JBoles

Anticipation, Expectation, and Narrative:

A Metahistorical Analysis of Coverage of the Apple iPad Release

John Boles


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It's no secret to us...that Apple's products tend to generate what some might consider insane amounts of interest for weeks, months, and even years before they're launched or even announced...we do cover plenty of rumors – and the Apple Tablet (in its many rumored form factors) may just be the biggest and most twisted of them all.” - Laura June, Engadget


The road to the official announcement of the Apple iPad at a press conference on January 27, 2010, was a long and convoluted one, filled with rumors of various levels of authenticity and accuracy and numerous stops and starts in the development and production of the company's first major entry into the tablet market. After being placed on the backburner to make way for its more mobile cousin the iPhone, the iPad was finally available for pre-order in the United States in March of 2010, nearly thirty years after the first hints at an Apple tablet began to surface and over seven years after the first details began to emerge regarding the actual design and style of the first generation iPad. Engadget's article and accompanying infographic do an excellent job of breaking down the history of the device.
Such a substantial buildup led to an incredible level of expectation for the iPad, even by Apple's already impressive standards. Anticipation reached a fever pitch that surpassed that of most consumer product releases that preceded it, so much so that the iPad sold 300,000 units on its first day of availability, and reached 1,000,000 units sold in less than one month. Not only did it take less than one-third of the time of Apple's own iPhone to reach the same level, it also significantly surpassed the company's ambitious goals and managed to outsell their stalwart Mac computer in the third quarter after its release. The iPad affirmed Apple's status as a creator of need-to-own gadgets that are worth purchasing immediately, before reviews emerge and bugs are discovered. The number of early adopters of these high-end pieces of consumer technology has continued to grow with the release of subsequent iPads, iPhones, Macbooks, and other Apple products (the iPad 2 reached 1 million in sales in less than a week), but the release of the first iPad is unique for one important reason: the hype surrounding the product grew over such a lengthy period and to such an unmatched (and almost impossibly high) level, that when it was finally released and reviewed, the response was characterized by widespread disappointment and frustration. Unlike other Apple products, it was only after a few months of release that the device began to be discussed in a positive light (with exceptions, of course), and that its innovations were recognized and praised while its flaws and "missing" components were accepted.

In this essay I will analyze the mainstream media reception of the first generation iPad using the concepts of metahistory set forth by Hayden White in Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. In the book, White unveils the narrative structures inherent in the process of "historicizing" an event or period by critiquing the methods and styles of preeminent historians and philosophers of the nineteenth century such as Jules Michelet, Leopold von Ranke, Jacob Burkhardt, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. He claims that the historical work is unavoidably "a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them" (White 2, original emphasis). White had the added benefit of nearly 100 years of analysis and reflection between himself and his subjects, but his concepts are universal and flexible in such a way that they can help shed new light on contemporary coverage of the iPad's release, even less than two years after its announcement.

I will begin with an explanation of White's theories, which break down historical narratives based on their mode of explanation, mode of formal argument, and mode of ideological implication. Those theories will then be used to describe how the mainstream media hoped to cover the iPad's announcement using the Romantic, Formist, and Anarchic modes, which are typical frameworks for contemporary analysis of technological progress and innovation. The announcement of the device received an overwhelmingly negative response because the iPad was perceived to be a mundane and relatively conventional device missing key expected features. This created cognitive dissonance among reporters covering the device, as they were unable to structure their articles and reviews using that framework, and I will examine how and why that dissonance appeared after the announcement and then dissipated after the consumer release of the iPad. The writers and reviewers of various American journals, magazines, and websites will be viewed as "instantaneous historians," for in reality there is no writing or publication that is not always already influenced and contextualized by the events which preceded it and the cultural factors which informed its composition. Through a structural analysis of responses to the iPad release, I hope to elucidate the ways in which modern technological innovation is framed as part of a larger historical narrative and how media and consumer expectations influence the way each new product is received and conceived of within that narrative.

