The Grand Disappointment: Apple and Obama after Hype and Hope

Some languages are more precise than others. German’s word for disappointment, “Enttäuschung,” for example, literally translates as “disillusion” and thus implies that the prerequisite of any disappointment is excessive (and false!) expectation. As if that needed any further evidence, Apple’s iPad presentation and President Obama’s first State of the Union address last Wednesday marked the preliminary culmination of an obvious trend: disappointment as a widespread sentiment and cultural subtext at the dawn of this young decade.

Hype from Cult of Mac

Both Apple and Obama are among the most powerful brands of our time and occupy that vexing space between hype and hope in the public mind. Both have zealous fans and followers, and enjoy an almost religious admiration. And both have now suffered a very public deflation, a humiliating erosion of their once unflappable appeal of invincibility, a painful rejection of love.

The Awl wrote about the iPad launch: “Still, I’m a little taken aback by the immediate and vocal lack of enthusiasm for the product. What does it lack? What was everyone hoping for that did not materialize? This is a very rough thought that I may or may not refine, so take it as such, but the iPad is a lot like Barack Obama: Everyone was able to project their own fantasies and aspirations on a product with which they were mostly unfamiliar, only to sour on it once they realized that it did not live up to their impossible expectations. Only with the iPad it took about seven minutes for the disappointment to set in. I don’t know what that says about our accelerated culture or how we confuse hype and excitement for the tangible realities of life, but it says something.”

And indeed, no product in the world could have lived up to the hype around the iPad: Apple as the inventor of human-friendly computing, Apple as the media company that enables the much desired super-convergence, Apple as the innovator of innovation, Apple as the savior of the ailing publishing industry, Apple as the savior of the Californian blend of optimism that is now set against the backdrop of a bankrupt state, Apple as the savior of capitalism. After the unveiling, we felt a bit like the car fan who realizes that what he was sold as the dream car of the future is in fact a convertible Ferrari. If Apple is the “Zeitgeist Company,” as my colleague Adam Richardson wrote, then our zeitgeist is the Midlife Crisis.

While the real creativity can be found on the web, where the iPad release spurred a throng of irreverent spoofs and thoughtful analyses, the actual product – ouch – is a let-down, for reasons that have been extensively addressed elsewhere and shall therefore not be restated here. At any rate, the disappointment was to be expected: For every brand that lives off of inflated expectations, things get tricky when the tangible manifestation shows signs of all-too-human imperfection. The iPad, in this sense, did not represent the “humanization of technology,” as some people waxed lyrical. Rather, it was the humanization of Apple, as the many obvious flaws made the divine brand suddenly appear sloppy, erratic, and shockingly out-of-touch with the consumer.

My colleague Robert Fabricant has already poignantly commented on the retro-futurism exhibited by the iPad, likening Steve Job’s nostalgic vision of the future to the megalomaniac naiveté of James Cameron’s Avatar. Perhaps that ‘s what’s really at the core of this recent streak of disappointments: the depressing insight that in the very moment we believe to finally have the tools and intellectual aptness to shape the future, some old-man-made visions of tomorrow’s better world betray our infinite utopian hope. Last year’s LIFT conference had a pretty good instinct for the emerging cultural climate  when it chose as its theme: “Where did the future go?”

Yes, the digital joyride has come to an end. The faith in smart technology, collective knowledge, and data-driven human reasoning has suffered severe blows of late. Neither did social technology unleash the revolutionary potential of the Iranian people after the election, nor did sophisticated financial instruments prevent the financial crisis or the Copenhagen Summit yield a meaningful solution for combating the climate crisis. Wikipedia has not made us wiser; conflicts remain unresolved; ignorance prevails – in spite of the social capital accumulated on social networks, time and place-shifting transnational hyper-connectivity, and design thinking.

“The Social Web is like the Sixties,” Donovan sang at last week’s DLD conference in Munich, a gathering of the digital elite headed to Davos. That sounded good but the reality is less flowery: while the Social Web may provide a sheer endless array of possibilities, a movement it is not (in hindsight, the online activism during the Obama campaign remains a footnote of history). And with the iPad, the Social Web has been contained as a mechanism for mere consumption.

On a panel at DLD, John Brockman (Edge.org), David Gelernter (Yale), Frank Schirrmacher (arts & leisure editor of German daily FAZ), and Andrian Kreye (arts & leisure editor of German daily SZ) discussed the state of the Internet and the state of information technology overall. The mood was dark. Schirrmacher, the cultural pessimist, warned of the age of the “Informavore,” as artificial intelligence supersedes human’s ability to intellectually cope with information overload. He quoted Daniel Dennett (“We have a population explosion of ideas, but not enough brains to cover them”) and painted a grim picture of the future of media: With the big Internet gatekeepers (and their search algorithms) regulating attention markets, media should shift their attention to the culture of software – or it would be filtered out by that very software sooner or later. Gelernter bemoaned the lack of advances in user interfaces (“we still use the same metaphors we used twenty years ago”), and Kreye found the current Web “boring” (“the Web is like a car now; the fact that it is moving is no longer interesting. What matters is what we do with it, and where we’re going.”). Brockman finally killed the discussion altogether by wryly telling his fellow panelists that “your time is over. You are over.”

The Obama party is over, too, and the President’s State of the Union address made that palpable. Only a year after his inauguration, which many Americans celebrated as liberation, the Republican opposition flexes its muscle again, but what’s even more remarkable, Obama’s once most fervent supporters on the left show a complete lack of enthusiasm. Rational arguments fall short of explaining this phenomenon. The Obamameter by PolitiFact shows that Obama didn’t break too many campaign promises (with some notable and controversial exceptions of course). By and large, he didn’t make profound mistakes, he didn’t change course. He did take on the heavy battles and the complex challenges America is facing, as he said he would. He may have made some miscalculations as he set his first-year agenda, but fixing healthcare was the only plausible choice in the end. It is striking: a country that elected a president who had campaigned in the name of change is now rescinding its mandate for it. Conservatism is the mask of the fool who knew better all along.

The cynics have a strong ally: Disappointment is sustainable. Obama and Apple may eventually stumble over the conundrum that Thomas Hardy so aptly described: “The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes.” Maybe we just enjoy seeing our gods fall from grace. Or maybe last week’s collective sigh was an expression of the enormous emotional and spiritual effort it took to close out the past decade, resulting in a fatigue that now readily converts optimism into cynicism (as in: pragmatism without principles), which has again, unfortunately, become the most powerful currency of our intellectual discourse. It remains to be seen if this is a temporary sentiment or if we have indeed entered a new era of permanent disappointment – an age of Grand Disillusion. If not even Apple honors our trust, who else is left to believe in?

[Image: Cult of Mac]

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