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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.