Metahistory: An Introduction


Hayden White writes that his goal in developing the concept of metahistory was "to provide a new perspective on the current debate over the nature and function of historical knowledge" by identifying the "family characteristics of the different kinds of historical thinking produced by the nineteenth century" (White 4-5). He examines the evolution of the "historical imagination" over the course of three phases during the century, beginning with a pre-Romantic resistance to the Ironic historical conception of the late Enlightenment, transitioning through a period of "sustained debate over historical theory and...the consistent production of massive narrative accounts of past cultures and societies," and finally returning towards the end of the century to the Ironic condition from which the initial phase sought to liberate historical thinking (White 39). White's theories are established in the particular and applied to large-scale narrative interpretations, but through an explanation of their basic distinctions and a contemporary application of their categorizations one can witness the widespread possibilities for the use of the concepts he extracts from the great historians and philosophers of the nineteenth century.

For White, there are two initial steps in the development of any historical narrative: first an "arrangement of the events to be dealt with in the temporal order of their occurrence," known as chronicle, and second a "further arrangement of the events into the components of a 'spectacle' or process of happening, which is thought to possess a discernible beginning, middle, and end," known as story and made up of inaugural, transitional, and terminating motifs (White 5). Following that foundational organization of past events, a historian structures their narrative by way of a mode of explanation, a mode of formal argument, and a mode of ideological implication.

Emplotment represents the method by which a given event or story is imbued with meaning and identifies the "kind of story that has been told" (White 7, original emphasis). Drawing from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, White outlines four modes of emplotment: Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire. He juxtaposes Romance and Satire, the former being "a drama of self-identification symbolized by the hero's transcendence of the world of experience," and the latter the "exact opposite...a drama dominated by the apprehension that man is ultimately a captive of the world rather than its master, and by the recognition of that, in the final analysis, human consciousness and will are always inadequate to the task of overcoming definitively the dark force of death, which is man's unremitting enemy" (White 9). Between these two extremes are Comedy and Tragedy, both of which incorporate elements which limit the excesses of their counterparts. Comedy does so through the "prospect of occasional reconciliations of the forces at play in the social and natural world," and Tragedy does so because "the fall of the protagonist and the shaking of the world he inhabits are not regarded as totally threatening to those who survive the agonic test. There has been a gain in consciousness for the spectators of the contest" (White 9). These archetypal structures offer a means of explaining the way in which a set of events has played out, especially in comparison to other events or historical periods.

The mode of emplotment utilized by a historian will in turn inform his or her mode of formal argument, or the "level on which [he/she] may seek to explicate 'the point of it all' or 'what it all adds up to' in the end” (White 11). The Formist mode "aims at the identification of the unique characteristics of objects inhabiting the historical field," taking great care to assign distinct categories and attributes to people, objects, and events of analysis for the purpose of representing their historical uniqueness (White 14). In contrast to this are the Organicist, Mechanist, and Contextualist modes, each of which are more integrative in their approach and attempt to extract broader trends of historical movement to inform their work. The Organicist purports more natural "synthetic processes" of change and evolution, whereas the Mechanist is "reductive" and "turns upon the search for the causal laws that determine the outcomes of processes discovered in the historical field” (White 17). A Contextualist approach blends those two modes, claiming that “events can be explained by being set within the context of their occurrence,...by the revelation of the specific relationships they bore to other events occurring in their circumambient historical space” (White 18).

Emplotment and formal argumentative structure are selected in order to serve an over-arching mode of ideological implication, characterized as either Conservative, Liberal, Radicalist, or Anarchist, which informs how the narrative conceives of and reports historical change. Conservative and Liberal accounts will be receptive to small incremental change, though the former is "most suspicious of programmatic transformations" and the latter "inclined to view [social change] through the analogy of adjustments, or 'fine tunings,' of a mechanism" (White 24). On the contrary, Radical and Anarchist accounts “envision the possibility of cataclysmic transformations" of society, though a Radical account is "more aware of the power needed to effect such transformations, more sensitive to the intertial pull of inherited institutions, and therefore more concerned with the provision of the means of effecting such changes” (White 24-5, original emphasis).

