As news of Steve Jobs’s death pinged around the world this past week on the shiny devices he helped invent, fans of Apple products made pilgrimages to the company’s stores. They brought apples. They lit digital candles on their iPad screens. Some left condolence cards. Outside Apple’s store in Tysons Corner Center, a card had this message scribbled inside: “You changed my life. I love you.”
The response to Jobs’s untimely passing at age 56 was so unusual — particularly for a former chief executive of a major corporation — that even some fans were taken aback at such a torrent of sorrow. “I feel bad for the guy and his family,” a friend wrote to me in an e-mail, during a friendly debate over whether it was all overblown, but “if anything, the outpouring of grief shows just how obsessed we’ve become with our electronic toys.”
I do think, as a gadget nut, that there is some truth there: We are obsessed with our gadgets, Jobs was the gadget king, and people want to thank him for the sleek, addictive objects he left behind. But I also think there’s a greater, higher power at work here, a mystical truth that has emerged among more enlightened Apple fans and on the fringes of academic research.
In a secular age, Apple has become a religion, and Steve Jobs was its high priest.
Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, and that same year, an Eastern Washington University sociologist, Pui-Yan Lam, published a paper titled “May the Force of the Operating System Be With You: Macintosh Devotion as Implicit Religion.” Lam’s research struck close to home, quite literally — her husband has a mini-museum of Apple products in the basement.
“He has most of the models that were released, even the really obscure ones,” Lam told me the other day. “What Apple stands for is very important to him and people like him.”
And what it stands for, apparently, is more than just gleaming products and easy-to-use operating systems. Lam interviewed Mac fans, studied letters they wrote to trade magazines and scrutinized Mac-related Web sites. She concluded that Mac enthusiasts “adopted from both Eastern and Western religions a social form that emphasized personal spirituality as well as communal experience. The faith of Mac devotees is reflected and strengthened by their efforts in promoting their computer of choice.”
Lam connected Mac users to research about aficionados of Austin’s Barton Springs, a place that “has spiritual significance to the local environmentalist as a passage that links the mundane, everyday world of existence to a transcendent reality.” Mac fanatics, she wrote, think Apple’s technology can improve humanity. “Thus, while Barton Springs, as a transcendent space, brings people from the Austin community together, the Macintosh computer, which symbolizes a spiritual passage to a utopian future, also ties its followers together,” Lam wrote.
If that sounds like academic gobbledygook, consider how Apple devotees see the world. Back when Lam’s paper was published, there was a palpable sense of a battle between good and evil. Apple: good. Bill Gates: evil. Apple followers, Lam wrote, pined for a world where “people are judged purely on the basis of their intelligence and their contribution to humanity.” They saw Gates representing a more “profane” world where financial gain was priorities one, two and three.
But Apple and Jobs were perceived differently.
Steve Jobs was not religious. Although he dabbled in Buddhism (and acid), he never embraced the idea of organized religion, a fact that makes the Apple religion all the more ironic — particularly his place in its belief system.
His product introductions were not unlike the pope appearing at his Vatican window to bless his followers on Christmas. People would line up for hours to snag a seat for a Jobs keynote address. He would stroll onstage like a biblical prophet, dressed down to a modern version of the basics — black turtleneck, Levi’s jeans, New Balance sneakers. For many Apple followers, this was the nearest they would ever come to seeing God. In her study, Lam quoted one fan saying, “For me, the Mac was the closest thing to religion I could deal with.”
And so there, onstage, was Jobs, this quasi-religious figure, holding these devices that many in the audience believed could take them to a utopian place of computing — beyond the bright white light of Apple’s commercials and into a magical space where everything works, where everyone connects, where everyone trades on the same digital spirit. At home or at their office desks, so many people followed Jobs’s introductions online that Web sites would regularly crash under the pressure.
Now he is gone. Apple’s fans, who today find themselves in the mainstream, are already flopping around looking for a new spiritual guide to technological utopia. Jobs’s successor, Tim Cook, introduced Apple’s newest iPhone this past week on a much smaller stage — physically and spiritually — than Jobs commanded. He is genteel and Southern, but not Jobsian. I was struck that the Wall Street Journal on Friday offered up a profile of Apple industrial design master Jonathan Ive, a handsome Brit who, in his limited public appearances, talks about gadgetry with the same reverence as his mentor.
The good vs. evil battle will continue, even without Jobs. It is now iPhone vs. Android. Apple users see Google’s operating system as a Trojan horse for the search giant to simply sell more ads, not make people’s lives easier or more rewarding. Apple pushes — and will continue to push — the utopian, humanistic qualities of its platform quietly but relentlessly in almost everything it does.
In a television ad for the iPhone 4, Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling” plays softly while Apple’s video-connection app FaceTime lets grandparents watch their grandchildren, iPhone to iPhone. The ad ends with a deaf man signing to his wife while on a business trip. “The whole world smiles with you,” Armstrong croons; the Apple logo, over a stark white background, appears on the screen, then slowly fades away. The white stays.
It almost seems like a flash to heaven.
Michael S. Rosenwald is a reporter on the local staff of The Washington Post.