Sam Sawyer, S.J.
On being baptized into a technological religion

I did not expect to convert. I spent my youth as a committed PC user; I understood technology, could build my own computer and was not going to be shackled to Apple’s attitude of “we know what you need even better than you do.” Yet as I emerged from the strict laptop-less poverty of the Jesuit novitiate and needed to buy a computer, I drank the Kool-Aid: I bought a MacBook.

I told myself at the time that I had not completely betrayed my allegiance to real, geek-quality technology. The new MacBooks ran standard Intel processors, so I still had the option of installing Windows. I never did. Two months later I stood up from my desk, shut the laptop, saw the soothing slow pulse of the sleep indicator and realized I was not going back. I had not worried about my computer for weeks. I knew that when I came back and opened my laptop it would wake up with everything exactly as I had left it, all of it working perfectly. I have not recommended a PC purchase to anyone since that day, and the initial conversion has been repaid with more road-to-Damascus (or Cupertino) moments. My laptop broke in the middle of writing a thesis, and the Apple Store fixed it within an hour. After I showed a friend the four-finger swipe to switch between apps on the iPad, he texted the next day (well, actually, he iMessaged) to say that it had “changed his life.”

Product Devotion

Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Under the leadership of Steve Jobs, dedicated to making “insanely great” computers, Apple proved something subtly but importantly different: any sufficiently well-designed technology is indistinguishable from reality—it “just works.” We might call it magical when we stop to think about it, but we do not often have to stop to think about it. They got it right. Or, as Jobs himself put it: Design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” And it does work, over and over again, exactly the way we want it to.

For those who have seen the light (gently glowing within the Apple logo on the back of every MacBook at the local Starbucks), the experience of using Apple products has conditioned us to expect elegance, reliability and even serendipity in the use of our technological devices. If they are going to surprise us, it will not be with crashes and cryptic error messages, but because they work even better than we thought they would. In other words, we have faith in Apple. Yes, “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). The next time I buy a new phone it will be an iPhone 5S or 6, not because I will have read the reviews or tested it in the stores, but simply because I trust Apple to get it right.

Comparisons of Apple allegiance (or pejoratively, “fanboyism”) to religious devotion are easy enough to find. One of the many, many Apple fan-blogs is called “Cult of Mac.” Apple invented and continues to employ people in the role of “technology evangelist.” In 2012 an anthropologist watching the iPad Mini unveiling commented, “A stranger observing one of the launches could probably be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a religious revival meeting.” It has even been proven scientifically: a BBC documentary in 2011 confirmed with magnetic resonance imaging tests that Apple products stimulate in fans the same brain centers associated with religious belief. James Martin, S.J., has compared the response to Steve Jobs’s death to the cult of the saints (“Steve Jobs and the Saints,” In All Things blog, americamagazine.org, 10/7/2011).

Extending the Apple-as-religion allegory works disturbingly well. The cathedrals (Apple stores) have a distinctive sacred architecture, and their clergy (Apple geniuses) wear color-coded vestments (though I still have not figured out which T-shirt color means “I can help check you out now”). The liturgical calendar culminates in the annual celebration of the Worldwide Developers Conference, usually held in early June. There are lower liturgies as well: product launches, days-long vigils in line awaiting new phones or iPads, and “unboxing videos” when they finally arrive. The high priesthood (Apple executives) have hidden and esoteric knowledge (about Apple’s future plans), but they cannot completely defuse crises of faith like concerns over working conditions at Foxconn factories in China or Congressional questions about complicated tax-avoidance schemes. Apple even has a messiah figure in Jobs and his triumphant return to the helm in the 90s, and a passion narrative: Jobs’s battle with cancer was watched by the whole country, if not the world.

Apple and its products inspire devotion, and that devotion shapes our lives at basic and often unconscious levels. I admit with some chagrin that my own hands are better practiced at the swipe that unlocks my iPhone than they are at the beads of my rosary. When I make a retreat and set the phone aside, its absence from my pocket is discomfiting; and when I suggest to students on a retreat that they might do the same, I am confronted with incomprehension: “You’re asking me to do what?”

Dogma Worth Embracing?

