This approach—lining up one new, killer product after another—seems almost impossible, even for Apple. But the company’s latest announcement points toward a new way of culturing attention, one that’s much more subtle than just getting people to buy or rent a glass rectangle year after year.
Attention is a strange thing. It’s often thought that the way to retain power or influence is to hold onto people’s attention—to keep it active, front and center. That’s how iPhone rose to prominence, after all: by ripping a hole in popular understanding of mobile telephony and introducing a totally new paradigm.
But over time, active attention recedes into the background. It has to. Extraordinary events, products, and ideas cannot survive as wild curiosities. They must be made ordinary. Such is the fate of every influential media form, from the electric light to the automobile to the refrigerator to the television to the smartphone.
Media’s true power comes from this habituation. When everyone relies on electricity. When everyone unloads a dishwasher. When everyone commutes by personal automobile. When everyone connects and reads and works and plays on a smartphone.
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Apple’s announcement revealed two new approaches to manage its fall into habituation. One is technical and one is social.
The first approach changes the way an iPhone turns on. Apple’s new, flagship smartphone, the iPhone X, has an OLED display from bezel to bezel, supplanting the home button from the device’s front. To replace TouchID, the fingerprint sensor that provided security for device use and payment, Apple has introduced a new facial recognition technology called Face ID.
Its technical implementation is impressive, using a front-facing camera and dot projector to map and model an iPhone user’s facial features. Apple claims that it's secure and reliable, with one in a million odds of being cracked.
But to invoke Face ID to unlock a phone, the user must look at the device, so that the phone can see its owner’s eyes. This has a convenient side effect: People must pay deliberate attention to their iPhones again. No longer can one fail to notice the fact of the iPhone as a device mediating life in the background, even if it is about to be put to that use. First, the user must acknowledge it in the foreground. iPhone, see me. Recognize me, as I recognize you doing so.
It’s a small thing—a setup, perhaps, for something yet to come. But temporarily, at least, it reactivates the iPhone as a thing that demands and receives active, rather than just passive, attention.
The second approach is far stranger. Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, announced that the company would rebrand its retail locations. Instead of stores, they would become “town squares, because they are gathering places.” She’s creating “plazas” in Apple’s largest stores, adding “boardrooms” for entrepreneurs, and recasting aisles as “avenues,” which are “like shop windows around a town square.” Apple’s Fifth Avenue store in Manhattan will become such a town square, as will a new one in the Carnegie Library in Washington D.C.—a controversial use of an architectural landmark that once served as a real public sphere rather than one remixed out via capitalism.