These three levels of conceptualization will be further dissected and illuminated through their use in critiquing media coverage of the iPad release. Their segmentation is by no means concrete, and it is highly possible to find instances of narrative construction that make use of multiple modes within one account. Nonetheless, they are convenient tools for examining how a technological event such as the one in question is framed by the media as part of a broader historical narrative of technological and cultural progress.

The Announcement of the iPad



On January 27, 2010, Apple held a press conference to unveil the first generation iPad after years of speculation and hype. CEO Steve Jobs touted the device's ability to fill in the utility gap between a laptop and a smartphone, and in typical Apple fashion, the announcement was filled with superlative language such as the remark that surfing the Web on the iPad was the "best browsing experience you've ever had" (see a video of his Keynote speech to the right). The presentation hit all the right stylistic notes and was met with great enthusiasm by the attendees. The following day, though, the tone of media responses exhibited a marked shift from the usual coverage of an Apple product reveal. To understand that shift though, one must first examine the existing cultural framework for conceptualizing technological innovation.

As Jaron Lanier notes in his "One Half of a Manifesto," much of modern American society has transitioned from viewing technology as a single part of culture to "champion[ing] the assent of cybernetic technology as culture." He cites several common beliefs which perpetuate this trend, including the ideas that digital information provides the best way to understand reality, that humans are merely biological computers and therefore their technological devices should be viewed as "extensions" of their natural abilities (even to the extent of fusing themselves with the technology), and that "qualitative as well as quantitative aspects of information systems will be accelerated by Moore's Law" (Lanier). Apple is and has been extremely successful at appealing to these cultural expectations, exploiting the "undeniable rush of excitement" which comes from considering the dizzying potential of future technological innovations (Lanier). The mainstream media has in turn embraced the desire to "live with their heads in the future" and gobbled up every hinted product development or new feature announcement with overwhelming enthusiasm and positive acceptance of Apple's plans for the way people will interact with technology (Lanier). Technology is purported to compensate for missing pieces in the natural evolutionary process: "The classic question would be: How could evolution have made such marvelous feet, claws, fins, and paws, but have missed the wheel?" (Lanier). Apple seizes upon, and aids in developing and maintaining, this media environment, which is favorable to their cause both technologically and economically.

These concepts which have become so ingrained in American culture make up a narrative of technological innovation which can be structured using Hayden White's theories of metahistory: the Romantic mode of emplotment, the Formist mode of formal argument, and the Anarchist mode of ideological implication. Romantic emplotments are optimistic about progress, avoiding irony to acknowledge the "potentially heroic nature" of human life (White 143). They privilege innovators and pioneers such as Apple (and in particular, Steven Jobs) who struggle against the limitations of those with less capability and imagination than themselves. "Creative force" is of the highest value, and the "stress is on the novel and emergent," events and instances where humans transcend their "earthly" limitations (White 149). Similarly, a Formist argument emphasizes the "freedom contained in the whole," or the "phenomena of change and emergence" by resisting a determinant analysis of historical events (151). Romantic and Formist structures in this case lend themselves to an Anarchist mode of ideological implication, which frames accounts as "breaking free of traditional customs and regulations," and unites "we, the worshippers of the future" via paying tribute to the forces which advance society and subsequently "serve as the materials of which the new society and consciousness will be fashioned" (White 152, 160).

This forward-looking, progress-endorsing structure has come to dominate media coverage of technological inventions, so when the time came for the iPad's glorious unveiling, the media had a predetermined framework with which to receive the anticipated product. Reports began emerging the day after the announcement which portrayed the resulting cognitive dissonance between journalists' expected reaction and the reality of the iPad's limitations and missing components. Central to the negative perception was the idea that Apple was intentionally slowing the rate of technological progress by omitting features that could and "should" have been easily implemented, such as a forward-facing camera or HDMI output jack. Articles mentioned wanting "the iPad to be a world-changing gadget" but instead feeling "underwhelmed and slightly cheated," as well as angry about the "the plethora of features Apple deliberately excluded from the device" (Pilcher, Moses). The announcement was even lambasted by the coining of nicknames like "iFad" and "iTampon" (a reference to Apple's confusing choice to abandon previous names including iSlate and Apple Tablet in favor of the unintentionally comical iPad) (Lim). The frustration and ridicule disseminated by media outlets seeped into the public reaction as well; "iTampon" received more Twitter mentions following the announcement than both "Apple" and "iPad" (Moses). The National Post aptly summed up the divide between the traditional reception of Apple products and responses to the iPad: "Steve Jobs believes the iPad is both 'magical and revolutionary.' Others aren't so sure, at least, not yet" (Hartley).

