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People line up for the Apple event at the Yerba Buena centre in San Francisco, California October 22, 2013. (Robert Galbraith/Reutes)
People line up for the Apple event at the Yerba Buena centre in San Francisco, California October 22, 2013. (Robert Galbraith/Reutes)

Stop believing in the 'world-changing' power of every new gadget Add to ...

Earlier this week, the citizens of the world gathered in front of their glowing blue screens, waiting with bated breath to hear tales of revolutionary ideas, magical new technology and innovative new gadgets. What they got instead was slightly better productivity software.

How strange then that this quite ordinary announcement still generated an enormous amount of chatter online and garnered the top spot in many news lineups. It’s almost as if we are in a collective cultural hangover. Drunk off the effects of what were legitimately revolutionary products, we now expect the same again, treating each new update to the iPad and iPhone as if it were as important as the first.

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This is not “Apple is doomed, can’t innovate, Jobs woulda” over-reactive whining. That would be ungenerous to Apple Inc. who, earlier this week, unveiled some genuinely compelling updates to their iPads, Macbooks, and their iLife and iWork suites. Nonetheless, they were hardly earth-shattering revelations. Rather, they were just the usual new features and redesigns we’ve come to expect from most technology companies – or, for that matter, makers of kitchen appliances, too.

What’s worrying about the continued, outdated fervour over Apple news is that it's a symptom of a broader misguided faith in digital technology’s power to solve the problems of the contemporary world. To explain that, we need to start at the beginning.

Even the most dogmatic technophobe or Apple-hater cannot deny the effects Apple’s products have had on modern life. You can get into arguments about who released what feature first, but the iPod, iPhone and iPad each had consequences that extended far beyond “technology.” Whether the mainstreaming of mobile pocket computing – or the myriad changes in news, reading habits, media consumption or location-based services – for a while Apple seemed to both direct and exemplify the tenor of the so-called new digital age.

As a result, we quickly learned that an Apple announcement wasn’t just a question of fetishizing the latest tech trinket (though it was that, too); it was about seeing where culture might be heading next. We’d tune into Steve Jobs’ talks because just a few short years ago, checking Yelp while walking down the street or video chatting from the bus seemed impossibly futuristic. What new things might we possibly be doing next?

Now, after a few sub-revolutionary events, we’ve gotten some insight into just how rare and hard that kind of sea-change is. The story of the iPhone’s creation is one of many moving parts and untested designs that had to come together in a strange, serendipitious, alchemic mixture. What is clear is that, when a technological change is profound enough to affect culture, it isn’t due to any one thing, but because of a swirling mass of many shifting factors coming together at the right time – and it isn’t something that happens very often.

It’s possible that Apple is cooking up similar revelations in wearable computing, TV or something else. But for the time being, they’ve become a company that is interested in preserving their massive profits and operating margins. That’s fine; Apple is doing what a public corporation should by protecting value. What is perhaps less than ideal, however, is that both we and the media-at-large continue to treat each morsel of Apple news as if it is going to have similar ramifications to the launch of the iPhone, when in fact, it’s just the sort of inane consumer updates best left to trade publications, rather than being headline news or kitchen-table conversation.

But if that kind of empty fetishizing of technology is one more unfortunate side effect of a broader consumerist culture, I’d venture it also expresses a specific kind of yearning. Having seen how radically digital technology has changed our lives, it seems we continue to want it do so, and in more ways. Think of proposed tech solutions to education, city governance, homelessness or nutrition. All of them seen to evince a desire to take tech’s capacity to change something like book publishing or news subscriptions and apply it to everything. It’s a phenomenon that writers like Evgeny Morozov or Ian Bogost call “solutionism”: the idea that for every problem, there’s a tech solution, regardless of whether it’s an improvement, or if it’s even true.

That kind of hope for a neat, digital answer to the messiness and complexity of the world’s problems is an eminently human response. We want things to get better and, lately anyway, we’ve seen things change so drastically simply because of the phones we carry around with us. As a result, we are constantly expecting the proverbial Apple to hit us on the head and usher in something else similarly world-changing.

As it turns out, though, such radical techno-cultural upheaval is a very rare thing. Maybe we’ve lived through an accelerated period of change, and now need to tend to the nitty-gritty of our newly digitized lives. More to the point, looking to large corporations or some nebulous thing called “technology” for where culture is heading next may not be the best idea. And perhaps a good first step to changing things would be treating Apple events for what they have now become – not culturally significant moments, but just one more company doing its best to peddle its wares.

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. He can be found on Twitter at @navalang

 

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