Steve Jobs Was The Leader Of A Religion, And We Should Be Concerned About What It Stands For

That a man with a wife and children dies young, is sad. That a brilliant (and by many accounts brutal) billionaire electronics product designer passes away, and is mourned as a saviour, is creepy. I’m genuinely sorry anytime a fellow human being leaves this earth, but I also think it’s important to analyze and critique what society’s apparent outpouring of grief over Steve Jobs' death says about us (sacred cows be damned).

I’m sorry folks, I’ve got a MacBook Pro and a second-hand iPod Shuffle, and they make a great deal of the time I spend on a computer, or at the gym, more enjoyable, but the way some people are reacting to Steve Jobs’ death creeps me out. I say that because he isn’t being mourned for the man he was, but rather for the brand he led as well as the ubiquitous electronics environment he designed and which we work (and apparently worship) in today. In my opinion, the world’s reaction to his death doesn’t say good things about where we’re at as a society.

In addition to the modified Apple logo featuring a silhouette of Steve Jobs as the bite taken out, as well as the countless Steve Jobs university commencement speeches shared on Facebook, there are quotes from other videos like this:

"To me marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world. It’s a very noisy world. And we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is…Now Apple, fortunately, is one of the half-a-dozen best brands in the whole world, right up there with Nike, Disney, Coke, Sony. It is one of the greats of the greats. Not just in this country but all around the globe.”

Indeed, Apple was one of the hallowed names of the corporate world when Jobs retook his position as CEO (after being pushed out years earlier in an internal power struggle). On his return, he had even bigger plans for the brand. Here he explains Apple’s “core value,” something that would set it above the rest:

“We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better…And that those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that actually do."

The Apple Religion

Steve Jobs was the leader of a religion – or at least as close to a religion as you can get in Western consumer society. There are the symbols, the strictures, the loin cloth (Levi's 501 blue jeans, black mock turtle neck and New Balance sneakers), the followers and the evangelists. There are the legends and stories of the leader’s selfless unshakeable commitment to “simplicity, ease of use and elegant design.” There was the famous “1984” ad, touted by Jobs himself as “probably the best ad ever made.”

Indeed many of the things Jobs did were described as “revolutionary.” In asking his followers to “Think Different” he directly invoked historical religious and cultural leaders (for example, Gandhi), building religiosity by associating the Apple brand with ideas and selfless acts of humanity far greater and more powerful than making computers for profit.

He said the company’s ad campaign was to “honour” those people who had actually changed the world. Some were living and some were not. “But the ones that aren’t, as you’ll see, you know if they ever used a computer it would have been a Mac.” Really? Would Gandhi have gotten behind a keyboard in celebration of the indentured servitude, farmland destruction and cancer-causing pollution Apple makes possible in China? I think differently.

How Has Apple And Its Followers Actually “Changed the World?”

As I attempted to convey in an earlier blog post on the serious cancer-causing and ecological consequences of iPhone production in Northern China, there’s a dark side to the Apple religion. There’s a reason Apple briefly became the most valuable company in the world earlier this year: They ship a lot of units. Tens and tens of millions, in fact. In the name of “elegant design” we’ll buy and throwout the latest generation of whatever we bought a year ago, completely oblivious to its ecological footprint.

A couple years back Apple did grudgingly make some improvements to the environmental-friendliness of some of its products, a response to Greenpeace’s “Green My Apple” campaign. Those changes however, are a drop in the bucket compared to the impacts of glorified planned obsolescence, the kind that is so engrossing that consumers will buy a product knowing full well another version with a camera or a wifi connection will be released six months later (“No problem, I’ll sell the old one on Craig’s list and buy the new one in time for Christmas). Now that's changing the world.

Why Not Try Thinking Differently, For Real?

One of the reasons I wrote this post is because it bothers me to see fellow “progressives” and “environmental advocates” mourning the loss (in the way that they are) of one of the world’s greatest CEOs, capitalists, and electronics manufacturing expansionists. Again, it’s sad to lose someone early, but it’s another thing to immortalize a corporate brand and its promise land of never ending beautiful electronics (read growth). Don't preach to me about the values of occupying Wall Street while you wax poetic about one of history's most successful and brutal capitalists.

Environmentalists have lots to say about flows of dirty oil and greenhouse gas pollution, but little to say about the flow of dirty electronics. The religion of Apple, as currently conceived, is diametrically opposed to sustainability. Unfortunately, environmentalists are some of the worst technology boosters I know.

Truly thinking differently in the sense of Gandhi, Martin Luther King or even Einstein (all three invoked by Apple’s advertising campaigns) means that your mouth shouldn’t be watering over the release of the next iwhatever, or at least if it does, you’re also mindful of the real ecological impacts of any given purchasing decision, and your true NEED for it. Frugality (make it delicious frugality) is how we need to start thinking, and living (drive that electronic device until the wheels fall off). Anything else is just the religion of mindless consumerism by any other name.