"Much ink has been
spilled drafting the Steve Jobs encomium. But Jobs and Apple are interesting
for far more than technological prowess — they provide an allegory for reading
religion in the information age. They are further evidence that shifts in popular
religion throughout history are accompanied by changes in the media
environment: when the dominant modes of communication change, so do the
frameworks for religious belief. Still, this shift would require a fitting
An ancient Egyptian myth helps illuminate the
perennial relationship between media forms and metaphysical belief systems. The
Egyptian god Theuth visits King Thamus to show him that writing “once learned,
will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory.” Thamus replies by
admonishing Theuth that his affection for writing prevents him from
acknowledging its pitfalls. Writing does not improve memory but makes students
more forgetful because they stop internalizing information. Writing also
exposes students to ideas without requiring careful contemplation, meaning they
will have “the appearance of wisdom” without true knowledge.
The celebration of technological values in the Apple
story requires a similar response. The technological values promoted by Apple
are part of the Faustian bargain of technology, which both giveth and taketh
King Thamus’ anxieties about the new media of writing
threatening wisdom have been resurrected in digital form. But Jobs confronted
the technology paradox by imagining technology as a tool for expanding
human consciousness rather than as a means of escape from it. The
tension between technology and spirituality was not a zero-sum game for him.
Jobs’ Zen master Kobun Chino told him that he “could
keep in touch with his spiritual side while running a business.” So in true Zen
fashion, Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic
terms. But what really set him apart was his ability to educate the public
about personal computing in both practical and mythic ways.
The iconography of the Apple computer company, the
advertisements, and the device screens of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad
are visual expressions of Jobs’ imaginative marriage of spiritual science and
Apple Ads as Parables
Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the
complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how
to live the “good life” in the technological age.
Like all advertising, Apple’s ads perform a vital educational
function in consumer society. The advertisements are allegorical, rhetorical
attempts to domesticate foreign and abstract concepts, making them accessible
and attractive to everyday adherents.
In fact, they resemble medieval morality plays in their
personification of good (Mac) and evil (PC). As such, the ads contain a moral —
or, more explicitly, they propose a morality customized for the conditions of
Media technology has acquired a moral status because
it has become part of the natural order of things. Luddites, those who have
sworn off new technologies, are the new heretics and illiterates. Technology is
an absolute. There is no turning back or imagining a different social order.
Challenge is acceptable as long as it remains within the confines of the
technological order. Apple may challenge Microsoft. Samsung may challenge
Apple. But the order must not be challenged.
The impact of digital culture, then, is epistemic; it
insinuates a moral system based on its own internal logic.
The underlying message of the early Mac versus PC ads
is not simply that the Apple operating system is superior. The ads carry the
that technology always means human progress.
In addition, the personification
of the operating systems by actors reinforces the notion that computers are
extensions of the human person. In this sense, the ads are not dualistic at
all. Good and evil, Mac and PC, man and machine are married in service of the
The religion of technology is practiced in the ritual
use of technology and the worship of the self that the technologies ultimately
Enter the Paradox
In the Greek Narcissus myth, the young man is captivated
by his reflection in a pool of water. Marshall McLuhan reminds us that
Narcissus was not admiring himself but mistook the reflection in the water for
another person. The point of the myth for McLuhan is the fact that “men at once
become fascinated by an extension of themselves in any material other than
Eastern wisdom traditions seem
fitting antidotes for correcting the addiction and narcissism fostered
by media technologies. The Wisdom 2.0 conference, for example, held annually in
California invites participants to learn techniques for living with “greater
presence, meaning, and mindfulness in the technology age.” But the wisdom
traditions themselves have been subsumed by the logic of popular technology and
consumerism. Participants pay upward of $1,500 to learn mindfulness techniques
from “the founders of Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Zynga, and PayPal, along with
wisdom teachers from various traditions.”
