Monday, January 7, 2013

The Ddulite Bifurcation

From inappropriate aggregation to silly juxtapositions.

For the original definition of Ddulite check the link. For now it's sufficient to say we're talking about people (particularly journalists) who have an emotional, gee-whiz reaction to technology without really thinking seriously about the functionality.

Ddulite journalists can be spotted by a few defining characteristics: a remarkable ability to be impressed by the unimpressive; a focus on shiny, sexy toys; a tendency to report on technologies that really aren't that close as being just around the corner; a recurring amnesia about the slow development of similar technologies; general obliviousness to questions about implementation and demand; and what we might call the ddulite bifurcation.

The typical bifurcation consists of two applications of a new technology, one application mundane but realistic, the other impressive but so wildly ambitious that it may not even be theoretically possible with the technology being discussed.

I was going to make up an absurd example here but now that I think about it, I'm not sure I could do better than this actual story from Planet Money. The subject is 3-D printers and it's worth listening to.The Planet Money people are good, solid reporters and they do a reasonable job putting things in economic context, even bringing in Tyler Cowen to shoot down some of the more extravagant this-is-the-future claims.

But you can count on any story like this to have at least a few ddulite moments and you can certainly find them here, including this classic bifurcation. First we get this claim from a CEO named Pete Weijmarshausen:
Now, I think in a few years, we can print clothing, and then you can have clothing without sizes, but you have the size that fits you.
(Note the qualifiers here: "I think"; "in a few years.")

This is followed a few lines later by analyst Terry Wohlers saying:
WOHLERS: You lose a finger, you print out a new one.
CHACE: Yeah, like, actual body parts, printing out new fingers using your cells.
WOHLERS: Bones and bladders and eventually kidneys and so forth.
(glad he put the "eventually" qualifier with kidneys)

At the risk of belaboring the obvious and working under the assumption that most of you reading this know waaaay more about regenerative medicine and therapeutic cloning than I do, the day when we can easily grow new limbs is probably not just around the corner. Important fundamental research is being done and it's reasonable to talk about being able to do this someday but it could be a long way off. As for 3D printing approaches, we seem to be at the appears to be theoretically possible stage where we can work with masses of tissue rather than just a few cells by creating synthetic vascular systems.

This is exciting research but it's the sort of thing that's probably years away if it ever proves viable. Like most reporting about nanotech, the story mixes the ongoing with the theoretically possible in a way that obscures the huge gap between the two.

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