Probing the mysteries of Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI asked his flock gathered in 2006 to ponder what this season might mean to people living in the Internet age.
“Is a Savior needed,” he asked, “by a humanity which has invented interactive communication, which navigates in the virtual ocean of the Internet and, thanks to the most advanced modern communications technologies, has now made the earth, our great common home, a global village?”
What the world really needed, quipped Gizmodo writer Brian Lam, responding to the pope, was a new spiritual tool. Thus, digital believers were waiting for a John the Baptist — Apple’s Steve Jobs — to “unveil Apple-Cellphone-Thingy, the true Jesus Phone” during the upcoming rites of the Macworld Conference.
That online exchange set the stage for an Apple advertisement that serves as a stained-glass image moment revealing the mysterious role that digital devices now play — moment by moment — in the lives of millions, according to University of Notre Dame business professor Brett Robinson, author of “Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs.”
In the ad, a human finger reached out of darkness toward the rows of icons on the glowing iconostasis of the new iPhone screen above this incantation: “Touching is Believing.” For Robinson, there is no way to avoid a connection with the biblical image of Jesus inviting the doubting St. Thomas to put his finger into the wounds on his resurrected body and, thus, “be not faithless but believing.”
“It’s all about the metaphors,” said Robinson, in a telephone interview. “You cannot explain what cannot be explained without metaphors. Technology needs metaphors to explain itself to the world and the same is true for religion.”
Thus it’s significant that, for some many consumers, the use of Apple products have become what scholars have long called the “Apple cult,” he said. It’s also clear that Jobs — drawing on his ’60s driven devotion to Eastern forms of religion — set out to combine art, technology and philosophy into a belief brand that asked consumers to, as stated by another classic ad, to rebel and “think differently.”
“It’s easy to get into arguments about what is a religion and what is not,” said Robinson. “But there’s no question that the giant glass cube of the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue” in New York City serves as “a cathedral and that people go travel there on pilgrimages and that their local Apple Stores are like local parishes. …
“The goal is to consume something bigger than themselves and then they can draw a sense of identity from those products.”
Jobs knew all of that. After fleeing the Missouri Synod Lutheranism of his youth, he went out of his way to rattle traditional cages throughout his career. This was, after all, the man whose company logo was a rainbow apple — minus one Edenic bite. He tested an early product with a prank call to the Vatican, pinned a $666 price tag on the Apple I and dressed as Jesus at the company’s first Halloween party.
In his famous 2005 Stanford University address, Jobs told the graduates to “trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. … Don’t be trapped by dogma. … Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”
At the heart of the Apple mythos, stressed Robinson, is an amazing paradox, the yin-yang doctrine that Jobs was trying to sell consumers good computers in order to help them escape a chilly world dominated by bad computers. He sold his refined, graceful devices by using images of enlightenment and community, while users may end up spending untold lonely hours staring at digital mirrors in their hands or on their desks.
The bottom line: Have the products inspired by the “Jesus Phone” turned into narcissistic rosaries?
“That iPhone provides some of the comforts and a sense of security that religious faith provides,” said Robinson. “It promises to connect you to the world and to the transcendent. … Yet most people spend most of their time looking at the same five or six sites online — like Facebook — that primarily are about their own lives.
“They spend untold hours in this intimate ritual of touching those phones, clicking and clicking their way through their own interests, their own desires, their own lives. The emphasis ends up being on the ‘I,’ not the other.”