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Reviewed by:
  • Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs by Brett T. Robinson
  • Michael M. J. Fischer (bio)
Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs. By Brett T. Robinson. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013. Pp. xii+147. $24.95.

This reading of Apple ads—for the Macintosh (iMac), iPod, iPhone, and iPad—by a marketing professor suggests “Jobs and Apple provide an allegory for reading religion in the information age” (p. 105). With white dust jacket, black lettering, and silhouette with dark red highlighting of “topia” and “Steve Jobs,” the slim book mimics an Apple product. Brett Robinson traces his method to the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies (p. 108) but it seems more akin to the University of Chicago’s symbolic interactionist marketing studies in the 1950s and to the symbolic anthropology of [End Page 291] the 1960s and 1970s (see Melissa Cefkin, ed., Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter, 2009).

Robinson argues that Apple, with its forbidden fruit icon, like other culturally key technologies (cathedral, arcade, railroad-telegraph, Golden Gate Bridge, automobile, translucent Le Grande Arche, Fifth Avenue Apple Store) is a vehicle of transcendence. Like his hero Edwin Land, Jobs wants to stand in the intersection of engineering and the humanities, dissolving the antagonisms between machines and human beings. For this, advertising is not just a tool of persuasion, but a highly emotive “aesthetic encounter” (p. 16). “The representations and practices of technology are composed of a diffuse set of rituals and rhetoric”; “images and slogans of technological advertising provide a computer catechism” (p. 5). Citing Umberto Eco’s satire of the Protestant PC (free interpretation, but difficult choices, not all can achieve salvation) versus the Catholic Macintosh (cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, catechistic in telling the faithful how to proceed step-by-step, and promising salvation to all), Robinson sees Apple ads operating like medieval morality plays. The PC is the fall into tedious work and depersonalization; the Mac is liberation and creativity, facilitating “self-divinization by procuring the powers of omniscience and omnipresence granted by a global communication network” (p. 17). Robinson cites Ralph Waldo Emerson as seeing new technologies “reducing the earth to a brain … by telegraph and steam the Earth is anthropologized” (p. 7), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin updating this as a noosphere or superconsciousness through electronic communication, and Timothy Leary calling the personal computer the LSD of the 1990s (“It makes perfect sense to me that if you activate your brain with psychedelic drugs, the only way you can describe it is electronically”) (p. 55).

The delicious review of iMac ads includes: “Narcissus” (the impish iMac monitor following a man walking past; man stops to look; as if in a mirror he sees in the screen extensions of his own creativity, productivity, sociability, and memory) (p. 33); and the sixty-six 30-second ad series “Get a Mac” (Mac dressed casually, PC in business suit, vignettes of “conflict between the human spirit of creativity and the dreary environment of labor and soulless efficiency”) (p. 40). The iPod ads shift from sharp product photos to silhouette dancers on neon backgrounds, white wires hanging from their heads, giving new meaning to the term “wirehead” (1960s hip-pies who liked electronics). In “Cubicle,” single albums and the materiality of analog media are sucked into the iPod nano as universal container; in “Wild Postings” it is the twenty-six iPod poster ads that are in color as a plugged-in man blocks out street sounds and encounters a man with child on his shoulders, the child’s legs in affectionate embrace around the man’s ears, “a visual metaphor for the companionship of the iPod” (p. 52). The iPhone ads, “Touching Is Believing,” evoke Michelangelo, doubting Thomas, the idiom “seeing is believing,” and Buddhism-Gnosticism (suffering body, digital liberation). [End Page 292]

Robinson’s rare criticism is formulaic: “what Apple offers us in the iPhone ads is a false freedom, one that offers amusement and efficiency as counterfeit forms of human leisure” (p. 73). More trenchant: the Waldorf School, where many of the children of Apple, Google, Yahoo, and H-P executives go, eschews computers, in favor of “chalkboards, wood desks, encyclopedias...


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