The Cult of Apple: From Store Design to Spiritual Transcendence

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"Appletopia" by Brett T. Robinson analyzes the Apple brand, which is the latest in a long line of American symbols that have captured the national imagination and spawned a “cult” of loyalists.
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Well before Apple, the most photographed sites in the early twentieth century were places like the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge, where tourists united in a collective sense of wonder and nationalism.
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The baroque design of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the vaulted ceiling of the Long Room in Trinity College Library in Dublin are testaments to the sacred status granted to books as precious vessels of knowledge and cultural patrimony.

Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Baylor University Press, 2013) analyzes Steve Jobs’ uncanny ability to integrate philosophical and religious thought with technological genius, laying the groundwork for Apple’s ubiquity today. As it turns out, culture was eager to find meaning in the burgeoning technological revolution, naming Jobs as its prophet and Apple’s advertising as its gospel. Read as Robinson discusses the cult of Apple in its founder, Steve Job’s, ability to combine art with technology as it analyzes the Apple store design and the modernity’s effect on religion and social relationships. This excerpt is taken from the Introduction: Media Technology and Cultural Change.

In 2011 by one estimate the most photographed landmark in New York City was not Rockefeller Center or Times Square; it was the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue. The shimmering glass cube is otherworldly. The $7 million structure stands thirty-two feet high and features a glass spiral staircase wrapped around a glass elevator. A glowing Apple logo floats in the center of the cube. Inside the store, there are no shelves or boxes, just wooden tables with Apple’s glowing products on display. Faithful consumers wander the cavernous interior admiring Apple devices in a virtual “cathedral of consumption.”

In his novel Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo’s archdeacon looks up at the Notre-Dame Cathedral with a book in his hand and says, “This will kill that. The book will kill the edifice.” Hugo explains the archdeacon’s comment this way:

It was a presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable.

The cultural authority of the cathedral was giving way to the revolution of ideas unleashed by the printing press and books. Hugo’s parable is instructive for the modern age as well. The authority of the printed page is now giving way to the universality of glass screens.

The transcendent Apple store design fits a historical pattern wherein the dominant media technology of an age acquires a sacred status. The baroque design of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the vaulted ceiling of the Long Room in Trinity College Library in Dublin are testaments to the sacred status granted to books as precious vessels of knowledge and cultural patrimony. When books were king, their homes were built in the highest architectural style of the day. Libraries were imagined as sacred spaces because they were instruments for transmitting culture to future generations, promoting community, and organizing chaos.

The Apple Store is a shrine to the modern media technologies that now perform these tasks. Computers and smartphones have become tools for living as they have been integrated into nearly every facet of social and cultural life in the technological society. The durability of stone and paper is giving way to the ephemerality of bits and screens. Book and screen will continue to coexist, but our modes of expression are progressively beginning to favor the screen over the page. Patterns of thinking once routinized by the linear and logical flow of print are becoming more nonlinear and impressionistic by virtue of our heavy interaction with screen media and interactive technology. We are beginning to think differently as a result of the new dominant media technologies.

The Apple Store design also resembles La Grande Arche in Paris, a massive cube built to honor the secular humanitarian ideals of postwar France. La Grande Arche is large enough to fit the Notre-Dame Cathedral inside its 348-foot-wide hollow center. La Grande Arche stands in stark contrast to the curvaceous Notre-Dame Cathedral, a baroque building representing old world tradition and fading cultural authority. The modernist cube buttresses the sky, not with spires and gargoyles, but with precise lines and angles, a symbol of rational and disenchanted cultural aspirations. Despite their aesthetic contrast with the cathedrals of old, La Grande Arche and the Apple Store both represent a social order that is deemed inviolable, clothed with an aura of factuality, and vigorously maintained by its adherents. Both monuments to modernism glorify technology and the secular ideals of the age.

Reading the Rhetoric of Technology

The beliefs and values of the technological age are embedded in a web of cultural relationships. The representation and practice of technology are composed of a diffuse set of rituals and rhetoric that resist tidy categorization. Architecture provides a few clues about the beliefs and values of a particular age, but it is in the popular texts of the mass media that a more detailed picture emerges. The images and slogans of technology advertising provide a computer catechism of sorts, teaching the consumer the goods (and evils) of different products and services. Just as the stained glass and statuary of medieval cathedrals educated converts and the illiterate, the iconic images and parables of advertising reveal the virtues of new technology to the buying public.

The iconography of the Apple computer company provides a fitting case study for looking at the ways in which technology and the sacred have been conflated in the modern age. The Apple brand is the latest in a long line of American symbols that have captured the national imagination and spawned a “cult” of loyalists. Well before Apple, the most photographed sites in the early twentieth century were places like the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge, where tourists united in a collective sense of wonder and nationalism. Standing at the gaping mouth of the Grand Canyon evoked dread and awe, a mix of emotions that made for a sublime encounter.

