Dan Lyons, the guy who used to be Fake Steve Jobs, has a story today that asks "once upon a time we put a man on the moon. Now we pee our pants over retina displays. WTF happened to us?" The answer is really easy: We're the same as we've always been. We love to watch things change.
Lyons bemoans what has happened to us as a culture, citing how once we sat rapt and watched space launches, but today the world waits at its desks, forgetting to breathe, while Apple talks about operating system enhancements. Or as he puts it, "So many great minds, devoted to such trivial bullshit."
The thing is, human beings are hard-wired to watch for change. We love to see new stuff, things we haven't seen before. And of all the things we get to see change in technology, Apple certainly has the best sense of theater and drama. Apple events almost never fail to surprise. We may have some idea of what's coming, but we never know. All we know is that if we tune in, we're going to see something new. And humans just naturally love, love, love new things.
Our predilection for the new explains why we love sports — live games are always new and unscripted — and shun re-runs. It's why so many of us consume video games until we get to the end, but so few of us go back and play them again. It explains why history can be both fascinating (I am learning something new!) and dismissed out of hand (that's ancient history!).
And moreover, we should be fascinated by Apple's latest creations. To suggest otherwise is to lose sight of the age of wonders we live in. Travel back in time, and a new MacBook Pro with Retina display would be a prize worth killing for. Its computational power would have saved untold man hours in getting us to the moon. Impossible physics speculation aside, it is inarguably an extremely powerful tool that could, for example, help mankind calculate another moon shot, a mission to Mars, a journey to the centre of the Earth.
It's one bad-ass hunk of amazing hardware.
You could make a case (and I think this is what Lyons is doing) that our fascination with Apple means we are captivated by the wrong new stuff. That groovy new computers are not the change we should believe in. That we should be more ambitious as a society, striving for moon shot worthy technology, instead of operating system upgrades. But the thing is, we do have that. We still have massively ambitious, world-changing projects underway They just don't tend play well live, in a way that caters to our desire to see things change in real time.
Clearly a new MacBook is less important than the hunt for Higgs Boson. It is less of a technological feat than the Marmaray tunnel. It is a minor blip compared to new cancer treatments. Our great achievements as a society have not ebbed. They just are often too big and complicated and far-reaching to offer a compelling drama that we can all sit down together and view at the same time.
Like Lyons, I also remember being enraptured by live launches. Sure, I was watching Shuttle missions, not Apollo. But I was no less amazed. Back then the Shuttle was new and unknown and wonderful. It was changing things. It was dramatic, to the point of tragedy.
And then, it wasn't anymore. The first shuttle took off in 1981, and the last some 30 years later. It flew into outer space 134 times. It was utterly, mind-breakingly, amazing. It suffered two horrible disasters. But despite that, it became routine. It didn't seem to be changing. It lost its new. The same goes for ISS launches, when the most novel question is: Will a private contractor be able to pull off what was once the lone right of nation states?
But I promise you, when we do fill a spacecraft up with human beings, and try to send them somewhere new — to another planet, to rendezvous with an asteroid, to do anything hugely ambitious and new that really changes things — people will watch. They always watch.