It seemed fitting back in January that, shortly after the 21st century dawned, our ears should ring with enticing rumors of a new, stunning technological innovation. It was known as "IT," or "Ginger," and we were promised that it would change our cities, change the world, and be more significant than the Internet. It was thought to relate to transportation. Speculations about personal jetpacks and even teleportation devices flew.
Alas, the 21st century hasn't turned out so well since January. And this week, Ginger's inventor, Dean Kamen, revealed what all the fuss was about.
It's about as disappointing as the 21st century has turned out to be so far.
Ginger, now officially known as the "Segway," is...an electric motorscooter. It's an innovative one, to be sure, with a nifty gyroscopic system that helps even the clumsiest stand up straight, and a steering system that detects a rider's subtle body language to help it move in the right direction.
But still, just a scooter. With the explosion of human-powered Razor scooters among kids of all ages over the past year or so, one might think brainy inventors and high-powered Internet-era investors who went ga-ga over Ginger wouldn't be so blown away.
Oh, we were warned. The defunct Inside.com, which first reported the Ginger rumors in January, had figured out by March that it was an electric motorscooter--a product that, one couldn't help notice, already existed and could be ordered for less than $200 on the Internet.
How, then, could Ginger be something we'd be compelled to redesign our cities around, as Apple CEO Steve Jobs insisted? Inside.com speculated that it would be powered by a special new hydrogen motor. Our cities would have to be redesigned with hydrogen-dispensing stations to keep all the Gingers rolling.
Even that part turned out to be hype: The Segway is powered by a normal battery, charged from wall sockets.
The fevered excitement over the Segway was an absurdly overdone sales job that would have made P.T. Barnum blush. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com said it was a "product so revolutionary, you'll have no problem selling it." At this point in time, it's worth checking Amazon's stock prices and asking why should we take Bezos' word.
Why was anyone so excited? The key is in a much-cited quote from the leaked book proposal that launched the rumors. The Segway promised "an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in the cities." That product, of course, is that archenemy of planning elites and environmentalists: the automobile.
In that sense, the Segway is not so much the next step after the steam engine and the Internet, as the hype implied, but a new (and doubtless equally futile) successor to city buses and light rail. The idea that the Segway, as currently configured, could become a world-shaking invention is patently absurd, but it helps plays into a peculiar modern fantasy: that if only people have enough other options thrown at them that seem evidently superior to the planning genius, they will give up their "dirty, expensive...dangerous" cars. Segway costs $8,000, more than even many a fine used car (a $3,000 version is supposedly in the works).
An electric scooter might make sense to its inventors and its cheerleaders--it can go up to 12 miles per hour and takes only an hour to charge! The U.S. Postal Service is testing close to two dozen Segways! Certainly, a few particularly athletic, quirky, or environmentalist-chic types will love the Segway.
But most people have certain desires when it comes to transportation--like being protected from the elements (and other humans), being able to transport other items with them (without hefting a huge backpack), and not having to stand up the whole trip.
The Segway's limitations are so obvious that only those hypnotized by fantasies of a carless world could fall for it. Kamen's dream turns out to be the old dream of getting people out of their cars. Only the wisest of dreamers could be so foolish.