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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)

So, thanks to new materials and computer-aided design, the fuel efficiency of the 747 has doubled since that jumbo jet's introduction in 1970. New, stronger polyester-core threads break less often, so high-speed sewing machines can produce clothing at much faster rates. Cancer hasn't been cured, but new drugs have improved survival rates. For many, AIDS has been transformed from a death sentence to a chronic illness. "Incremental changes can add up to levels of refinement that are truly breathtaking," Tenner says.

The iPhone might be the perfect expression of this refinement, but shouldn't be confused with revolution. All of the basic technologies that the iPhone incorporates were invented before 1975. And all of the iPhone's functions are available in superior form via existing devices. Its signal achievement, at least based on pre-launch reviews, seems to be how Apple has integrated so many functions into one elegant, easy-to-use package.

The downside of techno-hype is that it has raised expectations that can't, or haven't yet, been met. Despite bright promises, some technologies have never quite worked as touted, or have had side effects that arrested their potential (which is why no one wants a nuclear power plant in their back yard).

Remember artificial intelligence, which was supposed to make computers as intuitive as a human being? A 2-year-old child still has superior reasoning and cognitive abilities. Remember magnetic-levitation (mag-lev) trains, which would speed passengers to their destinations in frictionless comfort? Remember low-temperature superconductivity, which would enable almost infinite power storage?

Remember the supersonic Concorde, which would take over transatlantic travel? The SST is now just a museum piece.

The good news is that if Tenner's cycle theory is right, we could be on the verge of a new 30-year wave of paradigm-shattering innovation. Maybe in a few years, stem cell medicine will yield all the miracles that its supporters have promised. Maybe animal cloning and genetically modified foods will lead to the end of malnutrition and starvation. Maybe breakthroughs in battery and other energy-storage technologies will create true alternatives to fossil fuels and thus slow the pace of global warming.

Maybe. But as in all things technological, it pays to heed a disclaimer buried in the fine print:

You can't always trust the hype.

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