The iPhone As Crowning Achievement? Um, Hel-lo?

The iPhone has been placed on a pedestal since its unveiling in January in San Francisco.
The iPhone has been placed on a pedestal since its unveiling in January in San Francisco. (By Paul Sakuma -- Asociated Press)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007

Americans love their techno-hype, which -- from the space program to the Segway -- has long been a facet of daily life. Embracing the hype over the would-be Next Big Thing is one of the things that defines us as Americans, the most innovative and optimistic people on Earth.

Today, that Thing is the iPhone. Perhaps you've heard of it? Apple's new gizmo -- on sale starting today! -- is a cellphone, a camera, an Internet browser, a music player and (possibly) a Swiss Army knife. Gaseous clouds of publicity have hung about its introduction since January, when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs declared that his company is "reinventing the telephone." The San Francisco Chronicle played along, asking this week: "Can the iPhone Change Your Life?" (The paper's conclusion: Um, yeah, kind of.)

The iPhone is just the latest iCon in our Golden Age of Techno-Hype. It follows essentially similar swoons for the XBox, PlayStation 2, the Razr phone, PalmPilot, BlackBerry, iPod, HDTV and other products. Periodically, hosannas are also shouted over the latest wonder of the Internet (Amazon, eBay, Google, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc.).

What's more, there are whole utopian promises floating major parts of our scientific-industrial complex. Nanotechnology. Biotechnology. Artificial intelligence. Gene-mapping and stem cell medicine. Fusion power and hydrogen fuels.

The persistent techno-hype of this era, however, masks a simple observation: We don't live in particularly inventive or transformative times. This has been an age of scientific refinement, not revolution.

As British historian David Edgerton notes in his new book, "The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900," much of the basic technology we rely on today was introduced many decades ago, although improved upon in multiple ways since.

Computers, vaccines and antibiotics, nuclear weapons, birth-control pills, television, cellphones -- all are the product of early- to mid-20th-century innovation and development. The piston-driven internal combustion engine, the basis of our most common modes of transportation, was developed in the 1870s and '80s. Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the feasibility of sending the human voice over electrical wires in 1875. Contemporary diesel trains use an airbrake system that was patented in 1872.

If a person were to time-travel from the late 1940s to today, observes Edward Tenner, a technology historian, he'd have very little trouble recognizing our age.

Tenner, the author of "Why Things Bite Back," about the unintended consequences of technology, argues that truly radical innovation has occurred in roughly 30-year cycles -- and that our own era isn't one of the radical waves.

The period from 1885 to 1915, for example, gave birth to such world-changing inventions as the airplane, movie projection, the radio, revolutionary new fertilizers and pesticides, as well as mass-production techniques such as the assembly line. Basic designs that we still use -- the bicycle, for example -- sprang from this era, too.

The next great wave, he says, extended from 1945 to 1975. That was the period of the polio vaccine, antibiotics, commercial jet travel, the space program, semiconductors, nuclear power. Even the Internet began during this period; the first e-mail was sent in 1972.

The post-1975 period has produced fewer of these radical new technologies, Tenner says. But that's not to say we're slackers. Like the 1915-45 period, this era has produced many small, un-hyped and crucially important advances that have made older technologies better and more efficient.

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