How would Apple ensure it was helping underserved communities and schools in Chicago and not just the best and brightest?
Tim Cook hesitated slightly before answering.
This was quite possibly the most challenging moment of the Apple CEO’s Chicago exhibition so far.
Cook’s education-themed product launch had been framed as a heroic one and he arrived at Lane Tech College Prep High School in appropriately conquering fashion. Attendees waiting in line under a slight drizzle held Apple-issued umbrellas as they walked past Apple Store-like structures erected on the school’s front lawn, and hey—wasn’t that a statue of Al Gore? Nope, it was the former vice president in the flesh, just another audience member who—along with a worldwide audience via livestream—watched as Cook announced the release of a new iPad and the citywide expansion of Apple’s “Everyone Can Code” program.
On Wednesday, the tech giant’s top executive returned for an hour-long MSNBC interview special with anchor Chris Hayes and Recode tech reporter Kara Swisher—a show that had been branded “Revolution: Apple Changing the World.” Cook sat comfortably in the center of a gymnasium turned television studio on the second floor of the selective enrollment high school as several hundred students, faculty, press, and ticketed members of the public showered him with applause every few minutes.
But then MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes asked Cook a tough question. He wanted Apple’s top executive to respond to a clip from an interview with a young African-American man from Chicago who expressed frustration with the way the public and private sector kept investing millions of dollars in projects like the DePaul basketball stadium while neglecting the needs of the south and west sides.
“That’s a good question. We’ve priced this iPad as low as we can,” Cook told Hayes. Because the company’s devices were built to last three to four years, $300 becomes “a very reasonable expenditure.” Also, he added, Apple was ready and willing to teach students all over Chicago how to code and develop apps.
That’s right, on the same day that a group of Chicago youth from the #NoCopAcademy movement staged a “die-in” at City Hall to demand that the city defund a $95 million police academy to fund education, one of the richest men in America was here to tell Chicagoans that even if they were stuck in underfunded, failing, or closing schools—hey, our tablet is a pretty good value, and did you hear about our cool new computer club coming to your classroom?
Rather than pushing revolution, the CEO’s message reinforced the dominant economic ideology—an extreme form of meritocracy and market supremacy—held by America’s elites. That ideology essentially sees no problem with the fact that Cook earned $102 million in 2017 (enough to purchase new iPads for nearly all of CPS’s 371,000 students) while 34 percent of African-Americans in Chicago live in relative poverty, earning less than half of the local minimum wage.
Extreme inequality is fine, in other words, if everyone is perceived as having been granted a fair shot at gunning for the top. “Our desire as a nation is to offer equal opportunities and we haven’t succeeded at that,” Cook noted. “We’ve got to reach out to women and underrepresented minorities.”
His solution is a technocratic twist on the old conservative axiom: Teach a man to code and he’ll eat for life.
That’s essentially the concept behind Apple’s partnership with the city of Chicago. Lane Tech will serve as a central hub to train local high school teachers on the computing company’s Everyone Can Code curriculum. The idea is that the teachers would learn to use Swift—a simplified programming language used to develop iOS apps—and then that knowledge will be taught to Chicago’s students. Then, as the logic goes, students would be prepared for an employment marketplace increasingly dominated by computer science fields and those who know how to code.
“We have to get used to the idea of continuously retraining ourselves for the jobs of the future,” Cook said. Not surprisingly, many of these said jobs would be in service of his company.
Apple is suddenly hiring in America. The Cupertino, California-based company has long been criticized for outsourcing jobs and manufacturing to China while stashing more than $250 billion in cash overseas to dodge paying into what Cook called a “crazy” tax system. It had a change of heart with the passage of Trump’s tax overhaul, the one that lowers the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent in 2018 (Cook praised the Trump plan multiple times on Wednesday as “good for America”). The company opted to shift its mountain of offshore cash from a tax haven in the English Channel back here with a one-time tax of $38 billion. That means Apple essentially avoided $40 billion of taxes.
Meanwhile, it also announced a plan to invest $30 billion in capital spending here over the next five years—creating 20,000 new jobs and a new campus somewhere in America. Call it Apple HQ2, though Cook bristles at the idea of holding a Hunger Games-like competition for it similar to the way Amazon is doing with theirs (“We’re not doing a beauty contest thing, that’s not Apple,” he said).
It’s possible then that Cook and Apple have long-term plans to bring their next headquarters to Chicago and this “Everyone Can Code” initiative is little more than a way to turn CPS into a kind of grandiose Apple internship program.
If that happens, the kids best equipped to succeed in Apple’s brave new world aren’t the ones living in segregated and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It will be the kind of high-achieving students who’ve scratched and climbed their way up America’s increasingly precarious meritocratic ladder to schools like Lane Tech and have the time, energy, and resources to thrive in a coding club. It will likely be the students for those whom buying a $300 iPad every few years is “a very reasonable expenditure.”
For everyone else in Chicago’s marginalized communities and schools? Good question.