Everything Is Worse, Except Your Phone

The jarring spectacle of an Apple Keynote in 2018

Tim Cook at an Apple event in 2015. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters)

There is an Apple keynote today. The live broadcast will begin at 10 a.m. from the Steve Jobs Theater, inside the circular glass spaceship in Cupertino, California. Casually, shirts untucked, the most profitable company in the country will show off the most profitable products in the world.

The keynote will be like the many before. That future occurs on a blank background, clean black nothingness. The presenters are rich, but not showy. They are well-traveled, but they love where they live, especially the surfing and hiking. They are mostly white, mostly men, but the slate has an increasing sprinkling of diversity. They love gay people and the NBA and U2 and their kids, but steer clear of politics and religion. They are chipper, but not chirpy. Excited, but been there before. Expansive about the engineering details of keyboards and light sensors. Every moment is scripted, even the ones that are unscripted.

Products will be introduced: new things with screens, new things that play music, maybe new things that attach to your body. People with nice teeth will come onstage to demonstrate the new wonders of the global age. Except they are not really new wonders, and the aesthetics of the event feel out of sync with the chaotic, uncertain times.

The keynotes began back in the Clinton era, after Steve Jobs returned to the company. They were a mechanism of Jobs’s “reality-distortion field,” and he perfected them in the years around the iPhone’s launch. After his death, the keynotes focused less on the one man and more on the process of corporate creativity. Craftsmanship. Effortless performance. An Audi for your hands.

Perhaps you have noticed that the United States and Europe are witnessing a resurgence of nationalist right-wing politics not seen since the mid-century heyday of fascism. Even Sweden is getting in on it! Much of it is predicated on tossing out the globalist bums, who look pretty much precisely like everyone on stage in Cupertino. This is the company whose products require hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers, after all, and whose supply chain extends across the world. The socially progressive, centrist, coastal, win-win-for-everyone politics of the Obama-era technology industry feel dangerously out of touch with the social forces driving history at the moment.

We’re still doing this? Hasn’t everything changed?

Well, no, everything hasn’t changed. The shock of the 2016 election, the so-called “techlash” that followed it, and the swirling dramas of the Trump administration seem so important as to force all of reality to rotate with those storms. But Apple has shrugged off the news. Show me the inflection point in history in the company’s share-price chart:

Apple, from its position in Silicon Valley, as fronted by its rich, tanned, and cheerful executives, should be waning in power, and maybe the company is waning in a certain kind of cultural power. And yet almost 65 percent of Americans own at least one Apple product and the average household has two Apple products in it, according to a 2017 poll. 22 million people bought an iPhone just in the holiday quarter of last year. That’s 123 times as many iPhones just in that quarter than Toyota sold of the country’s most popular sedan in the whole year. It doesn’t get more mainstream than Apple.

What role do the company’s big events play, then? Sure, they are free advertising, like an invented holiday for celebrating Apple. They are about defining the future of technology, claiming it, putting it in your pocket. They transform the unevenness of innovation, the metropolis worth of factory labor, the retail channel grind into something that just gets better every year, on a schedule. Progress that can be counted on. The country may be becoming radically more unequal, political life has stagnated and polarized, the climate continues its estrangement, but these phones keep getting better.

This is tangible progress. The pictures of your second child will be better than the ones of your first, even if your take-home pay hasn’t budged in a decade. You can turn down the music on your speakers from your watch, even if the wealth gap has doubled between black and white families since 1998. There’s an app for every need, an app for every want. Everything and everyone is ever more effortlessly almost right there. There are even doctors on your phone, if you can pay for them, and weed in certain states.

And who better to deliver the good news of methodical technical advancement than someone with his sleeves rolled up on a blank stage, the scrubbed masses only there to cheer? All the connections between the phone and the profits and the power and the world are invisible; there is only something that “just works.” And honestly, I’m exhausted, I’ll take it.