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Will secret ‘It’ really deliver?

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BOSTON — Just an hour north of my office in an ordinary 19th-century factory complex where Civil War blankets were once manufactured, there is a project under way and under wraps to produce "It."

"It" is the secret offspring, the love child of the sort of vaguely eccentric inventor that Americans find so compelling — a man who lives seven miles and one private helicopter ride away from work in a hilltop mansion with a closet full of blue jeans, work shirts and one tuxedo.

Dean Kamen is a Brooklyn-born inventor who has 90-plus patents to his name, including one for the vascular stent so close to the heart, literally, of Dick Cheney. More recently, Kamen invented IBOT, a four-wheel-drive wheelchair that climbs stairs.

The wheelchair was named Fred. The "It" is nicknamed Ginger. Apparently — or not so apparently since Kamen has now become the J.D. Salinger of high tech — "It" is named after Ginger Rogers. In that case, stock options are owed Ann Richards, the former Texas governor who praised Ginger as a female role model because she "did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."

But we digress.

Ever since Kamen's gal Ginger made her teasing debut on the Internet, "It" has been the source of the kind of wild speculation that once accompanied UFO sightings. We've had hints — Bigger than the Internet! Faster than a speeding bullet! — by no lesser lights than Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Apple's Steve Jobs.

"It" has even been described as "an alternative to products that are dirty, expensive, sometimes dangerous and often frustrating," which led me to wonder if he'd invented a substitute for people.

But technological souls have filled 52 chat pages on Amazon.com and various other Web sites with excited and passionate speculations about everything from a gasoline-powered pogo stick to a hovercraft to a new toilet to some sort of fuel-free energy source. Amazon.com is even offering to sell "It," if and when it comes waltzing. Backward. In high heels.

In short, the world seems to be full of Ginger at the very same time we are mopping up the remains of crashing dot-coms. We are full of high-tech fun and games the same week that eToys is handing out pink slips.

The Gen-Xers who were going to support us in our old age with their IPOs may have moved back in the basement. But even folks who lost the nest egg in the NASDAQ are cheerfully, optimistically, looking for the next new thing.

As Michael Lewis, who wrote "The New New Thing" before Ginger began this tap dance, says, "It isn't naive, stupid people swallowing great fantasies. It's this intoxication with the new technology. It's everybody coming around to the world view of the professional technologist."

We are all, it appears, hooked on the belief that there is a technological fix for whatever fix we are in. In fact, the only rosy scenarios for the future appear to come from science.

Peace on earth? How about a Star Wars missile defense system? Feed the billions? Get your red-hot genetically modified food. Understanding between nations? Try the Internet. Science proposes solutions . . . though not always for what really ails us.

It's not that high-tech or even Ginger is a hoax. There may be something important growing among the ghosts of Civil War blankets. We've seen a lot of hype and a lot of hope. There's no doubt that a non-fuel engine of some kind would have huge effects. But changing an engine is not changing a world.

Nevertheless, we put much more faith — not to mention venture capital — into changing technology than into human behavior. It doesn't matter how often the promise goes the way of Go. Or interactive TV. Or pen computing.

A single failure in human services may justify cynicism. But a failure in new technology is the reason to take another crack. In fact, technology today qualifies as a faith-based organization. The world of true believers.

It's said that Fred Astaire brought grace and Ginger Rogers brought sex to the screen. The real mystery behind "It" is the utter passion of the techies. Ginger hasn't even been taken out for a twirl around the floor and her dance card is already full.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.