Brett T. Robinson explores the religious influences on Steve Jobs and how they shaped Apple
Steve Jobs invited a number of lofty comparisons during his career. The New York Times likened him to Thomas Edison. Others have called him the Leonardo da Vinci of our generation. Jobs also had a lot in common with the early American philosopher-inventor Benjamin Franklin. He inherited Franklin’s “Protestant ethic” of mixing morality and capitalism by fusing technology and transcendentalism. Like Franklin, Jobs saw his work as a calling with moral import.
The tech giant dabbled in religious rhetoric to build a narrative tradition for the Apple brand, produce an evocative iconography, and establish a community of loyal followers millions strong. A polymath like Franklin, Jobs coupled poetic promotion with design panache to re-imagine a technology that had been the domain of dour computer scientists for decades. Apple has since redefined the way we communicate and transmit culture.
Jobs’s calling was computers, but his religious influences were more conflicted than those of his forebear. He was nominally Protestant until becoming disenchanted with Christianity as a precocious youth. When a Lutheran Sunday school teacher could not adequately explain to a thirteen-year-old Jobs why God allowed so much suffering, the teen decided to seek spiritual insight elsewhere. As he got older, Jobs pursued enlightenment in the ashrams of India and the Zen masters of northern California. It was an intense personal search for meaning that would shape Jobs and the spirit of Apple technology for years to come.
Apple’s “spirit of technology” is not Protestant but catholic, in the Greek sense of the term. It is universal, of interest to all. Philosopher of technology Jacques Ellul argues that technology is catholic because “it is becoming the universal language understood by all men.” In the early 1990s, the Italian cultural critic Umberto Eco playfully echoed Ellul’s deeper philosophical point by comparing computer operating systems to belief systems. Macintosh’s “simple formulae” and “sumptuous icons” made it Catholic, and MS-DOS’s “free interpretation” made it Protestant.
Eco imagined the computer revolution much like Steve Jobs did, in mythic terms. The battle for technological supremacy was nothing short of “a new underground religious war” that was modifying the modern world. Eco’s semiotic read of the Apple and Microsoft operating systems offers a glimpse of the religious resonance buried within the thinking machines. Eco admits at the end of his essay that the Catholicism and Protestantism of the two systems has nothing to do with the religious positions of their users, but wonders whether personal computers “lead to profound inner changes.”
Jobs saw it as his calling to help the world “Think Different,” using the medium of technology as a means to retrain the mind. Apple’s “Think Different” slogan was a salvo aimed at computer giant IBM, who adopted the one-word slogan “Think” from its founder Thomas Watson. For Jobs, IBM represented everything wrong with the Western hierarchical mindset. After a trip to India in his twenties, Jobs became disillusioned with the Western tendency to favor rationality over intuition. He had observed the intuitive approach of Hindu villagers and gurus in the East and was convinced the West, despite all of its philosophical pretensions, lacked enlightenment. The computer was a lot like the human mind, and as such it could be designed in a way that privileged intuition and creativity.
In 1985, a year after the Macintosh release, Jobs met Andy Warhol at a birthday party for John Lennon’s son, Sean. The Apple founder brought Sean a new Macintosh. Warhol asked to play with it, and their brief exchange ended with Warhol waxing poetic about the Mac Paint program that allowed the pop artist to trace lines on the screen with a mouse. The whole process mystified Warhol, and he became enamored with the new device.
Jobs and Warhol shared an affinity for combining religious aesthetics with technical expression. That they met in the home of the late John Lennon made their exchange even more symbolic. What John Lennon had contributed to consumer culture by combining his transcendental beliefs with pop music, Warhol had carried forward with his unique blending of Orthodox aesthetics and pop art. He spent his childhood in ornate churches on Pittsburgh’s south side where the elaborate grids of religious iconography became the template for his later work in celebrity and consumer product iconography. Like Jobs and Lennon, Warhol combined his spiritual and cultural tastes to spawn a cult movement. At their meeting on the Upper West Side, Warhol met a new arbiter of popular aesthetic taste who also drew deeply from the religious well.
