The Cult of IT

Like the fabled cargo cults of the South Seas -- whose members tried all manner of superstitious acts to get the Gods of Consumable Goods to return to their lowly South Seas villages after World War II -- the dot-comers, freshly shaken from their stock-market tumble, have been loudly banging the drums of hype over this mysterious IT thing.

Was it any wonder that IT -- or "Ginger," as Dean Kamen's as-yet-undivulged invention was also code-named -- was one of the big stories on the infotech news sites these last few weeks? Who wouldn't want to read about something that, in the inventor's own words, is "unlike anything that now exists," especially when the other big story of late has been the unceasing flow of layoffs up and down the last decade's next-big-thing, the Internet? Take a look at the deadpool Fucked Company ( for a rollcall of the latest casualties: Customer outreach specialists MarchFirst ( lays off 550 people, sheds 77 out of their 100 employees, lets go 40. The list goes on.

Copy the disgruntlement and fear of those ex-employees clearing out their space-age work stations and paste it across every business campus in America and you'll get the sense of the collective unease going down these days. It leaves us ripe for apparitions: The Japanese invented Godzilla to deal with the leftover nightmares of the atomic bomb; could we have conjured IT to whisk us back to the monetarily comfortable days of the tech revolution?

It's not incidental that the IT hype bomb was detonated by, itself an online media-news site as desperate for clicks as a Geiger counter in a nuclear-free zone. On Jan. 9, the site posted "exclusive coverage" of the $250,000 advance the Harvard Business School Press paid journalist Steve Kemper for a book about the latest invention of Kamen and his research lab DEKA (

The hook, of course, was that neither the publisher nor Kemper's agent had any idea what Kamen's invention actually was -- to this day Kamen refuses to say, for fear of his idea being stolen. The guy's invented many quirky, useful things -- a wearable infusion pump, an off-terrain wheelchair. But assured us that this latest invention is bigger than all that, and tantalized us with plenty of hints: It is small, it will cost less than $2,000, and it will "sweep over the world and change lives, cities, and ways of thinking," as Kemper himself put it.

It was enough to leave a reader delirious. What could IT possibly be?

Of course, in hindsight, the only real mystery is why Inside's reporter, upon writing 1,300 words on the mystery of IT, didn't bother to check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ( for patents that would have detailed any invention that DEKA registered. In fact, as many subsequently found, DEKA did receive a patent, # US 5,971,091, in October 1999, for a "vehicle for transporting an individual over ground having a surface that may be irregular." There was even an diagram of the thing. It looked like a motorized scooter.

A freakin' motorized scooter.

Some revolutionary product, if it is indeed IT. But what's remarkable is that, even after the patent was posted to the new crop of IT-tribute sites like (, people were still speculating about how revolutionary the thing would be.

"Scooters? Who cares. We have scooters already," Roman Totale posits on the new culture-news site Plastic ( "What's important is the dynamic-balancing techniques... . If Kamen can produce dynamic balancing and a lightweight, powerful ... power plant ... for under two grand, he's got something there." "It's a personal gyrocopter!" speculated "Monty" on theITquestion's bulletin board. "Maybe when you step off Ginger, it will fold itself up into something the size of a briefcase," The Washington Post weighed in.

It was almost as if there was a collective effort to make IT more than what the patent made it out to be. To me, the mystery was over, and the rest was all cargo-cult talk.

You remember cargo cults -- those primitive South Seas islanders who, after being exposed to Western technology in World War II, supposedly built simulacrums of runways, radio towers, and even headphones, hoping this would lure back the planes with the magical booty that so enriched their lives during the war. In the same way, today's nervous dot-comers are building a runway of hype, the same hype we first heard about the Internet. (It's revolutionary! It'll change the world!) After all, wasn't it the Internet that liberated us from the stone age of low-paying, dead-end, non-stock-option-generated jobs we otherwise would have been working these last few years -- and may be back to working a few years (or months, or weeks) from now?

No wonder the natives are getting all excited.



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