In his (justly) celebrated commencement address in 2005 at Stanford University, Jobs told the graduates that in order to pursue their dreams, they would “have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” He spoke about what he learned from getting fired from his first stint at Apple, but even more eloquently about what he had learned by facing the reality of his own impending death from cancer. Calling on the graduates to have courage to live their own lives, he said, “Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”

As earnest as Jobs’s advice was, his own contributions through Apple reveal a very different possibility for understanding what dogma really is—a possibility with which religious believers are already familiar. Dogma, as Flannery O’Connor said concerning its effect on writers, does not shackle the mind but frees us to observe; it makes it possible to see further, to grasp what we could not have invented on our own. All of us, Apple fans or not, are now “trapped” by Jobs’s dogma and live with the results of his thinking and his passion for technology that “just works.” And we are better off for it: freer to innovate, to communicate and to imagine how we might use the tools we have been given to change the world.

The dogmatic thinking that convinced us that a phone could (should!) be a sheer piece of glass, that a swipe of a finger on a screen should feel like moving a real object, and that the Internet should be in our pockets has opened up tremendous possibilities. While the App Store may be the most obvious evidence of it, the more profound change is the space that is opened up within consumer culture for products that are more than the sum of their specifications—that are, dare we say it, beautiful, in form and function both.

Believers know—even if they do not stop to think about it very often—that theological dogma works in much the same way. Take, for example, the definitions about the Incarnation: Jesus is fully human and fully divine, and any attempts to focus on one nature at the expense of the other fall into heresy. Far from being a trap, that “constraint” has fired imaginations for millennia. Making sense of it in practice has led not only to theological innovation, but also to the commitment and desire to see God at work in every human life—a beauty that, absent the dogma, would not have been grasped.

St. Augustine described prayer as the “school of desire.” To the degree that devotion to Apple has schooled even our consumer desires toward greater beauty, we may have reason to be grateful. The taste for such beauty in created things can be, of itself, education. It can awaken us to dissatisfaction and restlessness where it is lacking, and help to sharpen and deepen the desire—as it has for me—for that singular Beauty, “ever ancient, ever new.” Perhaps.

Or perhaps Apple’s kind of beauty is a trap, offering satisfaction at the cheap price of $200 and a two-year service contract and anesthetizing our restlessness by distracting us from looking within ourselves or out at the real world. It schools desire only by fulfillment, and not by discipline; it neither strengthens us for justice nor deepens our hunger for love. Perhaps.

Steve Jobs ended his commencement address at Stanford by advising the graduates: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” In other words: desire powerfully. Good advice, as Jobs’s life attests. His desire and vision changed the world—or at least the part of it we can see through a touchscreen. Greater changes will require broader vision and bigger hopes to tell us what is worth being hungry for or foolish about, and a better school of desire than anything Apple has on offer.

Sam Sawyer, S.J., talks about Apple from his Apple. View his conversation with Kerry Weber.

Sam Sawyer, S.J., is an associate editor of The Jesuit Post and a student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry in Brighton, Mass.

Comments

Joseph Curtin | 8/24/2013 - 6:44am

There are no Starbucks in Italy.
Ordering a "latte" in a coffee shop has become part of American culture, thanks to the faux Italian gimmickry of Starbucks. Order a "latte" in Italy, and you get a simple glass of warm milk.
In Italian bars, which are mostly stand-up and quick-serve, there are three basic coffee staples - "caffé", (which we call "espresso"), drunk all day and night, "caffé latte" (a shot of espresso mixed with steamed milk) drunk mainly in the morning, and "cappuccino", a shot of espresso mixed with steamed milk and topped with whipped cream, and in many places dusted with a topping of cocoa, also drunk mainly in the morning. In Milan they say "cappuccio" in lieu of "cappuccino".
I much prefer watching the Italian-language streaming news broadcast "Rainews 24" on my laptop while sipping a "regular coffee" in the local Dunkin Donuts to watching that same program while paying triple the price for a less satisfying brew in the sham ambience of a Starbucks.
In the early days of the PC, when I was running a 286 with Windows 3.1, I often made my way to the big Computer Show (the digital equivalent of the Gun Show) in Westboro, MA, two or three times a year. There I could buy upgrades, discounted software, cables, and anything else related to the PC. At the entrance to the show there was always a large sign located in a prominent place where anyone entering could see. The sign said, in large capital letters, "NO MAC", advising those who would enter there that there were no Macintosh or Apple hardware or software vendors at the show. Apple was never a factor in the do-it-yourself movement of the computer revolution. Thanks to these shows, I worked my way up from the 286 and Windows 3.1 to the 386 and Windows for Workgroups, and eventually to the Pentiums and Windows 95, 98, XP and Windows 7. Working in the electronics industry, I only once worked with Apple products, and that job involved mainly converting a Mac environment to a much more economical "no-name" PC environment. Even Apple has had to transition from its reliance on its old unique processors to the more "PC friendly" Intel-family processors. And one of the selling points of Macs is that they can now run Windows.
Even in the broadcast news business there are cults. I recall when the film "Atlas Shrugged-Part I" was released that there was a non-stop barrage of publicity for the movie from almost the entire staff of one particular network, calling it one of the must-see films of the year. And even Paul Ryan spoke often on that network of Ayn Rand's influence on the very foundation of his philosophy, emphasizing the importance of "Atlas Shrugged" on his development. But then a year later, as "Atlas Shrugged-Part II" was about to be released, Paul Ryan did an about-face, and called Ayn Rand anathema to his Catholic faith. But that network continued on in the footsteps of Ayn Rand, and several of those faux news personnel even had bit parts in the film.
All three of these businesses are cults, but that doesn't mean there won't be millions of people who buy what they represent, hook, line and sinker.
Anything to avoid being mainstream and ordinary.