The sense that the world is charged with grandeur and mystery has largely faded in the wake of a dogmatic deference to rationalism in the modern world. As a result, the world has lost some of its primordial magic. Thus, an electrifying encounter with a technological wonder reinvests the world with a transcendent significance. In a country with divergent religious views, these collective moments of wonder provide an important social bond.

One of America’s great industrial feats, the Golden Gate Bridge, was an answer to the problem of isolation and disconnect. Suspended in the air, the bridge spans an immense physical divide, connecting two cities and millions of people. The bridge is a tremendous feat of art and engineering that fuels a collective faith in our ability to harness technology to overcome the chasms that separate humanity. Communication technologies work in much the same way. The metaphysical space that separates individuals is viewed as an obstacle to more empathic relationships and social cohesion. The imaginary bridges we build with media technologies seem to move us toward a more perfect communion. A noble aspiration to be sure, but it may not be true.

The orientation of personal technology is like its name, highly personal—directed toward the individual rather than the collective. It has led to what the famed sociologist of religion Emile Durkheim called the “cult of the individual.” Durkheim saw the cult of the individual on the horizon as a strong theoretical possibility given the speed with which rationalization was draining religion of its power to provide a meaningful social bond. Transcendence was no longer something to be sought “out there.” The sacred relocated to the subjective experience of the individual. With the advent of personal technologies—symbols of radical individualism realized—the theory appears to have some value.

The cult of Apple is shorthand for the devotion of Apple technology enthusiasts, but their fidelity and fervor point to a more fundamental link between the cult of technology and the cult of the individual. Apple founder Steve Jobs is an allegorical figure for reading the ways in which technology and individual value systems intersect to produce an implicit religion. Technology, like religion, becomes a site where the physical and the metaphysical meet. The promotion of modern technology revives dreams of communion brought on by networked information. The objects that transmit ephemeral bits of culture, promote virtual community, and organize the digital chaos have become sacred objects. Jesus Martín-Barbero puts it this way:

Despite all the promise of modernity to make religion disappear, what has really happened is that religion has modernized itself. . . . What we are witnessing is not the conflict of religion and modernity, but the transformation of modernity into enchantment by linking new communication technologies to the logic of popular religiosity.

The roots of technological faith can be found, ironically enough, in the romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century, a contemplative response to the technological and spiritual changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Nineteenth-century American art and poetry echoed a romantic spirit of perfectibility and spiritual encounter between the virgin wilderness and the individual soul. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau believed that religious institutions corrupted individual purity, and so they sought a self-reliant spirituality divorced of creeds and dogmas. Modern ideas about monism have their roots in this American romanticism, a spiritual reflection of democratic ideals and the sacred status of the individual in early American political thought. As railroads and telegraph lines transformed the natural landscape, the language of transcendence began to adopt technological metaphors. Emerson saw the new technologies as expressions of a new metaphysical view: “Our civilization and these ideas are reducing the earth to a brain. See how by telegraph and steam the Earth is anthropologized.”

A century later, technology theorists like Teilhard de Chardin would revive Emerson’s vision in the form of the noosphere, an idea that Earth was evolving toward a superconsciousness by virtue of electronic communication. The rhetoric of technology that emerged from the foment of the 1960s counterculture described a new nature that married the metaphysical and the technological. The 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan combined computers with utopian aspirations: “I like to think / (it has to be!) / of a cybernetic ecology / where we are free of our labors / and joined back to nature, / returned to our mammal brothers and sisters, / and all watched over / by machines of loving grace.” At the heart of the countercultural movement was something vaguely spiritual—a desire for more perfect communion with nature and with one another, a new consciousness.

The coupling of technology and romanticism, science and spirituality, has fostered what American sociologist Philip Rieff has called “the triumph of the therapeutic.” Under these conditions, the moral ideal is a person of leisure, “released by technology from the regimental discipline of work so as to secure his sense of well-being in highly refined alloplastic ways.” The high priests of such an age appear in the form of media icons like Oprah Winfrey, doctors turned mystics like Deepak Chopra, and technology gurus like Steve Jobs. Each of these celebrities supports the cult of the individual by offering psychological and technological salvation to a disenchanted world.

Technology has not always inspired loving grace and flights of spiritual fancy, however. The Luddite movement of the early nineteenth century in England saw textile workers engage in the destruction of mechanized looms in protest of the encroaching automation of labor. The Luddites feared for their livelihood as the Industrial Revolution introduced labor-saving machines that made many workers expendable. Such a dramatic change to a centuries-old way of life was a shock to the economic and cultural system and sowed the seeds for the romantic movement. It was art and poetry that rescued humans from their conflict with machines by invoking an escape into nature. Apple’s Steve Jobs believed that combining art and technology would release people from the old antagonisms. The Apple narrative inspired by Jobs is mythic in its ability to reimagine technology, not as a dehumanizing force, but as something liberating and natural.

This excerpt has been reprinted from Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagiantion of Steve Jobs by Brett T. Robinson, published by Baylor University Press, 2013.

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