Less negative responses still exhibited a pervasive disappointment. As one writer put it, the iPad "was hailed as a 'Jesus Tablet,' a saviour of the struggling media industry," and so the fact that it was "more like a very big smartphone and less like a powerful computer" made it a nonessential innovation, a product which improved on some features from Apple's previous release, the iPhone, but failed to expand upon that device or advance its capabilities in any truly inspiring or meaningful way (Kiat). The media and the public had hoped for nothing "less than a revolution," and were instead lamenting a device which was viewed as "useless" when it came to several important functions such as Flash-based web-surfing, video chatting, and the ability to multitask across applications (Kiat). The optimistic Romantic hope for progress was undermined by a device resting on the laurels of the already "achieved and inherited" (White 149). The Formist conception of an utterly "unique act" and the miraculous "appearance of new forms" was likewise seemingly inapplicable to Apple's invention, and as such the idealized Anarchist revolution of the new and innovative over the dated and conventional was unfulfilled (White 186).

The Consumer Release of the iPad


The friction between expectations and reality subsided when the iPad was officially released to the public on April 3, 2010. After reviewers were afforded the opportunity to use the device and explore its variety of capabilities, the mainstream media breathed a great sigh of relief as they once again praised Apple using the well-worn narrative structures with which they had hoped to write about the iPad's announcement. The device itself was unchanged, but the initial frenzy and frustration over its limitations gave way to awe and appreciation at the innovation that was contained in it. In metahistorical terms, the Romantic mode of emplotment and the Formist mode of argument were still recovered, but there was a distinct shift from an Anarchist to a Radicalist mode of ideological implication. While both highlight "cataclysmic reversals" in history, the latter is "rendered more 'realistic'" by acknowledging the ongoing process of innovation and positive technological change as well as "the means of effecting such changes" (White 25). In other words, reviewers gave Apple the benefit of the doubt by acknowledging that each new device could not be a miracle, and that technological progress was an ongoing process rather than an incredible single instance of invention.

Rather than focusing on what the iPad was missing, reporters began to acknowledge it as "yet another example of how the innovation with Apple continues, and that they have not grown complacent" (Stone). Record-breaking sales of over 1 million in the first month (which also delayed release in other countries) made it easy to forgive Apple their device's flaws, whether intentional or not, and writers relished the chance to return to the traditional narrative structures of progress and wondrous creativity. The iPad was hailed by Slate as a "magic and revolutionary product," writing that using it was like resting in "an opium den, where one is always reclining, the better to enjoy its strange, new, vivid wonders" (Agger, my emphasis). Others called it "online media's Holy Grail" and a "laptop killer," and stated that it would "change everything" and "create a new media market" that would challenge traditional conceptions of consumer mobile electronic use and the accompanying models for application development and advertising. The Guardian drew similar conclusions for mobile content producers; they asked, "Can the iPad save us?" and wrote that the device "represents an opportunity to create interactive content that could generate new revenues, either from consumers or advertisers. For some, the iPad potentially offers the best chance they have had to wrest some extra cash out of a digital audience for over a decade" (Wray).

This tonal about-face in media coverage of the iPad is perhaps most remarkable because the only change between the two periods of coverage (after the announcement and after the consumer release) was the reporters' ability to actually test the device, which was exactly the same as it had been presented two months earlier. For Apple, traditionally, the conference unveiling of a new product marks the acme of that product's surrounding hype, and any disappointment with the new device tends to emerge not after the highly stylized and calculated presentation, but once users can get their hands on it and explore its affordances and limitations. In the case of the iPad, though, this trend was reversed. It is important to note that the years of anticipation leading up to the announcement of the iPad were also a period of great societal transformation in terms of the number of people using mobile devices, the expectations for the capability of a mobile device, and overall assumptions about the rate of technological progress and the value of new, innovative digital tools (for reference, in the United States in 2002 less than 49 out of every 100 people had a mobile phone; in 2011, over 90 out of 100 do).

