How Apple's Keynotes Sell Us the Future

On the morning of the latest Apple Keynote, announcing new iPhone models and a new Apple watch, I made a joke to my wife: "Are you as excited about today as I am?" She wasn't, of course. She couldn't care less. And I was being somewhat ironic about my own excitement. If anything, I felt a mild shame about my excitement, as if admitting to it implicated me both as a nerd and as a consumerist zombie, brainwashed into lusting after each new technological gadget Apple releases.

But I was excited. And I wasn't alone. Several of my students, at the college where I teach writing, told me they were excited too. One of them started watching the keynote on her phone as soon as class was done. I stayed after class, helping other students, and the student with her phone began to narrate to us what she was hearing from the keynote. "There's two new phones! The iPhone 6 and the 6+! They're beautiful! They're gonna be amazing!" Across town, my wife was having a similar experience at the middle school where she teaches, students walking up to each other in the hallway asking, "Did you hear about the new iPhones? They just announced new iPhones!"

After class, I rushed down to my office to catch the second half of the keynote while I ate lunch. I learned a little more about the two new phone models, Apple's new payment service Apple Pay, and of course the new Apple Watch. I didn't have an afternoon class, so when the keynote was done, I packed up my bag and walked out to my car.

I felt giddy with excitement at everything I'd learned, but I still couldn't shake an instinctive skepticism at that excitement. Wasn't it a bit weird to be watching a company's announcement of new products with bated breath? I am a grownup, yet these keynotes put me in the position a child on Christmas morning, mad with anticipation at the unwrapping of presents.

Apple has been making these kinds of product announcements since the introduction of the Macintosh, but I don't think they became cultural phenomenons until the announcement of the original iPhone. That was the first keynote I ever watched, and I've watched nearly every one since. But why? Steve Jobs was a great showman, of course, and it was a delight to watch him work, but I continue to enjoy the unveiling of new products without him. Is it merely my Apple fanboy-ism that keeps me coming back for more? Or is there something unique about the way Apple makes theater out of their products?

Getting into my car, I pulled out my 2 year old iPhone 5, which now looked excessively old and scuffed around the edges, ready for replacement. My podcast app had automatically downloaded a new episode of Radiolab, which concerned a book called In the Dust of This Planet, "an academic treatise about the horror humanity feels as we realize that we are nothing but a speck in the universe."

Radiolab's host, Jad Abumrad, was exploring the idea of nihilism and whether it is beginning to permeate modern culture. At one point, he tied the modern allure of nihilism to the growing fear of threats like terrorism, ebola, and especially global warming, which increasingly feels like an inevitable, looming tsunami of environmental disasters we're powerless to stop. Abumrad mentioned a survey that asked whether people felt the future would be better than the past, and more than 70 percent of respondents said no. They believed the future would be worse.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that one of the things Apple is selling in its keynotes (and part of what makes those keynotes so compelling) is its vision of the future. Where else in the world can we look and say that things are definitively getting better? We have an African American president, but we also have Ferguson. We've ended the war in Iraq, except Iraq is falling apart. There's a few isolated pockets of progress here and there, maybe. But one of the few places of clear progress is technology, and Apple is at the forefront of selling us on the betterness of that technology: the endless progress toward thinner, lighter, more beautiful and more powerful devices.

A vision of that progress can be incredibly comforting. Indeed, Apple's products have been a comfort to me at some of the darkest moments of my life.

I remember in the fall of 2008, as the economy was crashing, I was in the midst of my first real experience of depression. Every night, I woke up around 3 am in a panic. I worried about my job, whether I was making too many mistakes, whether I would forget something, whether I had already forgotten something. I worried about what would happen if I got laid off, or worse yet, fired. I worried what our friends would think if they heard I'd been fired. I worried what my wife would think. I worried about finding a new job in the midst of the economic crisis.

In the middle of all this, I had to plan my family's Thanksgiving trip, a long drive from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Lafayette, Indiana. The week before the trip, our son broke out in hives. Then the laundry machine broke. When I opened the pump, there was so much water that it spilled over onto the floor, and I had to get two towels to wipe it up. I ran the drain cycle again, and listened as the pump made a rattling sound, like a lost tooth was caught inside it. The next day, I noticed my car's brakes were squeaking. Fearing some sort of Biblical curse, I called the nearby Tires Plus to have the brakes checked before our drive. I had to take my kids with me to drop the car off, because my wife wasn't home from work yet. The kids and I walked home in the first real snow shower of the season.

When we got back to the house, I realized that I had left all my keys at the Tires Plus, so my children and I were locked out of the house. The sun was setting, it was thirty degrees and snowing, and I felt utterly defeated. To entertain my children while we waited for my wife to get home, I dug into my pocket and pulled out a small rectangular device. For the next fifteen minutes, as the sky darkened and the snowflakes fell, my children's faces were lit by the glow of a scene from Disney's Fantasia, a vision of fairies dancing to the Nutcracker Suite, playing as if by magic in the palm of my hand.

It's one of the few memories I have of that autumn in color. Everything else in my life felt broken, but this iPhone, the original iPhone, was still amazing.

I'm not so cynical as to believe these devices are merely a distraction from the horrors of the real world. But I think it's worth considering what we're longing for when we watch these keynotes. We want a future where the incredible technological advances of human civilization have made the world a better place. I believe these devices have the power to help us do that. But they also have the power to distract us. I hope we can channel our longing for a better world, so that our vision of the future doesn't remain confined to devices, but actually exists outside those devices as well.