At Tuesday’s Apple event in Cupertino, California, Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts revealed that the Apple Store has gone the way of the headphone jack.
“We actually don’t call them stores anymore,” she said. “We call them town squares, because they’re gathering places for the 500 million people who visit us every year. Places where everyone’s welcome, and where all of Apple comes together.” Apple’s other language strives toward the claim, with “plazas” and “forums” to complement the sale of the new, $1,000 iPhone X. “We’re going to open Apple town squares in cities around the world.”
A store is not a town square. A store belongs to a company that wants your money, a town square to a government that serves you. But the idea is of a piece with retail trends, and has long been evident in Apple’s preference for doing business in grand, pseudo-public spaces: an old post office, a train station.
In May, as the company honed its plans to restore Washington’s Carnegie Library, the Washington Post’s Jonathan O’Connell described some of the proposed changes:
Where the Carnegie Library once housed the city’s book collection, Apple plans a “Genius Grove,” a tree-lined sales floor where company reps will demonstrate how to maximize Apple products for music, photography or other passions. What long ago were reading rooms would become places to browse and sample Apple products.
It is in some ways a fitting succession: The tycoons of America’s second gilded age inherit the intellectual and civic spaces of its first. When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013, the Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote: “let us hope that this is what the sale signifies: the beginning of a phase in which this Gilded Age’s major beneficiaries re-invest in the infrastructure of our public intelligence.”
But there is a difference between undertaking that role with corporate profit and doing so for corporate profit. Apple’s “town squares” and Google’s citywide internet should not be mistaken for philanthropic ventures. That Apple is repurposing the District’s old Carnegie Library does not make the comparison more flattering for the company. CityLab’s Kriston Capps has forcefully argued that one of the city’s “most important cultural assets” deserves a more genuine public role. And, he adds, Apple’s aspiration towards public-interest placemaking—like Amazon’s—also make it a better candidate for tax breaks.
At the same time, it is true that companies increasingly provide the functions abandoned by the retreating public sphere. Long before Apple, malls claimed to be the new town squares, and have tried to develop cultural functions to differentiate themselves in a declining retail landscape. As public libraries cut hours or closed entirely, McDonald’s provided a clean, safe space for kids to do their homework. As understaffed public bathrooms deteriorated and closed, Starbucks became the de facto place to go in many cities. As the dream of a free public education recedes, Apple teaches people how to do stuff for free.
It’s easy to be grateful. If we didn’t have a Starbucks bathroom, where would we pee? If we didn’t have an Apple plaza, where would we sit? On the other hand, if we had not designed a society so friendly to the interests of corporations and their executives, we might still be able to provide those things ourselves.