Jaron Lanier presents at the Future Salon, April 2004
Jaron Lanier presents at the Future Salon, April 2004

In a presentation at the Future Salon, Jaron Lanier offers useful concepts with which to understand the accelerating growth in expectation for technological inventions, what one might call the cultural equivalent of Moore's law. He argues that mainstream narrative structures of contemporary events and their place and influence in an ongoing historical movement are generally described as taking place on the "technological ramp" or the "moral ramp," and in his presentation he lobbies for a shift toward a new model, the McLuhan-esque ramp of "ever-increasing interpersonal communication." The ramps provide a way to "use ideas about the future to inform ideas about the present," and in recent years the moral ramp lost much of its clout as the technological ramp became the dominant structure for contextualizing political, economic, and social issues and events. The technological ramp represents a reworking of the metahistorical modes previously mentioned; it is a modern-day Romantic, Formist, and Anarchist method of viewing innovation.

The most important element of this contemporary model is the "status" it gives to the present day, or "the value accorded to the current social establishment" (White 25, original emphasis). On the technological ramp, the present is viewed as a transitory position on the way to an eventual cultural apex. Apple has built its branding and product development around the notion that they somehow have premonitory access to the space just above society on the ramp, and that their innovation is informed by a better understanding of the trajectory of technological progress and insight about the peak toward which society is headed. This means that when the iPad was announced, the media and the public not only expected but wanted to be overwhelmed by the futuristic, unimaginable capabilities of a device created for them by the premier inventors of the day. The severe negative response to the announcement was not detached and cynical, but highly personal. Apple had offended their customers by disrupting the "natural" flow of progress, by failing to enact their role as leaders on the technological ramp and releasing a product which appeared decidedly "present" in its abilities.

The irony of this particular instance of a future-oriented Anarchist metahistorical style was its inability to adapt when presented with information that contradicted its expectations, as evidenced by the return to the conventional narrative upon the release of the iPad. Once the device was available for personal use, reporters were seemingly so enamored with the creative new elements present in the device that the still-present restrictions and flaws were dropped from their accounts or written off as the unavoidable or necessary technological byproducts
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Covers of Time and Newsweek, April 2010
of a company with one foot in the present and one in the future (this change is what I previously mentioned as evidencing a more Radicalist than Anarchist perspective in later coverage). The Washington Post's tongue in cheek summary of this transition in coverage was remarkably accurate: "When was the last time that Time and Newsweek went with the same cover subject whose name wasn't Obama? Clearly, such treatment would be reserved for a development so indisputably vital that it would change civilization as we know it. That event has arrived, in the form of a $500-to-$800 product that you should feel guilty for not having" (Kurtz). The Apple iPad went from underwhelming and useless to a seminal product which could launch the "third leg of the PC revolution," and all it took was a restoration of the metahistorical narrative by which modern culture and technology is understood (Guglielmo).

Conclusion


Hayden White writes that history is "a form of intellectual activity which is at once poetic, scientific, and philosophical in its concerns," and that historians do not "explicitly" frame their work metahistorically, but rather that in retrospect one can identify the structural modes utilized to organize and give meaning to their works (x). However, the contemporary application of White's ideas shows that a metahistorical analysis can provide tools not only for examining past accounts, but also for understanding the dominant narrative structures of the present and through that understanding anticipate future modes of emplotment, formal argument, and ideological implication. The narrative forms which were so disappointingly inapplicable at the time of the iPad's announcement and then so reassuring upon its release need not only be understood in a critique of past writings, but also in terms of their implication for the reception of future technological innovations.

