This afternoon Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple Inc., said of Apple stores, “we don’t call them stores anymore, we call then town squares, because they’re gathering places.”
Ahrendts’ comment could simply be written off as hubristic marketing-speak, but to me it’s an unwittingly sad comment about how, in the current age, a luxury goods story can and does serve as a rough proxy for a public square and how, concurrently, civic society continues to be degraded.
While a small number of very rich people have always been able to keep themselves separate and apart from the masses, a larger and larger number of people are using money, technology and education to insulate themselves from the sort of everyday life all citizens once lived. Elite status, VIP sections, priority lines, “Cadillac” healthcare plans, private schools and all manner of other luxuries available to the professional and technological classes create a situation in which a larger swath of the well-educated and at least moderately well-to-do have created what amounts to a separate class apart from the rest of the country. A class that carries with it insidious assumptions, conscious or otherwise, that the affluent and educated are demographically superior to the poor. Or, perhaps, that the affluent and educated are the only people who even exist.
While, admittedly, there has always been some semblance of a class system in this country, the instances in which people come together in commons spaces — in train stations, post offices, hospitals, libraries, public schools, museums and retail spaces — has decreased dramatically. What’s more, there was once a time in this country where the class divisions we had were at denied and diminished out of either shame or idealism born of the notion that the United States is not a class-based society. Today that conceit has been disposed of almost entirely, with “success” being increasingly equated with one’s ability to buy one’s way out of the public sphere altogether.
We live in isolated and increasingly homogenous and cloistered communities. We have made it so that those with access to the gifts of the technological age can do their shopping, their banking and their interaction with the government via electronic means without ever having to encounter the general public or, at the very least, the part of the general public unlike themselves. The increasing power of a small handful of technology companies is exacerbating this trend, turning even basic acts of life, such as buying groceries, into a class-based pursuit.
As a result of all of this, the public sphere of life has broken down in many important ways. We do not come together as a society across economic classes in anything approaching the way we did even as recently as the early 1980s, let alone the way we did in previous decades. This is bad for democracy and social health because, when we do not interact with the whole of society in meaningful ways, we are no longer truly stakeholders in the whole of society. We are, at best, voyeurs, intellectually lamenting that which has befallen our fellow man, yet not really being invested in it in any real sense. When you encounter those in different circumstances than yourself only virtually, you can simply click away. Or you can just choose not to click in the first place.
Which brings me back to Apple. The nearest Apple store to me is in a place called Easton Town Center. It’s a mall, but one of those outdoor malls that apes a cityscape, built on what used to be farmland out by the freeway outerbelt. There are storefronts and parking meters and sidewalks and all of that, but it’s all private property. While it’s a fake city, it holds the sorts of community events — Christmas caroling, arts fairs, outdoor performances and the like — that once took place in my town’s real public spaces. Except it’s not truly a community event given that no one has much business being there unless one is shopping or dining out at one of the luxury goods stores on its premises, and that’s obviously not for everyone. And, of course, since it’s private property, they can kick out anyone they want to for basically any reason or for no reason whatsoever.
Which certainly puts Apple’s claim that its stores, a great number of which are located in places like Easton, are “town squares” in a different light. A light that is sadly telling of what our society has come to in this day and age.