Turning Apple’s brand and products into a religion

A new book lays out how Steve Jobs transformed Apple into a religion:

Jobs’ Zen master Kobun Chino told him that he “could keep in touch with his spiritual side while running a business.” So in true Zen fashion, Jobs avoided thinking of technology and spirituality in dualistic terms. But what really set him apart was his ability to educate the public about personal computing in both practical and mythic ways.

The iconography of the Apple computer company, the advertisements, and the device screens of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad are visual expressions of Jobs’ imaginative marriage of spiritual science and modern technology…

Technology ads provide parables and proverbs for navigating the complexities of the new technological order. They instruct the consumer on how to live the “good life” in the technological age…

Jobs embraced elliptical thinking as a means of promoting technology objects that pose their own paradoxes. In the Apple narrative, the seemingly oppositional notions of assimilation/isolation and freedom/enslavement are resolved by Apple’s invocation of enlightened paradox.

Others have also made this argument: see this 2011 post as well as this 2012 post.  Claiming a brand is like a religion could be an analysis of a secular age (this piece suggests we traded gods for technological progress and consumerism) or it could be a slam against followers who blindly follow a brand (certain brands may inspire higher levels of devotion yet not all inspiring brands are accused of inspiring religious-like followings).

Yet, beyond Apple, wouldn’t most, if not all brands, aspire to this kind of devotion? Religion implies a devoted set of followers who are willing to participate in rituals, of which the most important is buying the new product. Evangelism, telling others about the products and brand, might also be high on this list. Another key is that brand followers and users think they are participating in a transcendent experience.

Apple iPad mini launch similar to a “religious revival meeting”?

An anthropologist discusses how the recent iPad mini launch has some religious dimensions:

She [anthropologist Kirsten Bell] came to some of the same conclusions as her predecessors, including Eastern Washington University sociologist Pui-Yan Lam, who published an academic paper more than a decade ago that called Mac fandom an “implicit religion.”…

Apple’s product launches take place in a building “littered with sacred symbols, especially the iconic Apple sign itself,” she said. During keynote speeches, an Apple leader “addresses the audience to reawaken and renew their faith in the core message and tenets of the brand/religion.”

Even Apple’s tradition of not broadcasting launches in real time is akin to a religious event, Bell said. (Today’s event was available live on Apple’s website.) “Like many Sacred Ceremonies, the Apple Product Launch cannot be broadcast live,” she wrote. “The Scribes/tech journalists act as Witness, testifying to the wonders they behold via live blog feeds.”…

Yet there are strong reasons people have long compared Apple culture to religion, Bell said. “They are selling something more than a product,” she said. “When you look at the way they advertise their product, it’s really about a more connected life.” A better life is something many faiths promise, she said.

I wrote about this earlier when a commentator made a similar argument after the passing of Steve Jobs.  Comparisons like this, whether it be a product launch or a big sporting event or a rock concert, tend to draw on similar Durkheimian ideas: these are rituals; they can generate feelings of collective effervescence and emotional energy; they can strengthen group bonds; they involve a lot of important symbols that often require some inside knowledge to fully understand; there are clear lines demarcating what is sacred and what is profane. It may not be religion as the public typically thinks of it as involving some real or perceived spiritual or supernatural forces but its actions and consequences could be similar.

 

Genius and creativity = “a probabilistic function of quantity”

I was recently reading a Malcolm Gladwell article about the invention of the computer mouse and came across this statistical definition of genius and creativity:

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity. “The more successes there are,” he says, “the more failures there are as well”—meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too.

To put this in graph terms: as time increases, a creative person has an increasing number of ideas, a line with positive slope. Underneath this overall line of ideas is another positive line tracking the unsuccessful ideas and below that, increasing steadily but perhaps at a slower rate, is the line of successful ideas. In other words, the more overall ideas someone has, the more failures but also the more quality ideas.

The rest of the article is about creating the right structural environment to take advantage of ideas. Most groups and organizations won’t recognize all the best ideas but innovative organizations find ways to encourage and push the good ideas to the top. Indeed, the clincher at the end of the article is that Steve Jobs, supposedly one of the best innovators America has had in recent decades, missed some opportunities as well.

Can Weber’s concept of charismatic authority predict a decline for Apple?

One analyst suggests that Apple without Steve Jobs will decline because as sociologist Max Weber suggested, organizations change after their charismatic leader is gone:

Weber described three essential business categories: Legal/bureaucratic, traditional, and charismatic, with the latter companies typically helmed by individuals with the “gift of grace.”…
“Followers and disciples have absolute trust in the leader, fed by that leader’s access to nearly magical powers. Charismatic authority repudiates the past, and is in this sense a specifically revolutionary force.”

According to Colony, Apple chose a “proven and competent executive” – Tim Cook – to succeed Jobs. Nevertheless, the analyst believes the new CEO’s “legal/bureaucratic approach” will prove to be a mismatch for an organization that feeds off the gift of grace…

“Apple’s momentum will carry it for 24-48 months. But without the arrival of a new charismatic leader it will move from being a great company to being a good company, with a commensurate step down in revenue growth and product innovation,” the analyst predicted.

I guess we can wait and see if Weber’s ideas apply to this situation. Weber described this transition after the loss of a charismatic leader as a process of routinization where the group bureaucratizes this charisma.

