There are some words that, when used with respect to technology, bring about a collective groan, slump of the shoulders and eye-roll from the broader tech community. It’s normally on stage at a big conference, or in a newspaper headline, or in an elevator pitch at the latest demo day. Such words and phrases include: “We are the Uber of [insert industry here]”, “growth-hacking”, “[coding / design / business] ninja”, and, of course, “moonshot”.
They are shortcuts, they are hyperbolic, they are used to try to impress. But they also signify something unspoken to those in the know looking on. Something unintended by those making big claims. They signify laziness of thought and a lack of originality. Most of all, they suggest a complete lack of engagement with the current state of the science and technology industries.
They reveal that the person using such hackneyed boasts is about 10 years out of date. This isn’t a big deal when it’s someone pitching a new gaming app; it is when it’s our government talking about its latest plan for tackling the pandemic we’ve all been experiencing for months.
Which brings us to “Operation Moonshot”. Last week Boris Johnson’s government offered grand plans for the project it hopes can beat the pandemic, which involves a projected £100bn for mass testing with technology which, small note, has not yet been invented. (Look out too for where contracts are going in the private sector, as we have seen already in this crisis.) Many have called for mass testing and it is much needed, but the moonshot fanfare risks making it seem like the tough part is out of the way – obscuring the need for slow, steady and unshowy hard work.
“Moonshot” is a term that, of course, harks back to the 1960s. It’s used to signify a big, ambitious, expensive project which is hard to do and – by most measures – not all that sensible; “a crazy idea” if you will.
In reality, it means doing something singular (“landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth”), ego-boosting (such as trumping Russia in the cold war), and, in the long run, really not all that useful (see: the huge reduction in Nasa funding once the moon landing was “done”).
It’s used as a stand-in for solving something so complicated that any reasonable proposal for change would be seen as boring, too long-term and not at all beneficial for winning in political cycles. We’ve had cancer moonshots, climate moonshots, a “moonshot factory” – all of them lacking in clarity but backed by heroic marketing and triumphant media coverage.
And that’s the point. Using terms like moonshot is not an act to provide clarity or detailed plans or explanations. These terms are used to capture attention, to distract from the big-ness of the problem, to halt those questioning what powerful people, organisations and governments are doing to make things better with a reductive yet bombastic, smile-through-gritted-panicked-teeth “we’re working on it”.
Using out-of-date, over-amped language when talking about solutions to huge societal problems is demoralising for those actually thinking deeply on these issues, and undermines their trust. It also exposes the leadership as really only interested in fooling the less-informed, ready for the next election cycle, with shallow “tech will save us” rhetoric and empty alignment with the “heroes” of the tech revolution.
It’s not really surprising though. The prime minister and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, are clearly enamoured of an ethos imported from Silicon Valley: at once earnest and ambitious, yet also naive and dangerously blinkered. It’s the no-sleep-pizza-only weekend hackathons set to “fix” education; or the elevator pitches done in actual elevator rides because we needed to gamify the process of throwing money at inane adtech ideas; or the quoting of Peter Thiel and Paul Graham when talking about “disruptors” and “big ideas” in LinkedIn posts and personal blogs. We saw it when Johnson was mayor of London, with his paeans to the achievements of Silicon Roundabout – a mindset that extended well into the David Cameron government. We see it with Cummings and his “mission control” dreams, his “Get Brexit done, then ARPA” line on his WhatsApp profile, his “weirdos and misfits” manifesto-slash-job ad.
You can’t just neatly “solve” big problems though. The climate emergency and cancer and, indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic are not items to be checked off a list or moved a column to the right on a Trello board. These global societal issues require painfully slow, hard, systemic change across many levels. You can’t throw money and “weirdos” at these problems like you can with a tricky bug in code; it takes time and collaboration and citizen engagement and an understanding of systems interaction. But that’s hard to say, and actually hard to do, and doesn’t make you sound like a “boss” who gets things done.
The use of the word “moonshot” opens up two equally worrying scenarios for all to see. Either Cummings and Johnson don’t realise that using the term and approach to describe their pandemic plans is old hat, naive, and destined, in its narrowness, to not work – which suggests they have no clue what they’re doing. Or they know that this narrative will add to the misinformation and confusion, picking up easy excited headlines from their champions in the press – which suggests they don’t care that their plan is operationally lacking if it serves the rhetorical purpose of fooling some.
The moonshot narrative is lame and trite. It would be worthy of a mocking eye-roll – if it weren’t being employed on a global pandemic. But it’s also revealing the government – yet again – to be dangerously inept in its tech worship and in its far too narrow approach to tackling the biggest issues facing society today. It highlights a willingness to patronise people in Britain who simply want to know how those in charge are going to protect them from a deadly virus.
• Gemma Milne is a science and technology writer, and author of Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It