Steve Jobs, saint of the ’60s

Steve Jobs, saint of the ’60s October 17, 2011

It was in 1994 that author Umberto Eco, drawing on his studies in symbols and philosophy, looked at the evolution of personal computers and saw theology, doctrine, spirituality and, yes, icons.

The modern world, he argued in the Italian magazine Espresso, was divided between Macintosh believers and those using the Microsoft disk operating system. The DOS world was “Protestant, or even Calvinistic” since it demanded “difficult personal decisions” and forced users to master complicated codes and rules.

“The Macintosh is Catholic,” wrote Eco. “It tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons.”

Nearly two decades later, the hagiographers producing eulogies for Steve Jobs produced evidence that Eco was close — but that he needed to soar past Rome and around the globe to India and Japan. In essay after essay, journalists have argued that the so-called “cult of Mac” was driven by the Apple leader’s “Zen-like” state of mind.

It seems those iMacs, iPods, iPhones, iPads and MacBooks really were religious objects after all, with their gleaming surfaces of glass, aluminum and white or black plastic. There must have been a grand scheme behind that yin-yang minimalism.

The Zen of Steve Jobs,” proclaimed CNN.

ABCNews.com added: “Steve Job’s Mantra Rooted in Buddhism: Focus and Simplicity.”

HBO’s “Real Time” provocateur complained that too many normal people — even conservatives — were rushing to claim Jobs. “Please don’t do it, right-wingers,” said Bill Maher. “He was not one of you. … He was an Obama voting, pot-smoking Buddhist.”

One image of Jobs dominated the media barrage. In 2005, the prophet from Cupertino visited one of California’s most exclusive pulpits, giving the commencement address at Stanford University. It was one year after doctors discovered the rare form of pancreatic cancer that took his life at the age of 56.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” he said. “Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

A quick summary of Jobs’ spiritual life is that he followed his heart right out of a traditional Christian background and into the spiritual maelstrom of the 1960s. Raised as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, the young Jobs was already breaking bread with the Hare Krishnas near Reed College in Portland, Oregon, when he dropped out and headed to India seeking enlightenment.

It’s hard to know how much the secretive Jobs practiced Buddhism during his often-stormy life, which included an out-of-wedlock daughter (he denied paternity for years) and his legendary rise and fall and triumphant rebirth as Apple’s visionary. Buddhist monk Kobun Chino Otogawa did perform the 1991 wedding of Jobs and Laurene Powell and the Zen master served as a spiritual advisor for NeXT, the computer company Jobs founded in between his two Apple eras.

Critics noted that Jobs was a relentless and abrasive perfectionist who left scores of battered psyches in his wake. Whatever the doctrinal content of his faith, it seemed to have been a Buddhism that helped him find peace while walking barefoot through offices packed with wealthy, workaholic capitalists.

In his Stanford sermon, Jobs urged his young listeners to “trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

For Jobs, the bottom line was his own bottom line — even when death loomed on the horizon. His ultimate hope was that he, alone, knew what was right.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking,” he concluded. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition — they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”


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