“The unsuspecting iPhone user who suddenly loses service in a dead zone or loses all of his or her contacts or, worse, loses the phone altogether enters a state of panic. This is a perfectly natural reaction to the new environment in which we are situated.”
—Brett T. Robinson, Appletopia
At 10:00 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning in Seattle, I was seated at my dining room table, working. As is often the case, I had my family of Apple products—my MacBook Pro, iPad 3, and iPhone 4S—within easy reach. My suitcase lay open on my bed in the other room, all packed save the technology I bring with me every time I travel. At 10:30, I unplugged my MacBook Pro and iPad from their respective chargers, placing both devices and cords into my suitcase, which I then set by the front door. My driver, Paul, had arrived fifteen minutes early to take me to the airport, so I grabbed my purse and suitcase, walked outside, locked the front door and dropped my keys through the mail slot for my husband. Paul met me on the walkway, loaded my little green suitcase into his trunk, and held the door for me as I slid into the back seat.
As he put the car in gear and the tires began to turn, I reached into my purse for my iPhone. My heart quickly leapt into my throat. “I forgot my phone,” I said aloud. Sensing the urgency in my voice, Paul immediately pulled the car over.
For the next fifteen minutes or so, I was in a calm state of panic. After checking all of the doors and windows and confirming that they were all locked, I asked Paul if I could borrow his phone. I called my husband, who was at that very moment pouring concrete at a new construction site at least forty-five minutes away. He confirmed what I already knew: we do not keep a key hidden anywhere on our property. I tried reaching my arms through the mail slot, hoping that the keys were sitting just under the opening inside the house. (I discovered later that I had shoved my elbows into the opening with such force that I developed goose-eggs and bruises on both forearms.)
I located a screwdriver in my husband’s shop, which was mercifully unlocked, and began dismantling the mail slot. I just knew if I could remove the hardware, the remaining hole would be wide enough for my arm to thread through. Hands trembling, I removed all four screws, but I had not counted on the weatherproofing caulk that cemented the hardware to the house. It would not budge.
I peered through the front window of my house, my dog looking quizzically back at me from where he stood on the sofa. I could see it, just a few feet away: my iPhone, plugged into its charger, sitting on the table.
Time was ticking. I had a flight to catch. I thought about breaking a window, but couldn’t decide which window would be easiest to replace. I told Paul I would just have to deal with it, but just as the words left my lips, I envisioned the trip I was about to take—a trip during which I would need to rely heavily on my ability to navigate a city I don’t know well and connect with two colleagues at an international airport. Beyond the functionality, however, was this simple fact: I had not been without my iPhone for more than a few hours in years. How was I supposed to go five days without it?
In what is possibly one of the most providential instances of irony I have ever experienced, a fresh, new copy of Brett T. Robinson’s Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs was packed in my carry-on. This short book was to be my airplane reading for the very cross-country flight Paul was driving me to, and as I read the text, I processed it through the lens of what had just happened earlier that morning. My own experience confirmed Robinson’s point: we don’t just use Apple products; we’re devoted to them.
My relationship with Apple began in 2008, when my employer at the time bought me my first iPhone. I had resisted the trend to that point, asserting that I was just fine with my Razor phone, thirty-dollar MP3 player, and Lenovo laptop. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about when it came to Apple products. I was perfectly happy with what I had. Then my colleagues and I went to the Apple store in lower Manhattan to purchase our iPhones. I confess that I felt something as I entered the Apple store. As I held the sleek device in my hands, the prophetic words of the first iPhone ad’s tagline, “Touching is believing,” were fulfilled. It was not long before I was a total convert, retiring the Lenovo and purchasing my first MacBook Pro. When it arrived, I spent hours exploring the device, marvelling at its ease of use and pleasing aesthetic. The sleek, streamlined keyboard of the MacBook Pro made my old laptop seem clunky and awkward, and the initial set up was so intuitive, it was as if my MacBook Pro and I had been together for ages. I received an iPad from my husband for our first Christmas together, and the trinity of technology was complete. Like any devoted convert, I soon became an evangelist, joining the ranks of those folks who “simply can’t imagine ever going back to PC.”
According to Robinson, the religious devotion Apple users feel about their devices is by design. Apple founder Steve Jobs’s adherence to Zen Buddhism is by now well documented, and that philosophy influenced everything about how he approached his craft. “Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic terms. . . . [He] envisioned technology and spiritual practice as complementary, both contributing to human flourishing.” Indeed, for Jobs, starting the Apple computer company was inspired, in part at least, “by a sense of spiritual purpose.” Facing the leading producer of personal computers at the time, Jobs believed that “an unchallenged IBM would usher in a dark age in which bleak boxes of microchips would turn workers into mindless drones.” Far more than being a tool for computing, Jobs envisioned his computers as “mystical tools for unleashing human creative potential.”
This mystical perspective on what a computer should be infuses the whole Apple experience, from their products’ design and functionality to the way they are advertised and sold. From their famous “1984” ad, which depicts IBM as “George Orwell’s Big Brother and Apple as the rebellious hero smashing the shibboleths of the IBM computer culture,” to their “Think Different” campaign, the message is clear: your computer is not only a reflection of what you do, but also of who you are. You are creative. You are transgressive. You are countercultural. And, perhaps most importantly, the power to be anything you want to be lies within you—and your Apple computer is going to help draw it out.
Nowhere is the religious devotion of Apple enthusiasts more striking, however, than in the shopping experience. Robinson begins his book with this startling piece of trivia: by one estimate, “the most photographed landmark in New York City [in 2011] was not Rockefeller Center or Times Square; it was the Apple Store on Fifth avenue.” That particular location, a $7 million “shimmering glass cube,” is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. On product launch days, pilgrims camp out for hours to be among the first to hold the latest iteration of the iPhone or iPad. At the September 20, 2013, launch of the iPhone 5S and 5C, the line of people waiting outside of the Fifth Avenue store numbered 1,417. Consider, too, the “transcendent design” of Apple stores. From Fifth Avenue to Covent Garden, “faithful consumers wander the cavernous interior admiring Apple devices in a virtual ‘cathedral of consumption.’” Simply browsing the latest products is meant to be a religious experience, tapping in to “our manic desire for transcendence.” For many, it also taps the human desire to be part of something exclusive. While PCs may be purchased at any big box store, the Mac computer may only be purchased in an Apple “cathedral” or directly from the company online.
After exploring the “cult of Apple,” Robinson concludes that technology in general and the Apple brand specifically is, in the end, a false god, an echo of previous attempts by human beings to achieve godlike status (see: the Tower of Babel, the atomic bomb). “The most pervasive tension, the one Jobs spent his life trying to resolve, is that the more we use media technology the more our interior lives shrivel under the artificial glow of the screen.” That people are religious by nature seems to be a given, according to Robinson. The vital question one is left with at the end of this book is not whether people are religious, but rather who (or what) is the object of our religious devotion? The more enthralled we find ourselves by our sleek, sexy and sophisticated Apple devices, the more important it is for us to address this question for ourselves.