Anthropologist 'confirms' Apple is a religion

Anthropologist 'confirms' Apple is a religion

Summary: Worship me, for I am Apple.

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TOPICS: Apple
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Think religion, think ritual: history, perhaps sacred writings, proscribed sets of moral laws, and potentially a sacrifice or two. There are plenty of organizations and cultures around the world that claim they adhere to a certain set of beliefs, but could adoration and a cult following for a technology firm be the next step?

The University of British Columbia's Dr. Kirsten Bell believes that much of the aforementioned applies to Apple. After observing launch videos, and recently attending the iPad mini launch for TechNewsDaily, the social anthropologist said that Mac fandom has some strikingly similar parallels between a religion or cult status:

A stranger observing one of the launches could probably be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a religious revival meeting.

Before specializing in the biomedical field, the research fellow conducted fieldwork on new religious movements in South Korea until 2005. Based on this experience, Bell believes that Apple is "littered with sacred symbols" -- most notably, the iconic Apple logo. (Ironically, some believe the bitten Apple is "anti-Christian").

It's not like any other firm uses a logo for representation, or goes through the revamp process to stay modern and recognizable. Oh, no.

There are a number of theories surrounding what makes a religion, and what separates 'cults' from the former revered nametag. For the sake of argument, in anthropological terms, these suggested principles of a "cult" are worth keeping in mind:

  1. A charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
  2. A process which may include coercive persuasion or thought reform;
  3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and rulers.

So, what does Bell say? And are Apple fanboys really 'cultish'?

Point 1: "A charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power."

A crucial component in structured religious organizations, from Christianity to Scientology, a charismatic leader is necessary to preach a point or sway a crowd. Where do these leaders come from in Apple? Bell's answer is simple. During keynote speeches, each Apple executive "addresses the audience to reawaken and renew their faith in the core message and tenets of the brand [or] religion".

Feel free to also compare the creation myths of Christianity and Babylon to the founding of Apple and Steve Jobs, but anthropologist to anthropologist, I'm fairly sure that's called "public relations," -- I'm sure you know, where one tries to make consumers and businesses alike excited about a product or service a company is promoting, in order to make money or gain decent press exposure. 

If your fans are passionate, great. It'll mean they may not be so angry about spending hundreds of dollars on an iPad made obsolete just over half a year later.

I'm also yet to see a loss in power from Apple itself. The technology giant is one of the most popular and powerful technology companies on the planet, and in spite of its founder's death, the firm shows no signs of slowing down without such an iconic figurehead.

It's only in the moment an Apple executive asks the crowd to bow and send their prayers to an iPhone that I will begin to worry.

Point 2: "A process which may include coercive persuasion or thought reform."

Apple traditionally does not broadcast its launches live -- although its latest media event was available on the company's website -- though this anomaly in practice also came under scrutiny from Bell. "Like many Sacred Ceremonies, the Apple Product Launch cannot be broadcast live," she wrote. "The Scribes [and] tech journalists act as Witness, testifying to the wonders they behold via live blog feeds."

Ah, a wonderful new shiny has been released, time to empty the bank account and remortgage the house. Sorry honey, Apple told me to do it. It's morally the right thing to do.

"Sacred ceremony" aside, the point of product launches is promotion -- to show a product in its best light -- make consumers aware of its existence, and entice people to prise open their wallets. If this is a "wonder to behold", then naturally people are going to want to buy it. 

Apple doesn't coerce their customers, or fill their heads with brain-washing thoughts. Wait until the iPhone and iPad maker has their own floating version of Scientology's Sea Org used as a religious retreat. Until then, the jury's out on the wonders of the iPad manipulating the general public.  

Point 3: "Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the rulers"

Sexual exploitation is out of the running here, so let's take a look at the economics of a so-called "cult". Scientology lets you increase your 'thetan' (or 'god') level by contributions to the organization, the Church once ruled and taxed with an iron fist, and Apple wants you to buy its products. What's the difference? Apple is a business. It's sole purpose is to make money. It promises you a product and level of service, nothing more. 

If you don't buy the new iPhone, your firstborn son won't be taken -- relax. 

If Apple releases a subpar product, consumers will knock it off the tech pedestal. Nokia used to be the 'king of the cellphone', but as it failed to keep up with the expanding smartphone market, rivals Apple and Google exploited the market weakness.

It's feasible that if Apple failed to keep up with consumer trends and its popularity waned, fewer people would buy its products. That's business 101, and consumers would find a new darling of the tech world. 

But what other factors are there to consider if you try to compare a technology firm to a religion or cult? Although Bell says the comparison is "superficial" as religion has a different purpose to business, where one tries to explain life's questions and another tries to make money (I guess Scientology's out then, 'thetans' and all...) Bell observes that Apple is more than just about selling a smartphone or tablet:

"They are selling something more than a product. When you look at the way they advertise their product, it's really about a more connected life."

Sounds familiar? Nokia is involved in "connecting people" too, and Cisco talks about the "power of the network." JRC says, "you don't need wires to communicate," and perhaps you could go so far as saying that Dynamic Systems' mantra that, "strength on your side" is bordering on divine intervention.

Apple is not a religion. It has a loyal following as a company, and it is both the technology industry and the fan base which adds a level of reverence to Apple events -- not because we're hanging on every word that passes the lips of an Apple spokesman -- but likely and simply because the products are cool.

The tech industry likes them, consumers like them, and every move Apple makes can seriously impact and change the industry as a whole. 

Topic: Apple

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105 comments
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  • You say its likely and simply because the products are cool.