The connection between aesthetics and moral perception is well rehearsed in philosophy and has been applied to literature, art, poetry, drama, and film. So why not technology advertising? Like the cathedrals of Western Europe that displayed the beliefs animating the medieval mind and inspiring its architectural accomplishments, a tour of Apple’s advertising reveals a set of popular beliefs about technology that are both prophetic and paradoxical.
Marketing expert Douglas Holt says that brands do their best work when they speak in mythic terms. It is through advertising’s figurative language and metaphor that brands are able to craft enduring mythologies. Powerful brand myths transform quotidian products into symbols of quixotic desire. But like all quixotic desires, romantic ideals are rarely realized in full. Brand myths work to resolve this cultural tension by offering palliative consumption choices – products that symbolize a temporary release from social anxiety. When technology and outsourcing during the economic downturn of the 1970s challenged the romantic ideal of the “working man,” Budweiser made itself synonymous with blue collar and won over scores of patriotic laborers.
In the early 1980s, confronted with the uncertainty of whether the apocalypse of personal technology would mean creative liberation or electronic enslavement, the technology market needed a new myth. To the uninitiated user, the computer was an impenetrable magic box. Its powers of calculation were enough to inspire awe; but controlling the thing required the incantations of a priestly caste of programmers. At the dawn of the personal computer era, computer scientists could solve complex equations in record time but lacked the rhetorical ability to communicate the benefits of the revolutionary machine to a public still largely in the dark.
Apple’s infamous “1984” Super Bowl ad mythologized the budding tensions of the computer revolution. Would computers turn us all into corporate drones or would they be tools for individual expression? With its Orwellian and dystopian imagery, the 1984 ad that launched the Macintosh was a shot across the bow of Apple rival IBM. The ad was a 60-second ideological coup wherein the Macintosh heroine smashes a totalitarian image of Big Brother (a parody of IBM’s “Big Blue” nickname) and releases a blast of supernatural light that revives an assembly of overworked drones.
The prisoners in the ad resemble those in Plato’s allegory of the cave, shackled in the dark and mistaking the flickering images on the wall for reality. The divine light of truth is uncovered by, appropriately enough, a woman wearing the half-eaten Apple logo. In Apple’s Neoplatonic retelling of the Garden of Eden story, the forbidden fruit (the Macintosh computer) becomes a positive symbol for granting humans the power of knowledge.
The spiritual tensions Apple raised can also be found among its users who often try to rework the brand’s furtive symbolism. In the film Macheads, a documentary by Kobi Shely about Apple fanatics, two men are shown camping outside an Apple store in New York City, anticipating the new iPhone release. In the wee hours of the morning their conversation turns philosophical and one man says to the other:
It was eating an apple that caused us, as a race of people, to be cast out of paradise. So maybe that same knowledge that was so evil early on in mankind’s story remains evil, and each time we take a bite of this technological “Apple,” we move further from the garden that was our home and deeper into the hell that is our current want.
It seems that Apple’s promise of universal knowledge and creative freedom can also be interpreted as a new kind of bondage, one that breeds concupiscence rather than wisdom.
The contradictory interpretations of Apple’s brand mythology reflect the paradoxes of religious belief itself. Rather than shy away from such tensions, Jobs embraced them in the spirit of one of his literary heroes, William Blake. He discovered in Blake a rhetorical style that blended Buddhist and Christian metaphysics in poetic form. Blake’s elliptical poetry challenged Protestant notions of good and evil as oppositional binaries and imagined a more enlightened spirituality that resolved contraries.
Blake’s poetry often reads like a Zen koan. Among the teachings of Zen Buddhism, from which the poet and tech guru borrowed heavily, the koan is an important construct for achieving enlightenment. As paradoxical parables, koans reject binary thinking. Yes and no are seen as rigid formal categories that the Zen mind must overcome to achieve a breakthrough.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
Apple and its advertising team employed playful versions of koan rhetoric in a number of campaigns:
“Random is the new order” (2005 iPod shuffle)
“Touching is believing” (2007 iPhone)
“Small is huge” (2009 Mac mini)
In yet another contradiction, Jobs applied the anti-binary ethos of Zen thinking to a machine running on the binary language of 1s and 0s. Zen allowed him to show that binary data and artistic expression were not mutually exclusive but could empower one another.
