There were many opportunities for raised eyebrows at Apple’s keynote last Tuesday: Tim Cook’s opening words on Steve Jobs, “I love hearing his voice”; the failure of iPhone X to recognize Craig Federighi’s face; the time spent demonstrating how that same phone can transpose your facial expressions onto emoji feces.
However, the bulk of the weirdness was packed into seven minutes near the beginning, in which Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s chief retail officer, took the floor. Wasting no time, she announced that Apple Stores were no longer to be known as “stores,” but as “town squares.”
“They’re gathering-places,” Ahrendts explained — a surprise, as the only people I’ve ever gathered with at the Apple Store are the guys who fixed my hard drive.
But in Ahrendts’s imagination, Town Squares will be much more — loci for “communities” to come together in harmony, while making pilgrimage to the city’s new glass-fronted showroom-turned-hangout.
Of course, the word “communities” shouldn’t be construed in its usual meaning: Ahrendts makes clear the Town Square is intended as a “customer experience.” Only those with Apple-level purchasing resources will, it seems, be citizens of these towns.
After this announcement, Ahrendts poured forth a broad stream of confused jargon. Within “Town Squares,” we should expect to find a “Plaza” — Spanish for “town square” — and a “Forum” — Latin for “town square.”
Not knowing which square to turn to, perhaps we will be more comfortable in the incongruously named “Boardroom”— you know, where Donald Trump used to fire people for their bad business ideas.
What these spaces are for isn’t immediately clear. Even Ahrendts seemed short on ideas: Plazas, she said, could be for people to “meet up with friends,” while in Boardrooms visitors might “share with each other”; Forums, meanwhile, afford the distinct opportunity to “just connect again with one another.”
Apparently, “connecting” has always been part of the Apple Retail experience. But never more so than in the coming age of “Today at Apple,” Ahrendts’ other big announcement.
According to Ahrendts, Today at Apple is an “in-store experience” for Apple customers, meant to enrich lives and develop passions through workshops and lectures. These passions, Ahrendts elaborated, might include photography, listening to music, gaming or coding.
If you live near a larger store, offerings will be slightly broader, with occasional classes in sketching or GarageBand-ing. But mostly, Apple’s new Creative Pros, charged with running Today at Apple’s workshops, will be teaching you to unlock the full potential of the iPhone camera.
There’s nothing wrong with this idea. Or there wasn’t, until Ahrendts attempted to sum it up with this wildly unprepared assertion: “So, the Creative Pro is to the liberal arts, as the Genius has always been to technology.”
Despite what Ahrendts implies, the liberal arts are not “stuff artsy people do.” These words originally refer to a body of Classical Greek knowledge, comprising seven subjects — grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music theory and astronomy.
In the Renaissance, the field of liberal arts expanded to include poetry, history, ethics, even the natural and social sciences; none of these finds a place in the Today at Apple curriculum.
What’s more, the liberal arts exist in contrast to another category: the mechanical. Mechanical arts take as their object bringing things into being — things like a line of code, a piece of technology. This has always been Apple’s field — a field which they have mastered.
Though Apple might aspire to match Geniuses with liberal-arts Pros — a promising goal for Silicon Valley — the mechanical arts remain the limit of Apple’s imagination: Today at Apple workshops are entirely confined to tasks that can be accomplished on an Apple device.
Apple’s conflation of technological savvy with humanistic education is expressed by the prospect of transforming Carnegie Library — the oldest in Washington — into an Apple store. “We can’t think of a better place for Today at Apple programs than a building originally created for the city to access knowledge and unlock their potential,” Ahrendts beamed.
Well, I can. Neither libraries nor the liberal arts are designed to fuel self-actualization; while they may do so, they are primarily social organs, designed to shape people into educated, rounded members of a civil society, to provide common frameworks for functioning cultural and political systems.
But Apple isn’t interested in extant cultural communities; they want to fabricate new ones, whose sole methods of interaction will be through Apple products and spaces.
New Haven’s store will no longer purport to serve a public body, but to constitute one — as if the iPhone-wielding Yale-affiliated customers who frequent it weren’t already distinct enough from the homeless people camped outside on Broadway.
In the words of Jony Ive, Apple’s designer-in-chief, the new iPhone X is meant to be “a physical object that disappears into the experience.” So too, Apple’s mediation of social interaction aims at becoming so culturally necessary that it too disappears into the ranks of those things — the internet, our bodies — that we cannot be alive without.
These cultural redefinitions will rely on constricting liberal arts, communities and towns into the purview of Apple’s business model — a move that threatens to dilute the value of education, stratify human interactions and, ultimately, narrow our minds.
Simon Horn is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .