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Do we look to the future to take us back to the past?

Apple’s detractors decry the hype in the lead-up to new products, but the company really generates little of that itself. It doesn’t have to. CNN.com’s technology section can reliably be expected to carry at least one Apple-related story in its top five headlines at any time. Some days, Apple news monopolizes the section, which may not speak well for the creativity and insight of the editors, but certainly reduces Apple’s need to spend its own coin on promotion.

Where the Hype Didn’t Stick

But here’s something interesting: I’m writing this on the day after the iPad announcement, and while the mainstream media has obsessed over the long-rumored tablet, it may not be nearly as big a deal among young people. My brief survey of the student newspaper websites of the top US technical universities—MIT, CalTech, Stanford, RPI, Michigan, and Georgia Tech—find not one reference to the iPad. Granted, these papers exist to serve their respective communities, featuring stories on this date like Stanford’s star running back going pro or MIT’s “Bad Ideas Competition,” but these papers typically pick up a collection of news and business wire writes to round out their offerings, and not one apparently saw fit to feature the iPad. Similarly, an intern for “All Things D” interviewed students outside Stanford’s computer science building the day after the iPad announcement to gauge interest; his resulting video consists of one indifferent reaction after another.

Does this mean that Apple fanboys are all old geeks? Maybe, but there’s more to it than that. Writing in Play magazine, editor Heather Anne Campbell recently presented a remarkable thesis that fetishizing these product rollouts, participating in the manufactured excitement, is actually a form of nostalgia. Her argument is that we often find ourselves seeking the joy of discovery, the surprising newness of things, that was so common in our youth, when everything was new to each of us. We remember not the mundane day-to-day details, but the special moments of delight we once had, like seeing “Star Wars” or hearing “American Idiot” for the first time, of seeing our team come from behind and beat a favored opponent, or making a long road trip with friends.

Geek Meets Gadget

Repeated experience gives us the power of anticipation and prediction, and with it, terrible boredom. We’ve seen this story before: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. And if we’ve read too much, we even identify those as “plot point 1,” “plot point 2,” and “climax,” and we can set our watches to the necessities of the plot.

And this is where the nostalgia comes in. We’re aching for something new, something different, something to take us back to the idealized joys of our youth that we’ve invented for ourselves. And so, in a crazy irony, we look to the future to take us back to the past.

We want to touch the iPad and feel like it’s 1984 again, and we’re debating with classmates about the 128 KB Macintosh, and whether it really stands a chance against the Commodore 64. We look to this device to open new doors to us, to give us a chance to experience something new, and to get us excited about things again.

That’s a big burden to put on a $500 product of aluminum, glass, and silicon.

Chris Adamson is a writer, editor, developer and consultant specializing in media software development. He is the co-author, with Bill Dudney, of the recently released Pragmatic Bookshelf book iPhone SDK Development. He has served as Editor for the developer websites ONJava and java.net. He maintains a corporate identity as Subsequently & Furthermore, Inc. and writes the [Time code]; blog. He wrote about writing apps for the iPhone in the second issue of this magazine.

iPad photo courtesy of Apple.