A report about Apple employees, heads down, looking at their iPhones and walking into the largest piece of curved glass in the world at their new massive “spaceship” headquarters has been bounced around the world by news aggregating bots and received by readers with a delicious glee. Super-secretive Apple doesn’t allow the general public inside. Source: supplied photographs show an exterior that’s a transparent glowing ring, and one interior perspective that resembles a massive Star Trek pad where people might stand to be beamed up. This story has the quality of one of Jean Philippe Delhomme’s cartoons that gently mock the Emperor’s New Clothes delusions of those who are obsessive about design … “Design therapy led me to realise that more than a modernist, I’m narcissistic,” declared one of his immaculately grungy hipsters.

The level of detailing that’s been reported borders on the neurotic … no seam or gap allowed to show … timber taken from only the heart of a particular type of maple tree … the planting of a whole forest of trees whose fruit will be harvested for use in the staff cafe!!! These reports reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s skewering of a yearning for a particular kind of empty, exquisitely machined aesthetic that bordered on the spiritual in his book length essay From Bauhaus to Our House. You could just switch out a Barcelona chair for a an exquisitely expensive Apple product:,

”At the end of the rug, there it would be. … The Barcelona Chair. The Platonic ideal of chair it was, pure Worker Housing leather and stainless steel, the most perfect piece of furniture design in the twentieth century. … When you saw the holy object on the sisal rug, you knew you were in a household where a fledgeling architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home. Five hundred and fifty dollars! She had even given up the diaper service and was doing the diapers by hand.’’

Paul Goldberger reviewed the book for the New York Times in 1981, noting how easy it is to be charmed and amused by Wolfe’s observations and dazzling style, but that style was ultimately all this book was. He’d failed to appreciate the truly poetic works of modernism — Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, for instance — and failed to take his observations of the revulsion people felt for the cheap knockoffs of the Miesian style choking cities everywhere into looking at the relationship between architecture and society. And in Apple’s case what’s missing in the stories about its headquarters are how it, and high tech corporate campuses generally in California, turn their back on their cities and become walled cities of their own.

Maybe we notice Apple’s products because they’re the most beautifully articulated end products of a cycle that began with the first desktop computers in the late 1970s. We can see what’s ending but what’s settling in is harder to grasp. The iPhone X’s facial recognition is the feature that’s making the iPhone obsolete. We no longer need to enter passwords and key in transactions, just hold the phone up to our face. And from there we drift off to a world where our helpmates are disembodied human sounding A.I. programs and our devices are autonomous. The cycles of technological change show that the innovators of one era are rarely the ones who define the next era. Sony shrunk the large music playing and recording devices of the generation that had invented sound recording and playback into the Walkman but they didn’t make the Walkman a phone, Apple did. And Apple is now sequestered in its spaceship placing Siri and increasingly subtle recognition capabilities into devices while these devices themselves become irrelevant.

It’s not a matter of finessing a new product, new eras are defined by new ways of seeing the world. And the post-Apple era is filled with machines and A.I. programs that don’t see the world as we do, and we rarely comprehend the world we do see.

In 2017 Geoff Manaugh catalogued how autonomous vehicles misperceive the world: “The sensory limitations of these vehicles must be accounted for, Nourbakhsh explained, especially in an urban world filled with complex architectural forms, reflective surfaces, unpredictable weather and temporary construction sites. This means that cities may have to be redesigned, or may simply mutate over time, to accommodate a car’s peculiar way of experiencing the built environment. The flip side of this example is that, in these brief moments of misinterpretation, a different version of the urban world exists: a parallel landscape seen only by machine-­sensing technology in which objects and signs invisible to human beings nevertheless have real effects in the operation of the city. If we can learn from human misperception, perhaps we can also learn something from the delusions and hallucinations of sensing machines. But what?”

Add to that the unknowable algorithms that drive Siri and Alexa and that we have no sense of how they might develop their own relationships with one another. And the pack behaviour being developed by the dog robots of Boston Dynamics (not designed to be “Man’s Next Friend”) as A.I.B.O. is) and it feels as though what we think of as the ‘real’ world is just infill while the mechanics of reality are hidden from us.


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