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Tiananmen To Apple Stores, Who Owns Our Modern Spaces?

Selfie time in Tiananmen Square
Selfie time in Tiananmen Square

Apple has opened the doors of its new 175-acre campus, built in the shape of a gigantic UFO, where 12,000 employees will be working. It will cost Apple $5 billion – five times as much as NASA's Juno, which traveled to Jupiter. Because of the design of the main building, the Apple Park has already been renamed by popular agreement into the Spaceship campus. But the question is, will Apple's spaceship, mother of all high technology, be able to take off?

That same day, during the company's first keynote address in the Steve Jobs theatre, the company introduced its new line, products both more expensive and less innovative than in the past. The lukewarm atmosphere, distinguished by the lack of Apple fans, may have distracted from Apple's much bigger ambitions, more enterprising even than the 10-year-anniversary edition of the iPhone and those uniquely contemporary utilitarian watches.

In the last few months, we've heard speculation that Apple is joining Google's and Chinese efforts in trying to create its own self-driving car. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently dismissed these rumors and repositioned his company in the context of research, of a different kind of artificial intelligence. Cook on Tuesday, however, talked only of the new products, inviting Angela Ahrendts, Apple's Senior Vice President of Retail, to reveal what may be Apple's disastrously zealous pursuits:

I love the fact that the same team that designed Apple Park designs also the largest Apple stores around the world. It's funny, we actually don't call them stores anymore, we call them town squares. Because they are gathering places for 500 million people who come to visit us every year. Places where everyone is welcome and where all of Apple comes together.

But what really brings it all alive are our incredible teams! We always said that the people are our souls and Apple's great differential that brings personal connections to the people's communities all over the world. They humanize technology.

But along with our amazing teams, there's our commitment to design that also sets us apart: to make things simple, beautiful. And that why we think of Apple Retail as Apple's largest product.

Town squares, public spaces. Apple, as Ahrendts later explained, is taking over landmark buildings in Milan, Paris, and the Carnegie Library in Washington DC. There are about 400 Apple stores around the world but not all of them will become strategic Apple squares, the Apple-designed plazas, forums, events, avenues– entire towns–in which the company will try to impose its role on local communities. They call these organized events Today at Apple.

Apple Store NYC — Photo: José Carlos Cortizo Pérez

There is nothing wrong with the business that sells, the business that aims to teach, repair, entertain, sell coffee. There are countless bookshops that are trying to do the same (Busboys and Poets in Washington DC being one of them) amidst a new retail landscape, where the old way of downtown shopping is replaced by malls that are, too, becoming obsolete thanks to online shopping, drones even. But none of those malls had the audacity to call themselves Town Square, which Apple announced it will start building. As Alexis Madrigal noticed, "There is one problem with calling an Apple Store a ‘Town Square:" the Apple Store is a store and not a town square. Since the 19th century, stores have served as gathering places for people. American department stores had cafés and gardens and all sorts of places for people to hang out. But they would have never had the audacity to confuse themselves with town squares. The nice stuff was just a way of bringing customers to the store to purchase goods."

In his recent typology of public squares, Tom Wilkinson in The Architectural Reviewoffers the following definition of the Public Square:

When human particles collide in the accelerator of the square, the public comes into being – as evanescent as an unstable element.

When millions of women gathered to protest the election of Donald Trump last month, they met in squares. Such spaces find their purpose as condensers for the activity of the crowd, whether recreational, political or commercial (not that these are separable, here or elsewhere). Created to facilitate the functions of the state and to endow its rituals with a field of action, the square has an equal and opposite function as the incubator of its critics, even its demise.

When we say ‘public square", however, we need to ask – who or what is this public? Who owns this space, what makes it public? With regards to the women's march, women of color, trans women, and queer women strongly criticised its exclusivity. This is the essence of democracy: the ability to question power, and the power to do so. Just as state ownership does not guarantee the publicness of a place, the act of questioning, of dissent, can make a place public. And that is why the square, like democracy, is so carefully controlled, so often under threat. Ever since 1989, Tiananmen Square has been patrolled by secret police, surveilled by cameras and – on the occasion of the uprising's 25th anniversary – closed for ‘maintenance."

Tiananmen is the great example of the public square/space contended for by the public authority, the state, and civil society. There is an incredibly good documentary by then-young Chinese film director, Zhang Yuan, who in his Guangchang – The Square describes and demonstrates this battle for a public space that is normally empty. In the case of Tiananmen, it was empty because Mao Zedong in his militantism wanted it that way so that he could rally one million obedient red guards whenever he needed them to bolster his Cultural Revolution.

