Does anyone own a Segway?

Okay. I’ve got a bottle of Oban scotch sitting here on my desk. It’s very nice stuff — not too peaty, but with enough bite to make it tasty. It’s a reasonably expensive scotch, probably about $50 a bottle. I love Oban, would prefer to drink this bottle myself.

But you know what? I’ll gladly give to anyone can prove, with documented evidence, that anyone on the planet has ever actually bought a Segway. One. Single. Segway. Has anyone in the known or unknown universe bought one of these supremely useless, blisteringly overhyped, rideable vacuum cleaners? I mean, I keep on seeing news stories about it. Alaska cops have bought a bunch of Segways to use on patrol; announces a winner in its Segway giveaway contest; a few students at LA Tech are using them to pick up chicks. But you know what? They all have the distinct whiff of stories planted by the inventor, Dean Kamen, in a desperate attempt to pretend this quintessence of lameosity is actually selling.

And hell, he ought to be desperate. The guy built a factory in Bedford, N.H., that’s capable of cranking out 40,000 Segways per month — and yet which right now is probably alive with the sound of crickets.

It’s a fascinating paean to what can be wrought by the whiplash interia of hype. Remember the hype around the Segway? How Jeff Bezos sank millions of his own investment cash into it? How venture capitlalist John Doerr salivated at the sight of the gyroscopic wonder, and said it would be “as big as the Internet, as far as making a difference”? How author Steve Kemper got a quarter-million-dollar book advance to describe Kamen’s brilliant work on the Segway?

So anyway. That bottle of Oban is sitting here. And I will give it to the first person to prove — I mean prove, with, like, pieces of paper and shit — that anyone has actually used their own hard-earned cash to buy one single Segway.

And hey! While I’m in such a weirdly nasty mood, let’s revisit a column I wrote two and a half years ago about the Segway, back when I was doing a weekly gig for Newsday. I love a good “told you so” moment:

It’s a new Internet! A new gold rush! It’s “Ginger”!
by Clive Thompson

You have to pity high-tech boosters these days. Their fondest dreams have gone bust. E-commerce tanked; the “wireless web” is a non-starter; and according to some recent reports, some long-time Internet users are actually abandoning the Web. Swell. Andrew Wyeth could scarcely have sketched a bleaker picture of modern life.

So I spent the first few weeks of 2001 calling around various high-tech analysts and dot-com braniacs, the folks who own stock that’s now worth 53 cents. They craved a new dream. They needed to find religion again. “We need a new revolution,” said one, morosely. “There’s gotta be something out there!”


(NOTE: in addition to reading the full text of this entry, check out the commments area at the end! A couple of Segway owners have already written in. Woo!)

A few days later, some hot news broke! Really hot! A story on reported on an upcoming book — about a top-secret new invention by Dean Kamen. Kamen has plenty of high-tech street cred — he created the first portable dialysis pump, and a gyroscopic wheelchair that can climb stairs. But now, the story said, he’s working on a much bigger new thing — an invention code-named “Ginger.”

But the details were shrouded in mystery! The book proposal wouldn’t say precisely what Ginger is. Still, all the important people had seen it, and were raving about it! Apple CEO Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that Ginger’s impact would be so huge, people would “architect cities around it.” CEO Jeff Bezos said Ginger was “revolutionary”. And Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr said it was destined to be bigger than the World Wide Web.

Hot damn! Instantly, the high-tech punditocracy was in a mad lather, with stories about Ginger appearing everywhere. The dream was alive! Ginger would be a new silicon gold-rush! Ginger would be bigger than the Net! Techies and investors flocked to the phones and online discussion boards, puzzling over the really important questions, such as: What could Ginger be? How does it work? And more importantly — HOW CAN IT MAKE ME BUCKETS OF CASH?

So it was with some surprise when, a few days later, a few journalists announced they’d figured out what Ginger probably was. They’d checked patents filed by Kamen, and concluded that Ginger was … a motorized scooter. Maybe a one-wheeled scooter, but still — a scooter. “I have a feeling that someone is out there having a big laugh over this,” mused futurist Paul Saffo.

Granted, it’s possible that Ginger is still quite innovative. It may be propelled by a Stirling engine, an age-old device which consumes little power and produces miniscule emissions, but which no-one has ever figured out how to mass produce cheaply. Stirling engines are cool, but still — you could pretty much hear the air hissing out of the balloon. Even Kamen came out of hiding to protest to “We have a promising project, but nothing of the earth-shattering nature that people are conjuring up.”


So everyone calmed down. They got their heart rates back below 100. And they eventually went back to sleep.

Because as everyone knows in high-tech — if you aren’t asleep, you can’t dream.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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