Apple thinks different – and the same – about the ‘town square’

The company plans to turn its stores into community centers (while still selling Apple products) in yet another sign of how much the Digital Age creates new groupings even as it feeds a natural desire for connection and shared destiny.

AP Photo
Angela Ahrendts, Apple's Senior Vice President of Retail, discusses updates at Apple stores at the new Apple campus on Sept. 12,, in Cupertino, Calif.

Ten years after Apple made the smartphone “cool,” it wants to turn its retail stores into something warm. It announced last week that the nearly 500 Apple Stores will no longer really be stores but “town squares.” In the era of social everything, Apple’s glass-and-white-walled boxes are to become gathering places. People will be invited to “relax, meet up with friends, or just listen to a local artist on the weekends.”

If that sounds a lot like your local mall, Starbucks, or even McDonald’s – commercial places designed to be social spaces – Apple’s idea goes further. It wants to attract “influencers,” or thinkers and leaders who can create new connections or spark new ideas. The “genius bar” will become a “genius grove,” with plants that might promote friendliness. Courses such as photography will be offered in “forums.” Children can attend a “kids hour” on Saturdays. Apple products will be sold in “avenues.” Local entrepreneurs can use rooms to work. The open spaces will be “plazas,” suitable for concerts or lectures.

Apple is hardly the first American tech firm to encourage and satisfy people’s desire for a sense of belonging, either in cyberspace or physical space. Google claims it offers “a rich experience for community conversations.” Airbnb encourages guests to join common activities, or “experiences.” The world’s greatest connector, however, may be Facebook, with more than a billion users. It claims to “make it easy to coordinate with friends near and far.”

As French writer Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 19th century, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” And that is why the US Constitution protects the right of peaceable assembly. The Digital Age isn’t just about hardware, software, or “the internet of things.” It can also be an “internet of community,” or what Wired magazine described in 2005 as an “electricity of participation.”

The biggest gap between countries today, says Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, isn’t as much about the disparity of wealth as it is about those who are connected and those who aren’t. According to a new report by the United Nations-backed Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, 52 percent of the world’s population still do not have internet access. Most of those people are in Asia and Africa. Yet, in a sign of how people can leapfrog old technology, two-thirds of people do have access to mobile phones – more than those who have electricity at home, a bank account, or running water. People crave the bonds of community as much as their worldly needs.

The Digital Age comes with many problems, writes Mr. Schwab in a new book, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” But it can also “lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a sense of shared destiny. The choice is ours.”

Apple’s ‘town squares’ may be only one of many shared places to come up with that shared destiny.

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