Steve Jobs died ten years ago this month. At the corporate memorial held on Apple’s campus, a previously unreleased version of the 1997 “Think Different” Apple commercial was played. In this version, Jobs himself performed the voice-over, so everyone at the memorial heard him speak one final exhortation to the world: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
Jobs was certain of many things: Apple products should be closed systems that exclude other products in order to maximize user experience. Black turtlenecks are the one and only shirt to be worn. On-off switches are ugly. And the work that he was doing with Apple was changing the world for the better.
In 1982, when Apple was a budding computer company, Jobs gave a speech to the Academy of Achievement. In this speech, he described how supposedly ordinary things such as going to college or believing in God inhibited innovation and stifled change. He told the audience that if they could move beyond the ordinary, they could have the capacity to change the world.
Though he was certain of this calling, Jobs was less certain where it came from. He had a persistent uncertainty when it came to God. According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, near the time of his death, Jobs said, “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God. For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.”
Waffling on God, however, did not mean that Jobs entirely rejected religion. He had a keen interest in Hinduism and Zen Buddhism. Zen in particular influenced Jobs’s penchant for minimalism and his appreciation for intuition, both of which are apparent in his product design.
Jobs had strong, largely negative thoughts about Christianity, which he saw as having crystallized in an unhealthy form. According to Jobs, “the juice goes out of Christianity when it becomes too based on faith rather than on living like Jesus or seeing the world as Jesus saw it.” For Jobs, dogma and doctrine were religious ossifications stifling innovation and different ways of thinking.
Instead of Christianity or even religion more broadly, Jobs saw technology and his work with Apple as having the potential to create a better future for the world. He applied himself fully to this end.
This raises a simple question: Did it work?
Was Jobs right to dismiss Christianity and its supposedly ordinary belief in God that inhibits innovation? Did his intuition serve him well when he set out on the path to change the world by giving us the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook?
The answer depends on what metric one uses. From a purely economic perspective, Jobs was very successful. At various times in its corporate history, Apple has had more cash on hand than the US Treasury. From a design or user-experience perspective, Jobs liberated the world from clunky interfaces and unusable technologies.
From an ecological perspective, however, the 12th iteration of the iPhone and the hurried pace of planned obsolescence have been an environmental tragedy. According to a 2019 United Nations report, the world produces 50 million tons of electronic waste per year, and only 20 percent of this e-waste is recycled. By 2050, global e-waste could reach 120 million tons per year. While Jobs and Apple are not the only forces behind this e-waste, they are culpable in it because of their endless innovation and production. Innovation in and of itself is an environmental disaster.
The devices and gadgets that Jobs helped create encourage users to be will-less, to allow someone else to impose their values on them. This is, according to Nietzsche, a way to avoid being human.
The problems that Nietzsche identified in the Christian faith are being reproduced by the tech companies of today. Kroker puts this in a radical way: “Perhaps the will to Christianity and digitality were always flip sides of the same historical movement, that Christianity was always a sustained period of moral preparation for the coming to be of the digital nerve? Today, the mask of Christianity is removed, only to reveal the triumph of the digital gods.”
Apple Watches, iPhones, and other devices reshape our values, invite us to take things for granted, and effortlessly consume the medications prescribed by tech companies. The Apple Watch even tells you when to do biological tasks such as breathing or walking. iPhones and iPads, with their responsive touch screens and dazzling pixels, provide us with all that we need for self-hypnosis. These devices are an effortless means of mechanically consuming digital content in what Gertz calls “orgies of clicking.” Apple’s Siri was the first digital assistant waiting at our beck and call to dispense answers, tell us what to do, and help us avoid the essential human chore of having to think.
Contra Nietzsche and Jobs, Borgmann proposes that the Christian faith can be a fulcrum of change for reforming technology and contemporary life. For example, Borgmann sees the Eucharist as being a focal thing: participating in it is a tangible and engaging practice that requires knowledge, practice, attention, and social unity. Like a family gathering around the dinner table without their iPhones, the church’s gathering around the Lord’s table is a sacred practice that is regularly reenacted. Borgmann argues that this focal practice has the power to be a centering and orienting force within a technological society. The Lord’s Supper helps us live as humans in a world of gadgets and devices.