J Cosgrove | 8/25/2013 - 10:48am

"Anything to avoid being mainstream and ordinary."

Thank God for the ordinary. It allows those who want to go further to accomplish more because most will be bogged down with the ordinary. We owe our business success to to the Macintosh. We would make presentations with the graphically oriented computer and go into Fortune 500 companies with graphics none of them had ever seen because they were wed to the PC.

We would use these graphics to make sales presentations that the company's sales forces would use in their sales calls. A typical comment when presenting to some top managers was ""How did you do those nice charts?

Of course the PC caught up. Microsoft's original business was Excel, Word and Powerpoint and their biggest customer was Apple and it was only on the Mac could the graphs sizzle. In Isaacson's bio of Steve Jobs, he would tell of the times when Bill Gates would call on Jobs in Cupertino.

One of Jobs' favorite expressions was, "That is crap." He said about cell phones and guess what happened. Yes, thank God for the mainstream and ordinary.

Robert Klahn | 8/21/2013 - 12:31am

Within the last year or so Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote an article showing the advantage of Chinese manufacturing or American. He cited Apple's factory, where they had run out of the glass screens for IPhones. A shipment arrived at midnight, and Friedman wrote that the managers went to the dormitory, woke 15,000 workers, gave them a biscuit and a cup of tea, and led them to their work stations for a 12 hour day.

When I read that I said, "There is a special place in hell for Steve Jobs."

The reason you don't see that in America is, the workers live in homes, not dormitories, they work according to a schedule not the convenience of deliveries, and they feed themselves, not get by on a biscuit and cup of tea. What convinced me Friedman knows nothing about the working world was where he said the workers were led to their work stations. If he had ever worked in a factory he would know, they lead you to your work station on your first day. After that you are expected to find your own way back.

Ok, you do see that in America, but in prisons, not actual factories. So Chinese workers building Apple products live like prisoners in the US. Or so it seems.

Apple contributes to that, so yes, there is a special place in hell for Steve Jobs.

J Cosgrove | 8/21/2013 - 9:32am

We have a tendency to look out the window and assume the rest of the world is just like here. It is not. A lot of the world lives on 1-2 dollars a day. That was and is still the fate of a lot of Chinese in the country sides who perform the same monotonous back breaking work each day that has been their lot for centuries (if they can get the work) to just stay alive.

The new workers in the coastal cities of China nearly all come from the rural interior (considered one of biggest migrations in the history of mankind.) While the work is far from desirable from our view point, it is a long way from the poverty and drudgery of the country side. Someone recently said that about 400 million Chinese now live near the coast while 900 million still toil away in the country side. My guess is that few of the 400 million would want to trade places.

Undesirable from our perspective, definitely yes, but very desirable compared to the alternative. The world has been slowly moving upward in the last 200 years and my guess is that the Chinese will do likewise. One problem is that the Chinese economy is now sputtering and there may be tremendous unrest if there isn't continued opportunity for that 900 million in the interior. Move those jobs now done in Chinese factories which are described as hell to the pleasant surroundings of the United States and there will be true hell in China.

