The WWDC That Never Took Place

As has already been written many times over the last month, Apple’s WWDC 2020 was a true departure from its previous annual developer conferences. Forced by COVID-19, the fully online format created an experience that while potentially lacking for those who normally can attend in person, was much more accessible to millions of other enthusiastic developers and consumers around the globe. It was an impressive display and even as a fan, Apple surpassed my most extravagant expectations.

I have already discussed the reality-bending nature of Apple’s conference in a recent episode of the Lounge Ruminator podcast, however I was driven to revisit it after reading Daniel J. Boorstin’s (1971) book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Apple ‘events’ are essentially what Boorstin (1971) described as a ‘pseudo-event’. In his book, he explains how American news (and in fact, global news, as a consequence) now focuses on pseudo-events, distorting our view of reality. On pages 11 and 12, Boorstin (1971) explains the four key characteristics of a pseudo-event:

  1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.’;
  2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. … The question, “Is it real?” is less important than, “Is it newsworthy?”;
  3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. … While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives.’; and
  4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.

Relating to each of these points, we can see how Apple events are in fact pseudo-events. On point number one, it is obvious: the event (conference) that we are witnessing did not just spring up like a natural disaster or accident; it was planned carefully up to a year in advance.

Regarding point number two, the fact that Apple sends out invitations and offers live streams and on-demand playback means that the conferences are intended to be discussed and shared, as is happening in the very piece that you are reading now.

To point three, on ambiguity, we often complete a keynote and turn to writing and podcasting to unpack what we have seen. It is not enough to discuss the announcements; we must question their motivation and development, also wondering what might have been dropped from the show. What does it all mean for the future?

Finally, on the fourth point, Apple’s keynotes generally contain a self-fulfilling prophecy. This year is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this, as all the announcements—particularly that of macOS Big Sur—led to Apple’s true reason for the keynote: the transition to Apple Silicon. This is the Mac’s destiny and it will affect all of Apple’s platforms.

Surely, I am not the first person to look at corporate events such as Apple’s and call them pseudo-events. The motivation to discuss it in this context arose from my earlier creation of a tetrad for the keynote, based on the tool by Marshall and Eric McLuhan. In the tetrad, I noted that the live-streamed keynote rendered applause obsolete. With no one at a conference venue in person, clapping and cheering became a thing of the past. It just didn’t happen.

Although Apple keynotes and developer sessions have been streamed online for years, they have always been a recording of an actual in-person event. This consideration of applause, as obsolete, leads us to the fifth characteristic, which makes Apple’s WWDC 2020 the ultimate pseudo-event:

There was no event.

Yes, around the world, developers and brand fans alike watched a keynote video simultaneously and communicated about it together online. It was amazing. Yes, they returned to the same sessions over the course of the week, as one would when lining up for something in-person. It was communal and collaborative. Yet, none of the ‘events’ that comprised the conference and were consumed took place either physically in person or at the same time as the act of consumption.

In creating a totally pre-recorded, online conference, Apple realised the full potential of the (in)famous ‘Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field’, well beyond the scope of product benefits: the company attracted millions to an event that never took place.

Reference: Boorstin, D.J., 1971, The Image : a Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Atheneum.