Several of you have sent me this great Wired essay by Brett T. Robinson, exploring how Steve Jobs blurred the line between technology and spirituality. Here’s how it starts:
Much ink has been spilled drafting the Steve Jobs encomium. But Jobs and Apple are interesting for far more than technological prowess — they provide an allegory for reading religion in the information age. They are further evidence that shifts in popular religion throughout history are accompanied by changes in the media environment: when the dominant modes of communication change, so do the frameworks for religious belief. Still, this shift would require a fitting mythology …
Robinson, waxing McLuhanish, expands on the idea of a relationship between modes of communication and metaphysical belief systems. He says that the “ritual use of technology” ultimately fosters a worship of the Self. More:
In the Greek Narcissus myth, the young man is captivated by his reflection in a pool of water. Marshall McLuhan reminds us that Narcissus was not admiring himself but mistook the reflection in the water for another person. The point of the myth for McLuhan is the fact that “men at once become fascinated by an extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.”
Eastern wisdom traditions seem fitting antidotes for correcting the addiction and narcissism fostered by media technologies. The Wisdom 2.0 conference, for example, held annually in California invites participants to learn techniques for living with “greater presence, meaning, and mindfulness in the technology age.” But the wisdom traditions themselves have been subsumed by the logic of popular technology and consumerism. Participants pay upward of $1,500 to learn mindfulness techniques from “the founders of Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Zynga, and PayPal, along with wisdom teachers from various traditions.”
The top billing at the conference naturally belongs to thetechnology gurus rather than the spiritual ones. And this confusion of technological values with religious or spiritual ones is a product of a key rhetorical trait shared by both: the paradox.
To the nonbeliever, the paradoxes of religion are absurd and irrational diversions.
To the true believer, however, they are pathways to enlightenment.
Robinson’s discussion of how Steve Jobs, in developing the advertising iconography of Apple, resolved the paradoxes presented by the new technology, is brilliant. He continues, speaking of our devices and how we use them as the relics and liturgy of a new religion, in which the Internet is the ground of our Being:
Technology has become the new taken-for-granted order that requires our fidelity. Obedience to the new order is expressed in the communication rituals that take place every day in the use of computers, music players, and smartphones — devices that bind individuals together. From the farthest satellite to the nearest cellphone, the mystical body of electricity connects us all. Personal technology has become “the very atmosphere and medium” through which we mediate our daily lives.
But the paradox this media technology presents is the absence of presence. The age of electric media is the age of discarnate man — persons communicating without bodies. From the disembodied voice on the telephone to the faceless email message, electronic communication trades human presence for efficiency.
In order for such a form to become popular, it would take a visionary like Jobs with both technical and humanistic sensibilities; someone to assure the technological faithful that this dramatic change in human relations was a good thing.
Thought experiment: Is the Religion of Apple Catholic, Protestant, or something else? I ask in the spirit of Umberto Eco’s famous 1994 remarks saying that Apples were Catholic, PCs were Protestant, and PCs with Windows were Anglican. Here it is:
The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It 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.
DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.
You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It’s true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.
Naturally, the Catholicism and Protestantism of the two systems have nothing to do with the cultural and religious positions of their users. One may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another leads to profound inner changes.
The last sentence anticipates the gist of Brett Robinson’s essay, doesn’t it? It makes me think about how I have for 20 years been closer in my religious communication (e.g., talking about the faith and how to live it) to Christian friends with whom I almost only ever interact on the Internet than I have been to anybody in any religious community to which I’ve belonged, and — this is the key thing — that has seemed perfectly normal to me. According to Robinson, Jobs’s genius lay in helping us to accept that a technology that makes us far more disconnected from the people around us in the flesh actually makes us more connected in a spiritual and intellectual sense to people far away. Funny to think about how I spend more time talking to you readers of this blog than I do with most of the people in my own actual community, even though in most cases I don’t know your real names. Or maybe it’s not so funny, I dunno. But this is how we live today, innit?