Later, the square was used for military parades. Then, for a short period of time in 1989, the students and newly born Chinese civil society occupied Tiananmen for a few months. They got crushed by the leadership, who sent the military to clear the square. It was a massacre. It is from that time that Chinese authorities fear the crowds will come back and take the square from them. Zhang Yuan filmed all the camouflaged agents and policemen who survey the square after 1989. The regime started to plant trees in the square and built a national flag pedestal guarded day and night; it does everything possible to create obstacles for potential spontaneous public gatherings.

Wilkinson cites more examples of the historic public spaces that were changing hands between regimes and the power of the people. Like when the great city of Samarkand was rebuilt by Timur at the end of the 14th century, and its main public square, the Registan or ‘sandy place", was framed by a succession of three grand madrasas over the next two centuries. Or the Palace Square in Bucharest, which became the site of televised mass rallies under Ceaușescu, the last of those inadvertently broadcast regimes collapses, when the crowd booed the president, who departed in a helicopter and was executed shortly thereafter. Or all the squares took over by the Occupy Wall St. protests in 2011.

Palace Square, Bucharest — Photo: Stefan Jurca

Apple now pretends it is merely taking over what has been abandoned by the public authorities, pivoting off a trend ongoing in American cities. "New York City has long been colonized by privately owned public spaces, which are managed by private companies. More than 500 plazas, parks, streetscapes, and other public areas are now managed by private companies in New York alone. Meanwhile, Americans are spending more of their free time shopping. The annual American Time Use Survey, published by the Department of Labor in 2016, showed that the average American spends 45 minutes per day shopping, compared with about 20 on "civic or religious activities."

But the subtle shift in nomenclature matters. Stores will never be public spaces. They are regulated, surveilled, and designed by companies for specific purposes. That is sales. Sensors, which can measure things like foot traffic and record everything from faces to sounds, are now ubiquitous in retail stores, and will only become more powerful; for instance, Amazon's experimental Go store watches what you pick up so you never have to check out," warns Co.Design.

Madrigal, who otherwise loves the Apple shops, also warns about another aspect that would stop Apple from pretending to occupy a public space:

In adopting the faux-democratic language of Facebook and Twitter, Apple has made the perfect physical metaphor for the largely ineffable problem the internet poses to democracy.

Maybe that will make people realize how absurd it is to expect fundamentally commercial entities to build community or to serve liberal democracy or to make your voice heard or to act as an agora or whatever else.

These are businesses. They sell stuff. People buy it. That's great.

Bringing these democratic ideas inside private enterprises seems nice, but it warps the very idea of "the public." Who is excluded from the Apple Town Square that should have equal access to the soapbox?

These are harsh words, and no one else but Alexis Madrigal could find them. They are much needed especially now that this fast-changing tech world stands alone, without the inimitable voice of David Carr. To confuse commercial retail, comfortable as it may be made to be, with the civic community is to eschew the fundamental relationship of the capitalistic wheel, that cooperation between consumer and business. The Apple project seems a sinister deception of this basic mutual contract, drawing people to products under the guise of community.

The language used by Angela Ahrendts is scary, especially when she said, "We always said that the people are our souls." Are they? The obsession with detail, utter perfection, simplicity and advanced technology were the values of the Steve Jobs-era Apple. Cook's era has increased the corporate profits to the sky, making more than 450 billion this year alone. Apple is so loaded with cash made by huge profit margins that they do not know where to put it, so Cook is a manager and not creator. And now that the humongous project has created the teams Ahrendts talks about, it is possible that the managers of Apple want to cash in on it. In that case, the next project will not be the self-driving car, but perhaps real estate business and construction. Infrastructural control, if not domination.

A few years ago I talked to David Lerner, co-founder of Tekserve, the computer repair store that had a large hand in promoting Apple products before it decided to open its own retail store in Cupertino. Apple stores and their Genius services were merciless; Tekserve could no longer repair the Apple computer by warranty, and it was going out of business. When Lerner analyzed the trends, he knew Apple and was a big fan of it, as am I. He told me that Apple will dominate for another ten years. Then, he said, somebody else will come. I can now see why this might happen, greed leading to lesser product and dysfunctional customer care, creating a gap filled by a new company, the demand of the consumer again met on the ongoing market curve.

I described one of my frustrations with Apple last year, and since then my bad experiences with it have multiplied. But this is not the place. I still like their products but my hope is that something smaller will come on the market that can replace it. And yes, I have the impression that the cathedrals Apple is now building will soon stand empty. It happened to other empires that were spending too much in the war to keep at the helm, or too much in ceremonies to celebrate their glory. Greed will imprison us all.

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