What I actually said about Apple product launches

October 9th, 2014

In October 2012, a reporter got in touch asking if I would be willing to provide some comments for an article she was writing on Apple product launches to precede the unveiling of the iPad Mini.  I had been recommended to her, she indicated, based on a satiric piece [1] I’d written for the AAA Blog on how to deliver papers at anthropology conferences.  She was looking for an anthropologist willing to provide some “light hearted and fun” comments on the “culture of Apple product launch events”.  

 

Let me make it clear that I know nothing about Apple launches.  I don’t study corporations or computers, or anything that even remotely relates to this topic.  Hell, I don’t even own an iPad.  However, she was clearly struggling to find an anthropologist willing to be interviewed [2] and I quite liked the idea of poking some gentle fun at Apple and its acolytes, who do tend to be rather vocal in their affection [3].

 

I watched a couple of Apple launches on YouTube, read a few articles on the topic and put together some comments for the reporter (reproduced below in blue).  The religious parallels are so obvious it’s impossible not to draw them, so I discussed revivals, sacred symbols, origins myths, and the like.  However, the reporter then asked if we could have a follow up phone conversation so she could ask some “more academic questions”.  Although a little worried that she seemed to be treating my “light hearted” comments with an undue degree of seriousness, I reluctantly agreed.  “What could it hurt?”, I thought.  “It isn’t like anyone will actually read it” [4].

 

My first inkling that the article had: a) been published and b) generated rather more attention than I anticipated, occurred when I got a spate of interview requests from reporters around the world asking me to comment on the religious dimensions of Apple.  Somewhat worryingly, in explaining how they had learned about my ‘research’, several referenced articles by writers whose names bore no resemblance to the journalist I’d actually talked to.  A brief but appalled search of Google followed, along with the dawning realization that the story had been taken up by scores of media outlets and bloggers.  Headlines screamed: “Anthropologist ‘confirms’ Apple is a religion”; “Anthropologists think Apple has become a religion”; “Apple is a modern religion, anthropologist confirms”.

 

It became readily apparent that like the game of Chinese Whispers [5] we used to play at school, the story had become utterly transformed in the retelling.  I was no longer someone who’d done something as mundane as watch a couple of YouTube clips.  In some articles I had attended the iPad Mini launch; other more imaginative souls had me conducting long-term fieldwork at Apple.  In one account, I had drawn my ‘conclusions’ from a survey of Apple fans.

 

In the interests of setting the record straight—and heading off at the pass further interview requests, which I continue to receive two bloody years after the original interview—I do not actually believe that Apple is a ‘cult-like religion’; my comments were never intended as a serious scholarly assessment [6].   Do I think some parallels can be drawn?  Sure.  But the resemblance is superficial—a point I clearly made in my interview with the reporter.  Therefore, if you’d like to interview me about this topic for your newspaper, blog or graduate dissertation, I appreciate your invitation but shall have to politely decline.

 

What follows is what I actually said about Apple product launch events.

 

Computer industry commentators, journalists and academics have long pointed to the religious dimensions of the Apple/Mac phenomenon.  As the business scholars Russell Belk and Gülnur Tumbat wrote in a 2005 article called ‘The Cult of Macintosh’:

 

In the beginning (of the Information Age) was the void. And the void was digital. But lo, there came upon the land, the shadow of Steven Jobs (and Stephen Wozniak). And Steven (Stephen) said, ‘Let there be Apple’. And there was Apple.  And Steven (Stephen) beheld Apple.  And it was good.  And Apple begat Macintosh. And it was good. And soon upon the land there began to appear, The Cult of Macintosh.  For they had tasted of Apple.  And it was good.

 

Although references to the religious qualities of Apple are often tongue-in-cheek (like the title of Alan Deutschman’s book The Second Coming of Steve Jobs), the sociologist Pui-Yan Lam has gone so far as to label Mac devotion an ‘implicit religion’. 

 

There’s no doubt that many of the essential features are there.  Messianic founder?  Check.  Iconic symbol?  Check.  A product that promises to deliver salvation in the form of a better and more self-actualized life?  Check.  A core of evangelical devotees?  Check.   For these reasons, when looking at Apple product launches, the religious comparisons are impossible to avoid.   Certainly, a stranger observing one of the launches could probably be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a religious revival meeting. 

 

The launch takes place in an Apple House of Worship littered with sacred symbols, especially the iconic apple sign itself, with its implicit reference to the Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge.  The impassioned leader then addresses the audience to reawaken and renew their faith in the core message and tenets of the brand/religion.  Having dealt with the tricky question of succession (the make-or-break period in any religious movement) this task now falls to Tim Cook: who is kind of like the Dear Leader to Steve Jobs’ Great one (to analogize from another very successful personality cult, that surrounding North Korea’s Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il). 

 

The Object of Worship, like another Biblical tablet, comes with its own set of commandments, which flash up on the huge screen behind the Dear Leader as he delivers his Sermon.  Thall shalt be thin. Thall shalt be light. Thall shalt be fast.  (Boom! [7]). Thall shalt merge form and function.  Thall shalt be user friendly.  The Faithful sit in awe while the Scribes/tech journalists act as Witness, testifying to the wonders they behold via live blog feeds. (Like many Sacred Ceremonies, the Apple Product Launch cannot be broadcast live.)  The religious fervor is then transmitted to the masses, who, in turn, make pilgrimages to their local House of Worship, where they suffer Trials and Tribulations (big crowds and long lines) for the chance to partake of the latest Object on the road to Salvation. 

 

Notes

 

[1] For the record, I’d like to state that this article was not intended to provide serious advice on how to present papers at anthropology conferences.  Apparently there was some confusion on this front.

 

[2] A state of affairs that in hindsight probably should have given me some pause.

 

[3] Tim Bell, I’m talking to you.

 

[4] Yes, well, I realize how stupid that sounds now.  I also fully acknowledge that agreeing to do a “light hearted” interview in the first place ranks up there with the time I decided to perm my own hair (I mean, I literally permed it myself) for acts of stupidity with embarrassingly public results.

 

[5] This is the name (in Australia at least, although perhaps it has a more politically correct appellation elsewhere) of a game where a group of kids sit in a circle and one comes up with a sentence and whispers it in the ear of the next kid, who whispers it to the next kid and so on and so forth until the last child is reached and whispers the sentence—now utterly transformed—back into the ear of the original child.  To much general hilarity, an innocuous saying like “Mary wants a cracker” might become transformed into “Mary’s crackers” then “Mary’s gone around the bend” and finally “Mary’s doing knee bends”.  Sometimes things become so distorted that you miraculously end up back where you started.  That did not happen here. 

 

[6] Nor do I believe that going to the dentist is a religious experience, although I’ve made that comparison too. 

 

[7] Steve Jobs was famous for saying this at product launches—there are numerous YouTube odes to his “booms”.