Practicality Takes Time

Image of sharp and smoothed stones.
Image of sharp and smoothed stones. Original photographs by Jim Barton and Des Colhoun under CC-BY-SA-2.0 licenses.

We often see amazing scientific discoveries and readers lament, “but how long until I, in my kitchen, can smash an atom with it?” But practicality takes time.

Look at the automobile. Been around for over 100 years, and we’re still trying to get rid of some of the downsides to it, like deaths from crashes. We overhauled our entire road system for it, built more bridges and roads than ever before, and the whole thing remains a work in progress.

Electronic cigarettes are a similar story. Patents and designs for various models go back 50 years, but the modern ecig only has its origins about ten years back. And the current state-of-the-art devices are really rooted in the past five years of development. And even then, they stand to be further improved.

My go-to metaphor for this sort of thing is a sharp stone being worn down until it is smooth. Society thrives off of the process of smoothing stones out, until they fit our hands and do not cut us.

A couple of things are involved in why an advancement is not instantly realized. One is economies of scale, the notion that for a new process to be cheap enough for widespread distribution requires enough units to be produced. This is likely the bulk of the time-to-practicality issue. It encompasses several related issues:

  • Price-per-unit
  • Knowledge of the advancement
  • Adaptability of the advancement to many different products
  • Generational product planning

It needs to be cheap enough not just to justify the switchover, but to cover the cost of switching in some reasonable timeframe. The option to use the new thing has to reach a wide enough audience. It has to be adjustable to the individual products that can use it.

And it needs generational support. The new-and-expensive of today needs top tier customers, while the older-and-cheap needs lower tier customers. The consumers need to be proportioned in what is roughly a pyramid shape.

But supporting technologies are also needed. We have decent designs for hydrogen-based electric generation, but we’re still developing production and storage. In theory we will rely on hydrogen instead of batteries for anything that requires a large capacity of electric power, while traditional batteries will remain for low-power scenarios.

But it could turn out that once we have hydrogen storage down to an art, it will be easier to move hydrogen than use batteries, so where the line of high and low capacity will be drawn will take some shaking out.

And that’s the norm for competing technologies. And it’s healthy if you don’t have the sort of economic leverages that block real competition. In the case of renewables versus carbon fuels, you have those anti-capitalist behaviors blocking price competition in favor of carbon.

What these anti-capitalist practices amount to is a lag to practicality for their competitors. In extreme cases, the lag can be as long as it takes for some tectonic shift in the economic and political landscape.

There is another side to the maturation of technologies, which is a burst of overuse once a technology is sufficiently mature to be very inexpensive. We’re already seeing this with some technologies like Bluetooth, but we will likely see another wave of this as the Internet of Things becomes more mature.