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

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.

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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