The top billing at the conference naturally belongs to
gurus rather than the spiritual ones. And this confusion of technological
values with religious or spiritual ones is a product of a key rhetorical trait
shared by both: the paradox.
To the nonbeliever, the paradoxes of religion are
absurd and irrational diversions.
To the true believer, however, they are pathways to
Jobs’ affinity for paradox in his technological and
spiritual thinking may be partly attributed to his “inexhaustible interest” in
the works of William Blake, an eighteenth-century romantic poet and mystic who,
like Jobs, was a multimedia artist who reveled in religious satire. Blake’s The Marriage
of Heaven and Hell was a combination
of poems, prose, and illustrations produced on a series of etched plates — an
eighteenth-century iPad, if you will.
In a critique of the puritanical sentiment sweeping
England in the late eighteenth century, Blake presents a series of paradoxes
aimed at subverting conventional dualisms. In his Proverbs of Hell, he
road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” and “You never know what is
enough unless you know what is more than enough.” Blake used the poem and
illustrated plates to subvert traditional dualisms, to propose an alternative
cosmology in which good and evil were complementary forces for human
flourishing. Heaven represented restraint, while hell represented the creative
passions that give humans their joy and energy; the two worked together in
harmony to facilitate a more enlightened state of being.
Steve Jobs resolved the paradoxes posed by technology in the same
Technology is a powerful medium for creative expression, but
absent restraint it has the potential to breed an enslaving addiction. Echoes
of Blake’s paradoxical style can be heard in the advertising rhetoric of the
Apple computer company. Some of the best proverbs come from the company’s most
why 1984 won’t be like “1984” (1984 Macintosh)
some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius (1997 “Think Different”
is more (2003 PowerBook G4)
is the new order (2005 iPod shuffle)
is believing (2007 iPhone)
is huge (2009 Mac mini)
The iPhone 5 launch in September 2012 announced “The biggest thing
to happen to iPhone since iPhone” and “So much more than before. And so much
Jobs embraced elliptical thinking as a means of promoting
technology objects that pose their own paradoxes. In the Apple narrative, the
seemingly oppositional notions of assimilation/isolation and
freedom/enslavement are resolved by Apple’s invocation of enlightened paradox.
The paradox today is that new media technologies connect us to
more people in more places. (Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” has been
invoked more than once). But at the same time, mediating relationships from
behind a screen breeds a pervasive sense of isolation.
In the Apple story, the brand cult began offline, with users
meeting in real, physical locations to swap programs and ideas. Now, the Apple
community is more diffuse, concentrated in online discussion groups and support
forums. However, Apple product launches and conferences remain sacred
pilgrimages where Apple fans can congregate, camp, and live together for days
at a time to revel in the communal joy of witnessing the transcendent moment of
the new product launch.
The reverence once reserved for holy relics and liturgy has
reemerged in the technology subculture. The shared experience of living in a
highly technological era provides a universal ground for a pluralistic society.
There may be many different devices, but only one Internet.
Technology has become the new taken-for-granted order that
requires our fidelity. Obedience to the new order is expressed in the
communication rituals that take place every day in the use of computers, music
players, and smartphones — devices that bind individuals together. From the
farthest satellite to the nearest cellphone, the mystical body of electricity
connects us all. Personal technology has become “the very atmosphere and
medium” through which we mediate our daily lives.
But the paradox this media technology presents is the absence
of presence. The age of electric media is the age of discarnate man —
persons communicating without bodies. From the disembodied voice on the
telephone to the faceless email message, electronic communication trades human
presence for efficiency.
In order for such a form to become popular, it would take a
visionary like Jobs with both technical and humanistic sensibilities; someone
to assure the technological faithful that this dramatic change in human
relations was a good thing.
The question that remains is whether this mode of perception
brings us any closer to recognizing the transcendent hidden at the heart of
that which is not digitized or downloaded.
Excerpt originally published on Wired.com. Adapted and excerpted from Appletopia by Brett T. Robinson.
Copyright 2013 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor
University Press. All rights reserved.