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
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Tail docking is described as “barbaric” – so why did the SNP vote to bring it back?

The decision by the SNP to permit the docking of puppies' tails seems bizarre - until you consider the party's divided loyalties.

As Holyrood votes go, it probably doesn't get more emotive than the decision to lift the ban on tail docking - a procedure carried out on three-day-old puppies which involves crushing cartilage, nerves and bone without anaesthetic, and which campaigners have called "barbaric".

The reasoning is that these "working" dogs, flushing out animals to be shot on Scotland's vast hunting estates, can injure their long tails. The British Veterinary Association disagrees, saying the procedure inflicts significant pain and deprives dogs of a "vital form of canine expression". 

So why has the Scottish National Party, with its left-wing rhethoric and substantial block of left-leaning newer members, voted through such a deeply controversial proposal?

One clue is to be found in 2014-15 - not the independence referendum, but the push for land reform which followed it. The extraordinary concentration of land ownership in Scotland - around 430 families or companies own half of the private land - became a touchstone issue for independence campaigners. After September 2014, many transferred their enthusiasm to this issue, demanding a new bill that would kickstart land reform after a decade in the long grass.

This presented a real problem for the SNP. In its longheld tactic of appealing to both left and right, rich and poor, the land issue showed up the cracks. While the new First Minister made rash promises of "radical" reform in November 2015, her cabinet nevertheless included Fergus Ewing, a centre-right politician with links to the landed estates and rural lobby. 
 
Pictures of Ewing clad in tweed alongside gamekeepers at a PR stunt caused some of the party's new membership a twinge of unease. Unedifying rows over fracking, which highlighted Ewing's relationship with the Duke of Buccleuch, did not help. While much was made of the SNP's 56 MPs opposing fox hunting at Westminster, Ewing opposed a Scottish ban more than a decade before
  
Before the SNP made its unprecedented break into the Labour strongholds of the west of Scotland and central belt, the party's support was concentrated in the largely rural east. Perthshire, Banff and Buchan, Moray are places where people voted Tory in the past - and indeed, turned blue once more this June. Not that such a swing can be said to have come entirely from SNP voters. Nevertheless, it does highlights another side of SNP membership that is often forgotten about. "It's said that there are two SNPs," said Professor Ailsa Henderson, professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh. "An SNP voter in Govan is perceived to have a very different profile than another in Perthshire". 
 
This project to appeal to all Scotland - particularly noticeable during Alex Salmond's leadership - produces strange paradoxes, and this tail docking issue is just the latest. The rural lobby is strong, from gamekeepers' associations to hunting proponents to the powerful Countryside Alliance. The current government's proposal to reintroduce the practice didn't come out of the blue. As Green MSP Mark Ruskell explains, the lobbying began with the SNP's victory at Holyrood in 2007. The previous Labour-led "rainbow" parliament, with its seven green MSPs and six socialists, had introduced the Animal Welfare (Scotland) Act, banning the practice of docking as well as fox hunting. 
 
"The gamekeepers were furious," Ruskell said, "And the first thing they did was to lobby the new Scottish government". Ten years later, their wish was granted. "The evidence was rejected by professional bodies, but they still went ahead. It's been spectacularly misjudged," added Ruskell. The power of lobby groups at Holyrood has repeatedly been raised as a concern by campaigners and parliamentarians alike, with last year's Lobbying Act cricitised as being far too weak to ensure real transparency. Pressure from gamekeepers and shooting groups, Ruskell said, influenced the whole way the evidence was put together. One report was simply a survey of self-selecting shooting estates, describing the frequency of tail injuries. 
 
For its part the Scottish government defended the move by pointing out that the rules will still be more restrictive than in other parts of the UK. Only a vet can make the decision to shorten tails - "no more than the end third" - and it will apply only to spaniels and hunt point retrievers. "We have seen enough evidence that some working dogs are suffering tail injuries to make the case for the law being changed", said a government spokesperson. "Scotland is a nation of animal lovers and we take the welfare of our pets, animals and livestock very seriously." 
 
Reaction from SNP members online has been fairly damning, with some talking of leaving the party - though others have defended the decision. The next big showdowns in Holyrood on animal welfare are likely to be just as emotive: the use of electric shock collars on dogs, and the prosecution of wildlife crime (or, how to deal with the fact that poisoned, bludgeoned birds of prey keep turning up on grouse shooting estates). The latter in particular will test, once again, the direction of a party split between appeasing a land management lobby, and meeting the high expectations of its newer members. 
 

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