iLove: The power of the gadget

With its cool lines, luminous screen and sleek silhouette, Apple's new iPhone is already a spectacular hit - and it won't even go on sale for months. But is it really as revolutionary as Steve Jobs would have us believe? Of course not, says David Edgerton, it's just a brilliant reinvention of an old idea
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The most significant technologies of modern times are often reduced to the following: flight (1903), nuclear power (1945), contraception (1955), and the internet (1965). We are told change is taking place at an ever accelerating pace, and that the new is increasingly powerful. The world, the gurus insist, is entering a new historical epoch as a result of technology. In the new economy, in new times, in our post-industrial and postmodern condition, knowledge of the present and past is supposedly ever less relevant. Inventors, even in these postmodern times, are "ahead of their time", while societies suffer from the grip of the past, resulting in a supposed slowness to adapt to new technology and yet in awe of its power.

So powerful is the pull of the new consumer electronic sector that its novelties have come to mean "technology" as a whole. At the launch of Apple's new wunder-gadget on Tuesday Steve Jobs announced that the iPhone will "reinvent" the telecoms sector. He claimed the iPod "had changed everything in 2001", and that now the iPhone would do the same in 2007.

The sleek, seductive iPhone will arrive in stores this autumn, protected by 200 patents. Online, yesterday, Apple fans were going wild, and the iPhone is likely to be among the most sought-after gifts next Christmas. Who can resist its cool curves and luminous touchscreen? The design genius Jonathan Ive, the man who created both the iMac and the iPod, has surpassed himself this time. Yet the naysayers (and there are many) claim the iPhone will be very expensive for what it is, and that similar products already exist. Indeed, there is a serious debate as to whether the iPhone is innovative at all - and if so, what is the innovation? The flipside is a recognition that design, marketing and PR are central to selling consumer goods like these. So whatever its technical merits, iPhone is set to succeed as spectacularly as the iPod. (Or perhaps not. Let's not forget that the launch of Sony's much-hyped PS3 was swiftly derailed by Nintendo's Wii.)

The place of fun and leisure in the history of technology is underrated. We tend to think of technology as deadly serious and useful. Radios are for communicating and educating, cars for transport. Yet from the beginning new, often expensive, consumer technologies sold because they were fun. Pornography helped sales of home cinema equipment, helped launch the video, and the internet. Radios sold much faster than washing machines, and televisions faster than freezers.

The telephone, in the beginning, was as much for gossip as for business. In the 1920s in the US country folk would mortgage their rudimentary houses to buy a car. As one farm woman memorably put it, "you can't go to town in a bathtub". One reason Henry Ford's hugely successful Model T ran into trouble is that people got to like annual model changes and gizmos on their motors - and the macho ruggedness of the Model T, which Henry Ford revelled in, became a turn off. The Wii is clearly designed for fun, and so, for all the portentous language of Mr Jobs, is the iPhone.

Steve Jobs could never be a Henry Ford, but the futurist rhetoric he uses is wonderfully antiquated. There are new things under the sun, and the world is changing radically, but this way of selling technology is not among them. Although the emphasis on the future suggests originality, this kind of futurology has been with us a long time. In the 19th century, the idea that inventors were ahead of their time and that science and technology were advancing faster than the ability of human society to cope was a commonplace. By the early 20th century this notion was made academically respectable with the label "the cultural lag". In the 1950s, and later, one could claim without embarrassment that scientists "had the future in their bones". By the end of the 20th century, futurism had long been passé.

The technological future was as it had been for a long time. Intellectuals claimed there was a new kind of future, prefigured by "postmodern" architecture. Yet this new kind of future was to be brought about by an old-style technological or industrial revolution that would change everything. Technology-reheated futurism has held its appeal long after it was declared obsolete. The technological future marched on as before.

One great problem with our reflections on technology is that we conflate our speculations about the future with what science and technology actually are. Thus we take technologies of the present to be those which, at best, are at the beginning of their career. Similarly, we think of past technologies in relation to the time when they were invented. On top of that, our sample of inventions is biased towards those that were and are heavily hyped.

Instead we need to ask what the technologies in use at any time were and are, and how significant they were and are. Once we do this a world of invisible technologies comes to light in which old and new intermingle seamlessly. Our histories might include corrugated iron, vulcanised rubber, cemented-carbide tools, screwdrivers, synthetic ammonia and nitrate plants, the refrigerator, DDT, asbestos-cement... Some disappear only to reappear, others mutate, most stay around. Our thinking about invention will change, too: it will become largely a story of failure. Most inventions never lead to innovations, let alone successful products. Our inventiveness has been such that we can never use everything we have thought of.

A clear example of how this retro techno-hype works is the case of the publicity around Nasa's X- 43A space aeroplane. It flew for the first time on 27 March 2004. Although it lasted all of 10 seconds, the flight made the news the world over. "From Kitty Hawk to the X-43A has been a century's steady advance", wrote one newspaper; from "seven miles an hour to Mach Seven is a striking indication of how far powered flight has travelled in a hundred years". Soon we would be enjoying almost instant travel to Australia from London.

Below the surface was another history, which blew great holes in this old-fashioned story. Every few weeks between 1959 and 1968 B-52 aircraft took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California, with one of three X-15s under their wings. Once high up the X-15s fired their rocket engines and were actively flown by 12 "research pilots" in silver pressurised space-suits, reaching speeds of Mach 6.7 and touching the edge of space.

The B-52 , which took the X-43A and its booster rocket up, was one of the same B-52s used on the X-15 programmes and was now the oldest flying B-52. It was built in the 1950s. Not only that, but the key technology of the X- 43A was the scramjet, a supersonic version of the ramjet. A technique decades old, it was used in a 1950s-designed British anti-aircraft missile, the Bloodhound. In short, the story might have been "1950s aeroplane launches unmanned ramjet plane which flies a little faster than 1960s Right Stuff pilots."