A few things make this process more messy:

1. At one point, Steve Jobs didn’t have this “magic” either such as before he was inventing things or when he stepped down from Apple. This suggests that context matters: certain ideas are produced or take off based on a variety of other circumstances.

2. Judging by the recent stock price, investors don’t seem too worried about Apple’s future. At what point will they and other start publicly suggesting that the loss of Jobs is a really big hurdle to overcome? Is this an “acceptable” reason for a company to plateau?

3. Shouldn’t one measure of a good leader be the ability to empower others to take over and do well (or even better?) in the future when that leader is gone? If so, perhaps we should be asking whether Jobs was equipping others at Apple to succeed after him or not.

4. Is this an inevitable process for groups that lose a charismatic authority?

“The Steve Jobs Anti-Eulogy” raises some interesting points

Now that the media blitz following the death of Steve Jobs has slowed, there is more space to consider the coverage. Here are five interesting observations from one writer who also wins points for invoking “Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer” and Malcolm Gladwell:

1. People write about Steve to write about themselves…

2. Individuals do not make history. Populations do…

So the idea that Steve Jobs changed history is just plain bad analysis. Victorian sociologist Herbert Spencer argued that attributing historical events to the decisions of individuals was a hopelessly primitive, childish, and unscientific position. After he published these views in The Study of Sociology, the case was closed. At least for professional historians.

3. You can tell a lot about a society by the people they honor…

4. Steve Jobs sheds more light on the nature vs. nurture debate than he does on the history debate…

5. Espousing the glories of genius gets us nowhere.

What I like the most about these is that they try to place Jobs within his context. They also raise larger questions including “what does it mean to be a genius,” “what values does society promote,” and “are societal or group trends more important than individual actions.”

The “functional religion” of Steve Jobs, Apple

After seeing the response to Steve Jobs’ death, a commentator at the Washington Post looks at some sociological research on Apple and concludes that Jobs was the leader of a religion-like movement:

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…

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.”…

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.

This is an argument based on the work of Emile Durkheim. The argument is one that can be applied to many things that take on the functions of religion such as providing meaning (Apple vs. other corporations, beauty vs. functionality), participating in common rituals (buying new products), and uniting people around common symbols (talking with other Mac users). For example, some have suggested that the Super Bowl also is a “functional religion”: Americans come together to watch football, united in their patriotic and competitive beliefs while holding parties to watch the game and the commercials. Or baseball can be viewed as a “primitive religious ritual.”

While the comments beneath this story suggest some people think otherwise, this is not necessarily a slam against Apple or Steve Jobs. Durkheim argued that individuals need communal ties and we can find this in a number of places: the relationships formed in religious congregations, team-building activities in the office, and at bars and coffee shops where we try to connect with others during our daily routines. This does not mean Apple was necessarily a “false religion”: of course, we could talk about whether people could or should find ultimate meaning in a brand or products but we could also acknowledge that the social aspects of Apple made it more than just a set of technological product.

Considering Steve Jobs and the role of cultural context in innovation

David Brooks explores the “innovation stagnation thesis” and one of the ideas of this argument is that cultural context matters for innovation:

Third, there is no essential culture clash. Look at the Steve Jobs obituaries. Over the course of his life, he combined three asynchronous idea spaces — the counterculture of the 1960s, the culture of early computer geeks and the culture of corporate America. There was LSD, “The Whole Earth Catalogue” and spiritual exploration in India. There were also nerdy hours devoted to trying to build a box to make free phone calls.

The merger of these three idea networks set off a cascade of innovations, producing not only new products and management styles but also a new ideal personality — the corporate honcho in jeans and the long-sleeve black T-shirt. Formerly marginal people came together, competed fiercely and tried to resolve their own uncomfortable relationships with society.

The roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing. As Einstein put it, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

If you want to be the next Steve Jobs and end the innovation stagnation, maybe you should start in hip-hop.

So what exactly is Brooks saying? People who want to be innovators need to embrace or immerse themselves into diverse cultural systems so that they can then synthesize different ideas in new ways? Or is it that innovators like Jobs are only possible in certain cultural contexts and our current cultural context simply doesn’t push people into these different ideas or doesn’t promote this?

Sociologists of culture would have something to say about this. While Jobs clearly had unique individual skills, the production approach would emphasize how his combination of cultural contexts was made possible. He came of age in an era when individuals were encouraged to seek out new ideas and learn how to express themselves. He started a computer company in a field that didn’t have many dominant players and two guys working in a garage could create one of the world’s most enduring brands. He was alive in an era when information technology was a hot area and perhaps ranked higher in people’s interests that things like space exploration and medical cures. (One way to think about this is to wonder if Jobs could have been successful in other fields. Were his skills and context translatable into other fields? Could Jobs have helped find a cure for cancer rather than create personal computing devices? Should he have tackled their other fields – what is the opportunity cost to the world of his choice?) He had the education and training (though no college degree) that helped him to be successful.

In the end, we could ask how as a culture or a society we could encourage more people to become innovators. Is studying hip-hop really the answer? What kind of innovation do we want most in our society – scientific progress or self-expression or dealing with social problems or something else? When we talk about pushing math and science in schools, what innovations do we want our students to produce?