Look, it’s true: People gather in Apple Stores. Kids play games. Design nerds fondle iPad Pros. Befuddled people seek refuge at the Genius Bar.
The stores have good vibes. Everything is clean. There are no sounds of commerce. No clanging till. No specials on an aisle. No mechanical belt sliding products toward a beeping scanner. People will tell you they like your new shoes. I love Apple Stores.
But there is one problem with calling an Apple Store an Apple “Town Square”—which the company announced it’s now doing at Tuesday’s iPhone event. Namely, the Apple Store is a store and not a town square.
Furthermore, they are truly explicitly not a public space. They are the opposite of a public space.
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.
And most surreally, a dominant problem for democracy at this moment is that truly public space doesn’t exist on the internet you access through your phone.
Internet platforms, as John Herrman has argued, merely masquerade as democratic spaces. But they are not. They are private, as private as an Apple Store.
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?
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