in 2008, he lamented that electrified railways had been delayed because of the suggestion that “we might have fuel-cell-power trains using hydrogen developed from bionic duckweed in 15 years’ time” and so it would be a waste to have electrified the lines now. No investment today; there will be bionic duckweed tomorrow.

This fascinating and infuriating idea was brought to my attention in a brief essay written by Stian Westlake, co-author of Capitalism without Capital. The concept that our focus on the future might actually make us short-sighted is such a fertile one that I have been tempted to produce a taxonomy of bionic duckweed.

One: evil duckweed. For Westlake, bionic duckweed is a “knowingly malign” prediction designed to distort decisions today. Jack Stilgoe’s book Who’s Driving Innovation? provides an example: efforts by small-government types to stymie investment in light-rail schemes by claiming that completely autonomous cars — sometimes called “Level 5” — are just around the corner. Experts believe they are decades away. “I can show you places around this world I have been to where Level 5 autonomous vehicles are in operation today,” said one Nashville politician in 2017, in a successful effort to persuade voters to reject a mass transit system. Perhaps this was deliberate exaggeration. Perhaps he was making an innocent mistake. Perhaps he had visited these places in a time machine.

Two: duckweed ex machina. Closely related to evil duckweed, duckweed ex machina solves unpleasantly knotty political problems by waving rather vaguely at a technological fix. Boris Johnson loves this stuff. First, it was going to solve the problem of the Irish border. Johnson wrote last year: “If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border.” He did not explain how, exactly, the problem would be solved — and thus far it has not been. Also: I don’t think “frictionless” means what he thinks it means.

Then there are the “game-changer” technologies to fight the coronavirus. Remember when the UK government ordered 3.5 million “game-changer” home antibody tests? That was in March. If the game has been changed, I have not noticed. Or consider the algorithm that was supposed to assign fair grades for exams that had been cancelled, with life-shaping university places at stake. The algoshambles was pure duckweed ex machina: the government faced a painful decision, and technology promised instant relief. See also: “moonshot”.

Three: Schrodinger’s duckweed — the technology that might or might not be round the corner. Consider a vaccine against coronavirus. It seems likely that a proven vaccine will be produced, but it remains unclear how effective it will be and when it will be widely available.

That uncertainty creates problems all by itself. Imagine that we were all, miraculously, given an effective vaccine tomorrow. We could get back to the theatre, back to the office, back to normal. Now, in contrast, imagine that we were told that the virus would be with us forever, lurking in the background like the flu, and we would never find a cure. I suspect that we might well shrug and get back to normal too, in the grim knowledge that some of us would not long survive. It is the uncertainty that keeps us away from crowds, sometimes by law but mostly on a voluntary basis. Who wants to risk catching Covid-19 at Christmas when a vaccine might be with us in January?

The classic work on this problem is by the economists Avinash Dixit and Robert Pindyck. They showed that in the face of uncertainty, when it is expensive to reverse an action, procrastination becomes very attractive.

The Trump administration seems to thrive on maximising uncertainty. So does the UK’s post-referendum policy on Brexit, which has repeatedly postponed, denied or reversed painful choices. This sort of uncertainty can be enormously damaging, as people wait for clarity before deciding what to do. That is true for self-inflicted wounds but also true when the uncertainty concerns good news such as a vaccine: Schrodinger’s duckweed is duckweed nonetheless, and it clogs the gears of our decisions.

The fourth and final category: inevitable duckweed. Sometimes there is no malevolence, no wishful thinking and no uncertainty. Sometimes the new technology is imminent. Even then, inevitable duckweed can delay investment. Solar power is cheap. But it will be even cheaper next year, so we hesitate to install it.

My own computer — ostensibly a high-end Dell laptop — has broken down several times in the first two years of use. I am tempted to buy something new and start again. And yet I keep patching it up and plodding on. Why? Duckweed. The longer I can keep it going, the better and cheaper the replacement will be. Not all bionic duckweed is evil. But even the good stuff slows us down.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 30 October 2020.

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