Among the many things for which whiz-bang American inventor Dean Kamen is famous is an automated wheelchair that can ride over uneven ground and climb stairs. That particular breakthrough device was code-named “Fred.” Now, as everyone this side of the grave must have heard, there is also “Ginger.” Some people, however, seem to have missed the message in the names. Of all the world’s iconic couples, Fred and Ginger — Astaire and Rogers, that is — must figure among the coolest, airiest and most elegant. Yet the fuss about the mysterious new Ginger has been hot, heavy and extremely inelegant.
Ginger, otherwise referred to as “IT,” is Mr. Kamen’s latest invention. You can already preorder IT on Amazon.com, even though no one but a favored few (including Amazon chief Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Steve Jobs) yet knows what IT is. Since Ginger’s existence — but not its nature — was disclosed on the Internet less than a month ago, speculation has soared, spilling over from the Net into the mainstream media and taxing the brains of the bored and underemployed with the urgent question: What is IT? Lurking behind the question, naturally, is the prospect of outlandish profits: Credit Suisse First Boston, said to be an early investor, predicts that Ginger will make more money in its first year on the market than any other product in history.
There are several appropriate responses to the question. The first, as Fred and the device’s namesake would surely have said as they twirled off into the wings, is: Who cares? If Mr. Kamen has come up with some cool new invention (cooler, say insiders, than pantyhose, cold fusion and the World Wide Web rolled into one), then nothing on Earth will stop us finding out about it when the market decrees it is time. We will find out whether we want to or not. In the meantime, leave us alone, we have some dance steps to practice.
The second possible response is to join the fun. Amazon.com is “selling” the ghostly product in exactly that spirit, saying the company “likes to have fun and make history” and senses the opportunity to do both on the back of Gingermania. Several Internet sites have made a parlor game out of it, polling visitors on what they think IT is. Results are encouraging, with 40 people at one site predicting a new can opener and 56 expecting a full-range “Star Trek”-style holodeck. We hope IT is a holodeck too, but the fact is, the guessing game is a little dull. Ginger is clearly some kind of personal transportation device. Think of those names again. Fred helps disabled people get around a little better. Ginger will simply do the same for the rest of us.
Other clues abound. Mr. Kamen himself has practically given it away, despite his canny silence at the Davos World Economic Forum last week. In the product proposal that was disclosed in early January, he says his invention will “profoundly affect our environment and the way people live worldwide. It will be an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating, especially for people in . . . cities.”
Mr. Jobs, given an advance peek at a prototype, also let the cat out of the bag: “If enough people see the machine, you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it. It’ll just happen.” (Aha, IT’s a machine!) You don’t have to be an all-terrain-wheelchair inventor to figure out that they are talking about a radical alternative to cars. In which case, yes, our interest is piqued, though we also hope that one of the other projects Mr. Kamen is working on is a portable grammar monitor to stop people like Mr. Jobs using words like “architect” as a verb. Could be worth billions.
But here’s a third response. It’s not Ginger that is so intriguing, but what the whole Ginger phenomenon tells us about ourselves. Even Mr. Kamen was taken aback by the feverishness of the reaction and the rapidity with which interest spread. Some have attributed Ginger fever to the Internet, undoubtedly a super-effective means of transmission. But the Internet is, in the end, only a vehicle, not the bug itself — the medium, but not the message. Why are people so interested in the first place? Mr. Kamen hinted at a possible answer when he said in a statement Jan. 12 that quotes taken out of context, “together with spirited speculation about the unknown, have led to expectations that are beyond the mere whimsical.”
Spirited speculation about the unknown: What is that but humanity’s oldest pastime? It’s sobering that in this case what has got people so excited is just another item for sale on Amazon.com.
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