Robert Klahn | 8/21/2013 - 8:07pm

We also have a tendency to look out the window and assume anything we do that seems to be good is good. A lot of the world still lives on 1-2 dollars a day, regardless of what Apple does. Henry Ford's major contribution to modern society was not the automobile, he was not the inventor, nor was it the assembly line, that preceded him by a long way. His contribution was paying his workers $5/day. That was so much money other industrialists protested it would disrupt their world. Ford's theory was to pay his workers enough that they could become his customers also. That was the secret of his success.

Oh, and you may not know this, but that same theory was behind the "excessive" wage agreements of the auto industry in the 50s, the ones that give the right an excuse to blame union wages for company failures. In the real world those wage increases made the auto companies more successful, not less.

The fate of a lot of Chinese in the country sides is life in poverty, but Apples' factory doesn't change that. Remember the dormitories? You don't raise a family in a dormitory. From what I read many of the workers only stay long enough to save enough money to get married. Then they go back to the home village to marry. The net long term gain from that to the people of China is zero. Apparently the Apple Dormitories are not sufficiently better to keep the workers from returning home.

The new workers at the coastal cities may come from the interior, but how many return to the interior. If Apple workers do, what does that say about the Apple Factories? Yes, the new level of poverty and drudgery may be better than the poverty and drudgery of the interior, but it is not near enough to justify sainthood.

If Apple had paid $5 a day, as Henry Ford almost a century ago, he could claim status as a benefactor. Like all the others he paid as little as he could get away with. Before you try to say the government would not allow pay that high, as disruptive, that alone would be a good reason not to put his factory there. There are many places in the world where he could have put it, and some would let him pay more. The only standard he knew was the lowest cost.

Yes, a lot of Chinese in the country side do back breaking work, if they can get it, just to stay alive. That is not because there is something inherent in being Chinese that causes them to be poor and oppressed. It is the oppressive rulers who cause people to be oppressed, not the nature of the people. If Jobs went along with that then Jobs shares the guilt. Paying two or three times the wage would have made a big difference in the living standard of his workers, and a trivial increase in the price of the IPhone. Yet it didn't matter to Jobs.

I stand behind my statement, there is a special place in hell for Jobs.

Sean McCarthy | 8/18/2013 - 4:37pm

Like Beauty explicitly, and consciously perceived as, aligned with Truth, this article leads us towards greater insight into the nature of reality, improving and enlightening us, in contrast to the mere beauty that satisfies ceaselessly on a superficial level, leaving us disintegrated and oblivious. Of course, at its best, Apple technology can facilitate our movement towards greater beauty, but there remains(as with nearly everything) an immense danger that it can distract us from and obstruct our cooperation in the evolution of our spiritual life towards that ultimate Beauty in whom we find ourselves and lose ourselves.

Beth Cioffoletti | 8/17/2013 - 8:24pm

Being a geek with a hyper-active left brain, I used PCs for a long time. But I also worked with many artistic people and could see how frustrated they were with the step-by-step logic that was needed for navigating the PC computer world. What made sense to me, was maddening for them to follow. I began to feel very bogged down with my PC and its myriad glitches. And then I got a MAC and realized that what I wanted to do with a computer was more important than how I did it. I could forget the underlying steps and turn my attention to reaching for something entirely new, beyond the realm of logic. Using a computer could be like having an extra arm, or eye, enhancing what I was capable of.

I think that Steve Jobs was straddling those worlds and knew how to pull himself out of the nuts and bolts into right brain artistry. His computer was able to integrate beauty and design into function, and that made all the difference for both the geeks and the artists. Geeks could now become artists and artists could become geeks.

Mary Ann BURKE | 8/18/2013 - 4:00pm

You summed him up well.....he is surely missed.

KEE KIM DR | 8/17/2013 - 8:15pm

Jobs advised that "...have to trust in something..." I wonder what he trusted in in his final days.

Beth Cioffoletti | 8/17/2013 - 8:25pm

According to those who were there, his final words as he was dying were: "Oh, wow ..."

David Haschka | 8/16/2013 - 3:33pm

Sounds like Stockholm Syndrome to me. I hope the lad doesn't start attending NFL football games. Now there's a substitute religion for you.

Maria Kulp | 8/16/2013 - 10:57am

Fabulous, Sam! Thank you!