With technologies we consume, we are perhaps more knowing. We go for the retro pastime of sailing in cruise liners, we eat organic food and corned beef, and listen to world music played on "authentic" instruments. Rock stars of the 1960s still generate large sales. Steve Jobs launched the iPhone with a Beatles track.

Even without the iPhone we can make phone calls, take pictures, listen to music, and surf the internet from a mobile platform. Before the iPod we could listen to music on the move. The iPhone is a source of information, a telephone and a camera. None of these things are new, although the combination, and the methods used are.

The camera was a key gadget from the late 19th century. The telephone is as old, though it was much less diffused. As to sources of information, they have come in all shapes and sizes, from the giant library to the handy newspaper. The electronic camera goes back to the 1930s at least; radio to the early 20th century, and the electronic computer to the mid-20th. The 1960s saw the picture-phone. But these old technologies have changed to make possible new combinations, on a different scale, and at much reduced prices. The devil is very much in the detail.

Even if the iPhone were to take over all the mobile phones, we would still be living in a world where coal was mined, with more cars, aeroplanes, wooden furniture and cotton textiles than ever. The tonnage of world shipping continues to increase. We still have buses, trains, radio, television and cinema, and consume increasing quantities of paper, cement and steel. The production of books increases. Since the late 1960s many more bicycles were produced each year than cars. Ingvar Kamprad made his money f rom mass-producing and selling wood-based furniture. He founded Ikea and is, almost certainly, richer than Steve Jobs.

Given that our world is a combination of old and new so intertwined that it hardly makes sense to distinguish between them, it is appropriate that present visions of the future display a startling, unselfconscious lack of originality. Take the litany of technologies that have promised peace. Communications technologies, from railways and steamships, to radio and the aeroplane, and now the internet, have seemed to make the world smaller and bring people together, ensuring a perpetual peace. Technologies of destruction, such as the great ironclad battleships, Nobel's explosives, the bomber aircraft and the atomic bomb were so powerful that they, too, would force the world to make peace.

New technologies have promised to emancipate the downtrodden. The class system would wither under the meritocracy demanded by new technology; racial minorities would gain new opportunities - as chauffeurs, pilots and computer experts. Women were to be liberated by new domestic technologies. The differences between nations would evaporate as technology overcame borders. Political systems, too, would converge as technology, inevitably, became the same everywhere.

To be at all convincing these arguments have had to deny their own history, and they have done so to a remarkable extent. The obliteration of even recent history has been continuous and systematic. When we think of information technology we forget about postal systems, the telegraph, the telephone, radio and television. When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail-order catalogue goes missing. Genetic engineering, and its positive and negative impacts, is discussed as if there have never been any other means of changing animals or plants, let alone other means of increasing food supply.

Will we come to believe that there were no phones before the iPhone? It might yet happen. For the corporate techno-hype has shaped our history of technology before, and will do so again.

David Edgerton is the author of 'The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900' (Profile Books) To order a copy for the special price of £16.99 (plus free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Toy story: a brief history of gadgets

By Christian Broughton

1926 On 26 January, John Logie Baird gives the first demonstration of the television. Two years later he follows that up with a colour transmission.

1971 The first hand-held calculator, the Sharp EL-8 (above), which weighs 1lb, goes on sale for $395.

1972 On 4 April 1972, Pulsar launches the first digital watch, which features a red LED display. Until LCD displays were introduced, most LED watches required the wearer to press a button to light up the screen, as LEDs drew too much power to have them lit up all the time.

1975 Video games become the Christmas must-have gift for the very first time as people queue outside the Sears department store in New York awaiting shipments of Pong (bottom).

1976 JVC launches the VHS video recorder . Technically, it's not as good as other formats, but that doesn't stop it seeing off its rival, Betamax (above), to become the global standard for anyone watching a film at home for decades to come.

1977 The Apple II (below) becomes the first popular home computer, becoming standard issue in American schools. By the end of its production in 1993, two million Apple II units have been sold.

1979 The Sony Walkman (below left) is launched. The innovation started as a pet project of the company's co-founder, Akio Morita, who wanted to listen to opera on his frequent flights to and from the US. Suddenly, everyone wants to be wired for sound.

1982 The first CDs herald the era of digital music. The disk is the product of a joint venture between Philips and Sony. Originally planned to hold an hour of music, the maximum capacity is increased to 74 minutes because Sony's vice-president, Norio Ohga, suggests that it should accommodate a complete performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

1985 On 1 January, Britain's first mobile phone call (above right) is made across the Vodafone network... by Ernie Wise, a friend of the telecoms firm's chairman.

1985 The term "laptop" is coined by the makers of the Gavilan SC personal computer (below left), which is equipped with a floppy disk drive, 5MHZ Intel processor and a 48kb memory, and a modem.

1989 - On 21 April, Nintendo launches the Game Boy (below left), packaged with Tetris, a game so popular that its own background music achieves massive chart success. The original design sells 70 million units worldwide, the Game Boy colour sells 49 million and the compact Game Boy Advance more than 75 million.

1991 The webcam is born as the computer-science department of Cambridge University installs a video camera showing the filter coffee machine in the library's Trojan Room, to avoid people the disappointment of making the journey only to find the pot empty. The webcam is finally switched off on 22 August 2001.

1991 On 6 August, the first ever website is created by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, outside Geneva), explaining what the World Wide Web is. Berners-Lee forgoes any patent, insisting that it must be free for all. (You can see a copy of the web page at http://www.w3.org/History/19921103-hypertext/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html)

1992 The UK's first commercial SMS message is sent in December from a computer to a Vodafone employee. The message: Merry Christmas.

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