As the Vatican is to the Catholic church, as Mecca is to Islam, so the big glass cube where 5th Avenue touches Central Park is to Apple Inc. Just as a church, mosque or synagogue embodies and expresses the essence of a belief system through symbolism and ritual, so too does the Apple store. And this one is the high church of Apple, its mighty cathedral, the place where it comes down to earth from the iCloud in its most fully blown state.
But what exactly is Apple? Sure, it makes things: real things that are assembled from a variety of components in beautifully sleek casings that help us do stuff; and virtual things like software that are also tools of one sort or another. It provides digital services and it distributes media. But this hardly describes Apple's place in the world, in our lives or our hearts. Much more than the commodities it produces, Apple is a way of living, an ideology, even, we might say, an entire belief system. And not just any belief system. Apple is the full-blown global expression of a culture born out of Californian garages in the 1970s. To understand Apple, it is necessary to recognise its specific geocultural-generational origins, at the same time as admiring its position as the world's most valuable company.
This is a culture that spliced the scrag-ends of hippydom with feldlight consumer electronics to create a world of techno-idealism where mysticism and microchips were part of the same ecology. In this ecosystem LSD leads directly to LCDs and the I Ching precedes the iPhone. The counter-culture's alternatives to traditional social and political models wound themselves around the possibilities of computing technology. This mystical sci-fi alt culture first imagined by Californian baby boomers is the origin of Apple's narrative, in which it grows from geek outsider to capitalist behemoth. It represents the fulfilment of the culture of the baby boom generation; a victory played out on balance sheets over previous generations' traditional concerns of industry and commerce. Apple's rise is also an index of the baby boom's segue from drop-out ideologues to CEOs. In both we see how desire for cultural and political change painlessly falls into self-interest and hyper-capitalism without apparently registering its own inversion. Apple's own myth writes itself as something other than a corporate entity. Rather it offers us a thing to believe in, a thing to become part of, a promise of thinking differently that has grown from sect to cult to worldwide ideology.
credit David Sparshott
If Apple is the economic and ideological record of the Californication of global culture, then perhaps it is here at the corner of 5th Avenue and Central Park – the Angkor Wat of Apple, the Chartres of consumer computation – that we can reach out and touch it.
Joining the flock pilgrimaging to the secular Cathedral of the High Church of Babyboomerhood we step on to the raised plaza (named by its wifi call sign as Apple Plaza) where the store's giant glass cube stands like a transparent monument to see-through-ness. It has the hubristic presence of a 2001 monolith and the reductive minimalism of Donald Judd. Its platonic proportions are clipped together into a structure-free shell as if it were the casing for a product placed by some giant hand into the city. It has the kind of simplicity that only complex engineering can achieve, and stands as a monument to Apple's vision whereby high technology delivers us into a zen-like state.
Apple's glass frontages are far more than shop windows. Here on 5th Avenue, not a single product, enticement to buy or any other trapping of commerciality is visible through the glass. All you see is what you see through: a lens through which to see the world. We can read Apple's glazing as a monument to a very specific kind of transparency: much more than glass' inherent see-through-ness, much more than 20th-century modernism's blurring of inside and outside. Apple's glazing systems are like stained-glass windows with their figural content deleted: transparent parables rich with narratives of the liberty of digitised life. It is the real-world version of full-screen view, of the edge-to-edge glass screen of your iPhone, iPad and iMac.
This symbolic use of glass is encoded into the Apple store staircases or, as we might call them, iStairs. These are transparent things that seem to rise with little support or structure, magically dispensing with the usual requirements necessary to navigate gravity. They reinvent the mechanics of stairness so fully that they have multiple patents in Steve Jobs' name. In their refusal to bend to the normal physics of buildings they remake circulation as an analogue of digital experience, replicating the sensation of a hyperlink, a way of moving from one place to another without apparently being anywhere else. Apple's stairs also, we can note, operate in a tradition where structure articulates an entire belief system. They sit in a direct lineage from the gothic cathedral, whose own structural gymnastics created a lightness that defied the weighty material of their construction, a way of making stone seem drawn heavenwards with an unearthly lightness.
In midtown Manhattan the stair takes on special significance as it winds down into the centre of the store wrapped around a glazed circular elevator. We descend into the underground AppleWorld in a reverse ascension, or ride the lift as though it were a Star Trek transporter into the centre of a perfect square centre plan.
credit David Sparshott
Here, we are greeted by staff dressed in blue T-shirts, a white Apple logo on their chest, lanyarded with a device that looks capable of emitting electric shocks if its bearer were to misbehave. It is a uniform of such regulated informality and prescription hipsterishness that even the ways in which a shirt collar pokes out here or a sleeve there only seems to reinforce its ubiquity. Like much of the social internet of the 21st century, the more an Apple representative struggles to assert their identity, the tighter the grip of conformity becomes. It is a look seemingly modelled on the Heaven's Gate cult, assembling a strict ascetic aesthetic from the most ordinary of clothes. Their repetitive ordinariness is a contemporary habit that dresses the geek-hood who manifest Apple-ness in human form. These identically-different individuals sweep up to you as though attracted by a gravity and start conversations as though you already had some kind of intimacy, as though you already shared something ... Apple.