Jobs showed himself ecumenical when raiding spiritual symbols. He was fond of the apocryphal quote, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” In 2007, Apple ripped a page from Christian iconography for a popular iPhone print ad. In the ad that launched the first iPhone, a shadow surrounds the product and a solitary finger reaches out to touch the illuminated screen. The tagline reads, “Touching is Believing” – a parodic allusion to the Caravaggio painting The Incredulity of St. Thomas. In the Renaissance work, the finger of St. Thomas reaches out to touch the wound on Christ’s side, confirming for the apostle that his Lord had indeed risen from the dead. For the iPhone apostles, the ad teased the launch of a first-of-its-kind touchscreen phone, visually confirming that the rumors were true.
The “Touching is Believing” ad reveals yet another technology-wrought tension that the Apple mythology tries to resolve. The proliferation of digital screens has diminished human engagement with tactility. Digital interfaces that make information consumption a purely visual encounter have replaced touching the glossy surface of a photograph or feeling the weight of a book and thumbing its pages. Reincorporating touch recovers some of the intimacy. But the materiality of digital information proves elusive. Unlike St. Thomas, the iPhone user cannot probe anything physical. Instead, in true Zen fashion, he touches but does not touch the data on the screen.
Jobs’s conflicted spiritual search became a deep metaphor for Apple’s technology rhetoric, but the relationship between technology and ultimate concern is not unique to Jobs and Apple. Issues of primeval importance are often expressed metaphorically using technological terms. Religion and technology rhetoric share a need for metaphor: both require simplified terms to communicate complex truths. Jobs’s design motto – “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – echoes this apparent contradiction.
For the Greeks, the technology of the potter’s wheel was a metaphor to explain the laws of motion governing the universe. Plato used the manual technology of the spindle to depict the swirling of the cosmos as seen by souls in the afterlife. In the Middle Ages, the widespread use of the mechanical clock for regulating commerce and culture helped fuel the notion that a master watchmaker had designed the cosmos.
The boom in transportation and communication technologies over the last century and a half spawned a new crop of metaphysical metaphors. Modern technology rhetoric has moved away from the animism of the Greeks and now focuses more on the machine-as-mind metaphor. American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that the telegraph and railroad seemed to be turning the earth into a brain. “See how by telegraph and steam the earth is anthropologized.”
Computers and artificial intelligence have cemented the analogical relationship between the human mind and popular technology. Vannevar Bush, Director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1945, wrote a now famous appeal to his fellow scientists in the Atlantic called “As We May Think.” Bush noted that the electrical circuits of computers were shadows of our own internal mental processes. Written in the spirit of Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” the essay is an attempt to redefine the “thinking man” in a time of great social and technological upheaval.
Bush urged scientists to make the “bewildering store of knowledge” more accessible through technology, giving individuals “command over the inherited knowledge of the ages … to encompass the great record and to grow in … wisdom.” Invoking a knowledge tradition and employing a medium to interpret that tradition, to seek wisdom, bears all the rhetorical marks of a religious sensibility. This Apple has effectively exploited with its mythological marketing rhetoric.
The “cult of Apple,” the forbidden fruit logo, and Steve Jobs’s prophetic assertions have invited frequent scrutiny. But the Apple mythos demands a still deeper allegorical read. It is an important story about a culture coming to terms with its increasingly technological nature and all of the complexity and contradictions that such a shift implies. The transformation Jobs envisioned recalls the Greek term metanoia, a conversion or radical change in thought. More than switching from PC to Mac, a digital technology conversion re-patterns human thought and community. Access to knowledge expands while attention spans contract. Online interaction with anonymous individuals from around the world increases while social interaction with those nearby decreases.
Pascal said that all of our misery stems from an inability to sit quietly in a room and do nothing. Judging by the omnipresence of iPhones, we are a miserable lot. The technology zealot is a tortured soul, fiercely loyal to the machines that make life in the technological age possible while sensing the growing malaise that characterizes life simply lived on the screen.
[Robinson’s Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs will be published August 15, 2013 by Baylor University Press.
Quoted in James Carey’s “The Mythos of the Electronic Revolution”