Ashton Kutcher’s two-dimensional portrayal of the Steve Jobs may not have spawned a box office hit, but masses of Americans continue to be fascinated with the late Apple executive. While many aspects of Jobs’ life have been probed in books and films, few portrayals have centered on Jobs’ faith.
Brett T. Robinson, visiting professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame, has just published a new book that details how Jobs intermingled the technological and the transcendent. In Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs, Robinson argues that religion–from Zen Buddhism to Catholicism to mystical futurism–defined Jobs’ design methodology and approach to business. I first encountered Robinson’s work in his article for WIRED entitled, “How Steve Jobs Turned Technology – And Apple – Into Religion” and shortly after was sucked into his book. Here we talk about Jobs’ Buddhist beliefs, how religion influenced his approach to business, and why Jobs thought computers were “spiritual liberators.”
JM: Steve Jobs saw the personal computer as a “spiritual liberator” rather than a dehumanizing machine. Can you say some more about that?
BR: Steve Jobs liked to say that Apple stood at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. His own intense interest in poetry, art and music and Eastern spirituality provided the raw material for imagining more human technologies. The traditional understanding of the liberal arts are those disciplines, like art and religion, that are pursued for their own sake because they are central to who we are as human beings.
The servile arts on the other hand, technology being a prime example, are defined by what functional purpose they serve. The inertia of the technological age favors functional output, so those things that are done for their own sake are often seen as wasteful or inefficient. Jobs wanted to resolve that tension. Apple computers became tools for artistic expression, for pursuing the pleasures of the senses and the imagination. Most of the artistic output we consume (music, films, photography, books) are produced, and in many cases consumed, on Apple devices.
By dominating culture creation and consumption, Apple takes on a religious significance. The German philosopher Josef Pieper said that leisure is the basis of culture. The word culture comes from the word cultus, or worship. In other words, if you want to observe what is most important to a culture, watch what they do with their leisure time. To play is to pray. Popular activities like sports, music and technology have become an escape and an obsession, mimicking the cultural role of divine worship.
Like the cathedrals of medieval Europe, computers are the highest artistic and technical achievement of our time. And like the cathedrals, they deliver the things that we deem most important as a culture. Our leisure has become increasingly technological and Apple has led the way.
JM: What do you mean when you write about the “religious imagination” of Steve Jobs?