Belief, disbelief and beyond belief

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Steve Jobs: technological messiah

Does the reaction to its founder's death suggest that Apple has become a new religion?

"Steve Jobs to reboot in three days."

That was one facetious comment yesterday on the sad news of the Apple founder's death. And there was something slightly messianic about Jobs, both in the enthusiasm he was able to arouse for his products and in the personality cult that grew around him. Googling the phrase "Steve Jobs, messiah" a few minutes ago returned about 595,000 results. Obituaries and tributes stressed his inspirational style and the world-changing nature of his company. As one widely circulated Tweet had it, three Apples changed the course of history: the one in the Garden of Eden, the one that inspired Isaac Newton and Jobs's company logo.

It's hard to imagine that the death of any other corporate CEO, however successful or celebrated, would inspire the creation of impromptu shrines around the world. The outpouring of grief has resembled the reaction to the passing of a Hollywood legend, or Princess Diana, or a Catholic saint. There have, as yet, been no reported miracles: no defunct iMacs spontaneously coming back to life, or iPhones relaying messages from cyber-heaven. Perhaps it's only a matter of time.

The Book of Jobs would, no doubt, begin with the company's birth in the humble location of Jobs's garage in 1976. The founder's expulsion from Eden -- his removal from the company in the mid-1980s -- was followed by a long period of exile (the Pixar years). In Jobs's case, the second coming -- his return to Apple in 1997 -- preceded the miracle of resurrection that he managed to perform, taking the company from near-bankruptcy to global dominance in the space of a decade. There's even an antichrist in this gospel, in the shape of Bill Gates. For many years, there was just a small band of loyal followers holding off the darkness of Microsoft. But Apple's final triumph was assured. And while he has now logged off for the last time, Jobs has left behind him a multitude of followers to preach the word unto whatever Windows-using heathens might still be out there.

There was undeniably something of the preacher about Steve Jobs. His product launches were quasi-religious events, at which sacred objects were revealed to an expectant crowd of initiates; some of whom had made a long pilgrimage to be there. Invariably wearing a shirt of clerical black, Jobs blurred the line between salesmanship and evangelism. Like a religious revivalist -- or a demagogic politician -- what he was selling was not just a consumer durable but a vision of life. In its all-embracingness, Apple technology sought to offer people a solution to all their computing and communications needs. And the magic of the Apple name and logo allows devotees to ignore that the products themselves are often overpriced and underpowered.

Apple's success is due to more than good design or reliability -- though both are crucial. Steve Jobs's personality cult was based on the notion, true or otherwise, that he was uniquely in touch with the spirit of technology; that he had an almost mystical ability to sniff out trends and bestow perfection on his products. It wasn't blind faith -- the disastrous launch last year of iPhone 4, plagued with reception problems, dented belief in Jobs's infallibility. The reaction, though, was telling. It went beyond disappointment with an unsatisfactory phone and suggested something akin to personal betrayal. Or even a loss of faith. Apple -- and Jobs himself -- had proved to be like an idol who fails to deliver rain.

"The scenes I witnessed at the opening of the new Apple store in London's Covent Garden," wrote the BBC reporter Alex Riley earlier this year, "were more like an evangelical prayer meeting than a chance to buy a phone or a laptop." He also spoke to a bishop who likened Apple to a religion and an MRI scan of a loyal customer revealed that Apple products were "stimulating the same parts of the brain as religious imagery does in people of faith".

The "cult of Apple" meme is well-established and, of course, a joke -- take this spoof imagining the reaction to the appearance of Steve Jobs's face on a piece of toast. Some serious attempts have been made to draw parallels between faith in technology and faith in God. As long ago as 1994, Umberto Eco was comparing the Apple Mac to the Catholic faith, noting how the operating system:

. . . is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; 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. Everyone has a right to salvation.

Last year, two Texas academics, Heidi Campbell and Antonio La Pastina, published a paper entitled "How the iPhone Became Divine", which argues that buying Apple products "could basically perform the same role in people's lives as being part of a religious community".

They point out how religious language spontaneously associated itself with Apple products. Following the iPhone's launch in 2006, it was soon being described by bloggers and enthusiasts as "the Jesus phone" and "the God phone". A joke, of course, but Campbell and La Pastina argued that the religious language reflected more than just amusement at Apple fans' notorious devotion to the word of Jobs. It resonated with an American audience steeped in Christian concepts. It also reflected a well-established mode of thought in which "secular artifacts get imbued with religious-like or sacred significance" because of the power that they have over our lives and the fact that most of us don't know how they work.

With Apple, the magic of technology is allied to a communion of the faithful. Apple devotees are people who have seen the light. Unlike ordinary mortals, they understand the bliss and peace of mind that comes from trusting their digital life to the church of Jobs. The question must now be whether Apple can possibly sustain its dominant status -- as much cultural as commercial -- without him. The most dangerous moment for any new religion occurs when its founder dies.