The staff glide around the spartan store layout that comprises only giant wooden tables whose Cyclopean dovetailed joints give their Scandinavian simplicity an alter-like monumentality and are obsessively aligned with the grey floor tiles. Each table is labelled with large transparent acrylic blocks – "Personal Set Up", "Personal Training", "Genius" – as though these are not places to diagnose a product but somewhere to be diagnosed yourself, somewhere to fine-tune your techno-psyche.
Its sparse furnishing reflects Jobs' own wrangle with the very concept of furniture. In Walter Isaacson's biography, Jobs' wife remarks: "We spoke about furniture in theory for eight years, we spent a lot of time asking ourselves, 'What is the purpose of a sofa?'" Furniture, or its absence, is an ideological issue in the Appleverse.
Apple's small range of products are arrayed across the tables. Their variously sized screens all default to a film where the very same objects perform flips, twirls and wipes. Images of themselves disappear in infinite regressions like virtualised matryoshka dolls. In Apple's self-referential universe, an iPad here explains a MacBook, then explains itself. Justification and description comes though an ecosystem described in reference to itself. Everything telescopes back to the Appleverse's point of origination, to its Jobsian moment of creation.
Instructions and encouragements incant across high-level screens telling us to "shop early, shop late", that we can "check out anywhere" (but presumably with the Hotel California subtext that we can never leave). They say "don't be afraid to ask for help" and that the help we might need we can seek from a "specialist in a blue shirt". The path to Apple enlightenment is everywhere smoothed. Customers mutter earnest confessions to these blue-shirted specialists as if seeking guidance from some sci-fi priest. Others are there not to shop at all: they stand silently with their heads bowed communing through screens engaged in some quiet devotional ritual.
For all the spatial and material precision of the Apple stores, it is its rituals that alchemise its base retail substance into something more profound. Think of the product launches that transform trade fair mundanity into hyped-up evangelical events. Hosted with scripted simplicity, these sermons bring the entire weight of Apple's own myth-making to bear on the moment, elevating new products into the pantheon of Apple product. Think of the crowds that assemble for store openings or the queues for new products. You can see the ecstatic faith displayed by Apple consumers, who anticipate the arrival of a new product with the adoration usually reserved for personality. The sense of community and communion amongst Apples fans suggests that hopes and dreams far beyond the material world of product design reside within its realm.
We see it too in the unboxing ceremonies filmed with a combination of salacious thrill and a portentous sense of arrival, then posted to YouTube. Here, self-appointed amateurs take us through a packaging striptease, talking us through the delivery of a brand new Apple thing out of its cardboard and styrene wombs into the world. These rituals capture the rush of purchase excitement before one rolls over, sated by consumerism. Unboxing is like an archeology of the present in which layer upon layer is removed, each revealing its own "designed in California" narrative, where every element of the packaging takes on the significance of a relic dripping with Apple significance: protective plastic covers, cellophane seals, even packets of silica gel are all part of the choreography of revelation.
credit David Sparshott
Apple has risen through the stations from its obscure origins to a worldwide ideology inspiring particular forms of devotion. It has evolved from an underdog alternative to drab corporate business machines, through a platform for creative industries, then to a representation of creative liberation for anyone and for any part of your life, and finally into an idea of liberty so large that it seems capable of swallowing the whole world. Its secular promises take us far further than the slogans, warrantees or serving suggestions that characterise most commercial activity. Apple promises us something much deeper, more entwined in our idea of our own self. Its i is also our I.
And perhaps it's here that we should begin to become uncomfortable with our psychic internalisation of a corporation, with the way we make it part of us. As Apple has evolved, it has developed a means of monetising our dreams of freedom, of tithing every leap of faith we make into its techno-utopia. The freedoms it offers us demand our supplication, require us to lock ourselves into its proprietary systems and demand our complete devotion. Its rhetoric of freedom applies only if we give ourselves to it completely.
There is an irony in the invertion of its original dreams of techno-liberation. But there is also the curse of any organised belief system that wants to make the world a better place when it is written at such large scale. Is Apple, we might ask, caught in a secular version of the infinite loop of power that characterises traditional religious and ideological organisations? Is Apple afflicted by the adoration we give it? Are its promises of liberation only possible within the narrow constraints that it determines? Is Apple's original dream undone by the faith that we invest in it? Does its status as a deified corporation now condemn it to exercise a fundamentalist form of power? And would it want it any other way?