The dialogue surrounding Apple's products is definitive of our age, in which fierce anticipation and elevated expectations for the new and revolutionary dominate cultural discourse. By dissecting journalistic coverage of technological innovations, one can come to better understand individual relationships to technology and how the purchase and integration of a new product is influenced by narrative constructions disseminated by the media. Doing so allows for foresight into the methods of reception which will greet future technological invention, which enables the ability to more clearly see how exactly each new product innovates on the characteristics of its predecessors, the debt it owes to a history of experimentation and discovery, and the cultural context that makes it both possible and necessary despite appearing to be in awe of its miraculous appearance.


Works Cited and Consulted


Agger, Michael. "Life with iPad." Slate. The Slate Group, 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.Barker, Garry. “iPad and Apple's World Domination.” The Age [Australia] 2 Feb. 2010: Business 6. Print.Burton, Nigel. “Apple Firmly at the Core of the Tablet Revolution.” The Northern Echo. Newsquest, 28 Jan. 2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.Clifford, Stephanie. “iPad Creates New Media Market.” The International Herald Tribune 26 Mar. 2010: Finance 4. Print.Dowling, Steve. "Apple Reports Fourth Quarter Results." Apple. Apple Inc., 18 Oct. 2010.Forde, Eamonn. “Is This Tablet a Medicine for the Music Industry?” Music Week 17 Apr. 2010: 9. Print.Goldman, Jim. "Apple Sells 1 Million iPads." CNBC. NBC Universal, 3 May 2010. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.Guarino, Mark. “Apple iPad: Online Media's Holy Grail?” The Christian Science Monitor 5 Apr. 2010. Print.Guglielmo, Connie and Ari Levy. “Is iPad Third Leg of the PC Revolution?” National Post [Canada] 6 Apr. 2010: FP3. Print.Harris, Mark. “Readers Get a Dollop of Apple's Magical Sauce.” The Sunday Times 31 Jan. 2010: In Gear 16-17. Print.Hartley, Matt. “New Apple Frontier Half Inch Thick; iPad an Oversized iPhone with Its Own Library.” National Post 28 Jan. 2010: A1. Print.June, Laura. “The Apple Tablet: A Complete History, Supposedly.” Engadget. AOL Inc., 26 Jan. 2010. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.Kiat, Ong B. “iPad – Nice Evolution but Less than a Revolution.” The Business Times [Singapore] 30 Jan. 2010: Top Stories. Print.Kurtz, Howard. "Why Advertise? News Mags Have iPad Covered." The Washington Post 3 Apr. 2010: C01. Print.Lanier, Jaron. "One Half of a Manifesto." Edge. Edge Foundation, Inc., 25 Sep. 2000. Web. 6 Dec. 2011.Lim, Christopher. “iPad or iFad?” The Business Times [Singapore] 30 Jan. 2010: What's In. Print.Madway, Gabriel. "Apple iPad 2 Sales Seen Clearing 1 Million Units." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.McDougall, Paul. “iPad Missing 'Something Important.'” Information Week. TechWeb, 28 Jan. 2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.Moses, Asher. “Apple to Take Second Bite as iPad Tipped to Keep Growing.” Canberra Times [Australia] 29 Jan. 2010: A2. Print.Mossberg, Walter S. “Laptop Killer? Pretty Close.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 1 Apr. 2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.Pegoraro, Rob. “Will the iPad Relaunch Apple into Gadget Stratosphere?” The Washington Post 28 Jan. 2010: A01. Print.Pilcher, Pat. “Underwhelmed and Slightly Cheated.” The New Zealand Herald 28 Jan. 2010: Technology. Print.Stone, Brad. “For Apple, Expectations Run High.” The New York Times 29 Mar. 2010: B1. Print.White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,
1973. Print.
Wray, Richard. “Can the iPad Save Us?” The Guardian 29 Mar. 2010: Media 2. Print.

Images and Videos




Apple iPad: Steve Jobs Keynote - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBhYxj2SvRI
iPad Accessories Round-Up - http://images.gizmag.com/hero/ipad-accessories-round-up-14.pngJaron Lanier presents at the Future Salon, April 2004 - http://www.futuresalon.org/images/jaron_lanier_futures_salon_april_2004.jpgJaron Lanier Ramps Up the McLuhan Ramp at the Future Salon, 2004 - http://www.archive.org/details/FutureSalon_04_2004