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Apple, Disney, and Dreams of Corporate Utopias

Friday, September 28, 2012

Steve Jobs and Walt Disney: Revered founders and their plans for radical buildings.

The verdict seems to be in on Apple’s new iPhone 5: Superbly executed and likely to be extremely profitable for its maker, yet without any transformative feature—“completely amazing and utterly boring,” as Wired put it. What does this mean for Apple and information technology after Steve Jobs? A future of indefinite small improvements, reinforced by Apple’s victory against Samsung in a recent patent case, or an opening for new disruptive devices? The sleek device conceals questions about the company’s direction.

In a Fast Company blog post widely shared on the Web, designer Tom Hobbs has condemned Apple’s inconsistency in building modernist hardware and then populating it with anachronistic visual metaphors called skeuomorphs. In the iBooks app, E-books are displayed with their covers face-out on simulation 3-D wooden bookshelves. Once opened, the volumes mimic the appearance and page turning of paper tomes instead of exploiting the unique advantages of the screen. The Apple calendar has virtual stitched trim said to have been inspired by the leather in Steve Jobs’s Gulfstream jet.

The company appears to be divided between populists, who think these features are good for business, and purists, who revere the ideals of elegant Bauhaus information design, devoid of extraneous ornament, as practiced by great typographers like Jan Tschichold. There probably has always been a tension between the two at Apple. At least one of the original Macintosh fonts, San Francisco, would have made the Bauhaus founders spin in their graves. But Steve Jobs was there to resolve conflicts.

Revered Founders, Radical Buildings

The Jobs legacy and Apple staff thus may be divided against themselves, and all this comes as Apple is about to build a supersized new circular headquarters, the macro counterpart of the iPhone as a corporate symbol. At a time when landmark headquarters have largely gone out of fashion—think of the fate of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building in New York, finished just as the company was breaking up in 1984—the new Cupertino structure will be a magnificent throwback, with a four-story circular main building offering 2.8 million square feet of office space for about 13,000 employees. For comparison, that is 70 percent of the square footage of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart and over 75 percent of the office space of the Pentagon.

The original EPCOT may have been the boldest utopia in American history.

Circular construction has a long utopian heritage: The royal architect under King Louis XV of France, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, envisioned a circular community surrounding the saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, an uncompleted project (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The project would have been one of the ultimate expressions of the absolute monarchy, just as the new Apple headquarters will express Steve Jobs’s own version of enlightened dictatorship.

This isn’t the first time that the death of a revered founder has coincided with plans for a radical building. Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) is an intriguing precedent. Now a high-tech theme park of global cultures, EPCOT was originally far more ambitious, designed not as a company headquarters or a park, but as the prototype of a new way of life—just as some Apple fans believe that the company has the potential to re-engineer everything from television sets to automobiles.

Appalled by the chaotic and often tacky development that surrounded his celebrated and meticulously planned park, Disney began in 1965 to rethink the very institutions that had made Disneyland and Disney World so successful: The private automobile and the Interstate Highway System.

The original EPCOT may have been the boldest utopia in American history. The town’s 20,000 people—about the number of employees in the projected Apple headquarters, and also radially organized—would live in a residential zone at the periphery and commute to their workplaces at the center not in private cars (which were reserved for pleasure use), but in new people-moving vehicles. All vehicles in the center would be electric. A greenbelt zone with schools and churches would separate homes from businesses.

EPCOT was thus a for-profit planned community built on the technological systems and management philosophy that had made Disney World a smash success, and promising to provide its residents with the very latest in technological amenities, upgraded regularly as the state of the art advanced.

But benevolent despotism had a price. For all Disney’s anti-communism, EPCOT residents could not own real property there; all were to be renters. Nor could they be rentiers or retirees; the town was only for people working in the center. All residents had to participate in what was in effect a live-in, never-ending world fair. As Disney said in a television script in 1966, shortly before his death, EPCOT would be a “showcase to the world” of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise. Disney’s death marked the end of the original project.

Disney remains a great media company today, and its theme parks—like Apple retail stores and Apple products themselves—are models of user experience. Apple stores and Disney parks both attract enthusiastic young staff. (In fact, Disney now has a consulting arm, the Disney Institute, for applying its lessons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple is considering something similar.) The Apple logo is as memorable and ubiquitous as the Disney mouse ears, iconic in a way that the trademarks of Sony or Warner will never be. Apple, like Disney, is a rare brand that began with a children's and educational market and became an adult product, while retaining play as part of its core values.

Disney remains a great media company today, and its theme parks—like Apple retail stores and Apple products themselves—are models of user experience.

Just as Disney was a magnificent entrepreneur but not a great draftsman, Jobs was not at heart an engineer, computer scientist, or even a programmer. Both were unexcelled, though, at recognizing and coordinating creative talent. (To a little boy who asked him if he still drew Mickey Mouse, Disney once compared himself to a busy bee cross-pollinating the studio’s artists.) Both were adored by the public—but also resented for their sometimes high-handed treatment of peers and employees. In fact, both could be ruthless; environmental historians have shown that Disney’s filmmakers imported lemmings and bulldozed them off cliffs to make a famous sequence in White Wilderness (1958), and Apple has been condemned for tolerating allegedly exploitive practices by Asian contractors. Apple even invoked Disney’s pseudo-zoology in its notorious 1985 Super Bowl commercial, portraying potential Apple converts—PC users—as marching blindfolded over a cliff to a ghostly, distorted rendition of the “Heigh-Ho” song from Disney’s Snow White.

Apple is now one of the most spectacularly successful companies of all time, and a major factor in the rise of the S&P 500. Yet its rise, paradoxically, was made possible by the death of another brilliant innovator, Sony co-founder Akio Morita, in 1999. Sony had a head start on Apple in developing a solid-state music player, but, after Morita’s passing, dissension left an opening for the original iPod in 2001. The AT&T Building is now Sony Tower. Jobs became the next Morita. While there will never be another Walt Disney, and it’s unlikely that anything like his circular utopia will be built again, could there be, somewhere in the world, a new Steve Jobs?

Edward Tenner is the author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, a visiting scholar in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, and an affiliate of the Princeton Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

FURTHER READING: Tenner also writes “The Fine Art of Resilience: Lessons from Stanley Meltzoff,” “Facebook and the Importance of Being Unimportant,” and “Markets, Risk, and Fashion: The Hindenburg’s Smoking Lounge.” John Steele Gordon discusses “The Henry Ford of Our Time,” David Shaywitz contributes “Saving Steve Jobs's Legacy from a 'Successories' Future,” and Nick Schulz offers “Steve Jobs: America's Greatest Failure.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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