And so the third in a dystopian trilogy of prerecorded Apple events has landed on our screens. Following the COVID-free space holograms of WWDC, and the weirdly wildfire-free nature backgrounds of “Episode II: Attack of the iPad,” Apple’s iPhone 12 launch event aimed to end the trilogy by hitting a note of hope. What it found by the end, however, was more Black Mirror-esque than ever.
The hopeful attempt at framing was clear from the overture. We saw the Apple HQ at night — perhaps a subtle reference to these dark past few months in its home state, where many of us still reflexively check the PurpleAir scores every morning to see how dim our haze-choked days are going to be. But night soon became day again, to the strains of Good Day for Dreaming by Ruelle.
The lyrics are worth quoting at length, because they couldn’t have been more appropriate for Apple’s sense of self-importance if the company had handed the brief of creating a keynote theme tune to a team of designers:
Can you see the sky cascading?The colors are infinite (ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh)Feel it now, a new sun glistensRising within me (ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh) …
Away we go to places we knowOnly in our dreams (ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh)Starry-eyed, there’s nowhere we can’t flyThe world is an opеn sea (ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh)
And away we went to a place we know, the interior of the Apple spaceship, where Tim Cook was waiting to present his latest dream. This was a departure. In the two previous prerecorded episodes, Cook has opened on a serious (or what we used to call “presidential”) note. He acknowledged the Black Lives Matter movement, the struggle against systemic racism. He talked about COVID-19 by name, and tried to stay positive about the ways it was bringing people together.
This time? “It’s an exciting day at Apple.” Quick recap of the last episode. Elevator pitch. “All our products have three key attributes”: They’re easy to use, they work better together (hello antitrust committee!), and they protect your privacy. And now, here’s HomePod. (That the home has “become much more important in our lives” was Cook’s only reference to the existence of 2020.)
The best that can be said about the hour that followed was that it was similarly brisk. Clocking in at one hour and eight minutes, this was surely the shortest Apple keynote of modern times. It had the efficiency of a drive-through flu shot line at your local hospital: stick your arm out, get injected with fervor about the new iPhone, and done.
But the company can’t resist going all in on its most dubious products first, and so we were treated to the first segment to give me Black Mirror vibes, the HomePod mini launch. Cook unveiled the unremarkable $99 gadget. We zoomed into a doll’s house next to it. In this doll’s house lives a family whose mom makes popcorn while dad and the kids do a jigsaw. They don’t need such face to face time, though because their many Apple products can broadcast dad’s commands around the house, even when the kids are upstairs wearing their damn AirPods.
Close up on the mini as it is asked question after annoying question, day and night. For a moment I was sure we were about to zoom into the HomePod mini to see that it, too, was a doll’s house with another consciousness trapped inside it — the plot of the Black Mirror episode “White Christmas,” in other words. But no, Apple wasn’t going to be quite as creepy as all that. It just dispatched tiny doll’s house-sized executives to stand outside in the driveway and narrate their lives. So much for privacy.
Weirdest of all, we then zoomed in on the HomePod mini to find it was hiding a tiny Apple auditorium hiding an even tinier Tim Cook. We were now three layers of reality down. If only Apple had committed to the bit, and not instantly returned us to full-sized Cook in the next scene, we might have been witnessing an Inception-like masterwork, the Chris Nolan of Apple keynotes. “Only in our dreams,” indeed.
The dream-within-a-dream at the tiny auditorium featured Cook and the CEO of Verizon, the sinister Swedish-accented Hans Vestberg, standing at an appropriate social distance of about 30 feet and hatching evil plots involving 5G. Near as I could tell, these plots involved getting us all to play a lot of League of Legends with minimal lagtime. Vestberg raised his voice and waved his arms disconcertingly, attempting to rouse us with the hope of 5G working for us in “crowded places where thousands of people use their phones at the same time. Because one day, we’ll be safely back in those places!”
Apple and Verizon are touting a phone that offers 5G service in dozens of places you won’t be going to any time soon
— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) October 13, 2020
Easy for you to say, tiny Hans Vestberg in your tiny auditorium. Back out in the “real” world — which is to say, anything captured on an iPhone 12 — humans were still safest in small bubbles. In all of those advertorial mini-movies, the most daring adventure was that of a couple having a Vegas wedding. That’s right, a wedding with zero guests. Who said Apple couldn’t do existential commentary on our present condition?
Still, the main theme was “technological dystopia,” and it doesn’t get more high-tech dystopia than the anechoic chamber where the VP of wireless technologies and ecosystems talked about the new iPhone’s immense powers. An anechoic chamber — one of 50 Apple owns — absorbs all sound and electromagnetism, effectively simulating an infinitely large room. Most people can’t stand to be in an anechoic chamber; it is said the silence will drive you mad in 45 minutes. (It’s amazing Chris Nolan hasn’t filmed a scene in one already.)
But never mind the insanity; it’s the cool backdrop that matters, with blue and red cockpit lighting and what looked like spiky foam cushions everywhere. The perfect setting for a Dark Side rave.
After the anechoic chamber, things really got weird. Apple’s environmental chief Lisa Jackson stood on the roof of the spaceship, looking like she was ready to do a stage dive, and announced we’d no longer be getting USB bricks, chargers, and headphones with our iPhone purchase. We’d have to buy them separately in the name of planet Earth.
Time came unmoored: Tim Cook was seen at night, and then at day again. “What an amazing day it’s been,” he said incongruously in morning light, like the Doctor landing the TARDIS back where the adventure began. Was this time dilation designed to make us think the keynote was more substantial than the length of a Black Mirror episode? Or part of an increasingly unsubtle “night and day” theme to the whole event?
At the least, it is a sign that Apple has taken full advantage of its brave new world of prerecorded keynotes. It can now manipulate time and space. Who would return to boring old auditorium keynotes after this? Perhaps Apple, like the rest of the world, has learned to love working from home. In which case, this will be just the first trilogy of many.