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Commentary Post - Brett T. Robinson

How Steve Jobs Turned Technology — And Apple — Into Religion

August 26, 2013

"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 mythology…

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 away.

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 modern technology.

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 the age.

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 implicit assertion 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 progress myth.

The religion of technology is practiced in the ritual use of technology and the worship of the self that the technologies ultimately foster.

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 themselves.”

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 the technology 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 enlightenment.

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 shared that“The 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 spirit.

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 iconic campaigns:

  • See why 1984 won’t be like “1984” (1984 Macintosh)
  • While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius (1997 “Think Different” campaign)
  • Less is more (2003 PowerBook G4)
  • Random is the new order (2005 iPod shuffle)
  • Touching is believing (2007 iPhone)
  • Small 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 less, too.”

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.