    Can you tell us what makes them cool, and what makes products from other companies not as cool?

    Since you're basing your dismissal of the anthropologist's case on that premise, you'll have to explain why you claim the products are cool.
    DontUseGoogleAtAll!
    • Cool is difficult to find and or define....

      If you have to look for it... Obviously you don't have it. If you actually seek to be cool .. You'll likely never become said. Cool is also very much like beauty and it's in the eye of the beholder. So you may not find Apple products cool personally while still others may. There is no right and or wrong answer for the cool.

      Pagan jim
      James Quinn
      • I'll actually buy that explanation, Jimmy

        ... no matter how nice a new, sparkly Lexus is ... i'll still take an old classic, very well maintained and kept in mint condition, E-Type Jag' any given Sunday.

        But i'd actually take your comments a step further: product cool is priceless. It's an almost unspoken thing that lends itself to iconic brands throughout recent history.

        I think we'd agree, well and truly, on the logic: one is a nice, modern, luxury vehicle, i.e. Lexus ... and the E-Type is ... well ... literally, sex on wheels. ;P

        To wit, it's actually harder to define in concrete terms than it sounds. It's this unspoken, almost ethereal quality about iconic brands - which makes design classics stand the test of time. Just like the E-Type or Sony Walkman, the iPod and iPad fit the bill perfectly.
        thx-1138_
        • OK, but....

          I think I get your point, and the E-Type is incredibly sexy. But--Lexus has all kinds of vehicles, including the even sexier LFA supercar. So, to be effective, your logic needs more specificity--pick one Lexus model to make your comparison!
          frabjous
    • Never understood it either

      I've always found Apple products to be both sterile and bland in appearance.
      roteague
      • Really?

        You don't remember the tangerine, etc. iMacs? The first lamp-style/"Pixar" iMac?
        orangemike
        • Ugh, you had to bring those up

          I thought I'd wiped those from my memory. Thanks for the deja-vu I didn't need. I always thought they looked like something from Fisher-Price...
          spdragoo@...
    • Cool is easy.

      Under most cases, cool is simply the same as popular. When the tablet wars first started, the iPad broke new ground. They had a very intuitive system with strong functionality and a good library of applications. They had a strong product that was superior to the rest of the market (partly because it was defining the market). This was enough to build a base and the innovation made it popular or "cool". It drew attention because it was unique and powerful.

      That base is not a bunch of cultists. Certainly there are people that are fanatical about Apple. We all know them. However, there are also people who enjoy the equipment and aren't necessarily going to rush out to the Apple store just because a new version has been released. That being said, Apple has become a trusted name for many iPad users. It is the location for their music, movies, apps and games. Moving to a new system would be a painful process when maintaining that trust and keeping your settings is a much easier and friendlier choice.

      Obviously, some of the hardware for other tablets and phones are far better than that on the iPad or iPhone. However, they don't provide the familiarity nor hold the trust that Apple has. That may eventually change. Blackberry used to hold the phone market in a tight grip. However, they fell behind when Apple came out with the iPhone, a position from which they still have not recovered (and from which they probably never will). If Apple continues on their current path, releasing hardware that is inferior to other items on the market, they may loses their popularity as Blackberry did. There's always room for the new cool kid.
      Steven Laskoske
      • Revisionist History

        "Apple broke new ground". What a load of crap. Apple stole the idea.
        impost
        • No, they did not!

          The fact that people have thought about different concepts for tablets does not mean Apple copied or stole anything. Other people were thinking about tablets wrong. They thought you couldn't remove anything and still make something good. They assumed you needed to keep the keyboard even though much of the time people spend on computers they don't need to type.

          Part of innovation is knowing what to and what not to include in a product to make it work.
          DougPetrosky
        • DUH.

          N-E-W-T-O-N.

          Remember? Apple's PDA?

          Touch Screen? Apps? Even had a modem for the Internet.

          The only people that could claim Apple copied the idea are the set designers at Paramount... and of course, the PADD wasn't a working prototype.
          William Carr
    • The tide is turning.....

      ...Blackberry was once "cool" too!
      toph36
      • The tide will continue to turn

        As cell phones from all makers start to become relatively equal in features and ecosystem, I believe it will not be long before we see no one cell phone manufacturer dominate. Soon the phone market will resemble the tv market, many choices, no overwhelming leader.

        The smartphone market is just nearing the end of its infancy. Time for the dust to settle, the survivors of the initial phase to be identified and the pace of innovation to slow to a crawl.
        stiney20
      • i love apple, i have iphone and ipad

        but I know that we are going to pass....
        dkaparunakis@...
        • How much money have you pushed...

          ...to that cult?

          Now if Linux was a cult it would act rather different way - they don't want your clock cleaned at all. I love this kind of "religion".
          Matsi66
    • Are apples the Apple of fruit?

      Many people have heard of the computer company Apple but not many people realize there is also a kind of fruit called an apple.

      Recent trends show that apples might be emerging as the Apple of fruit.

      An Apple computer spokesman gave us the following comments.

      "Yeah, oranges looked as if they might be pulling ahead for a while, but the user interface makes them a little bit inaccessible and that 1970s color scheme, just awful.

      Here at Apple we only have a limited range of products and that's been a key to our success but apple the fruit has way too wide a choice - Macintosh, Cox Orange Pippin, Granny Smith, Elstar, Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious not to mention all the cooking apples - I mean who do they think they are - Nokia?

      One thing we have been very impressed by is the upgrade cycle on apple the fruit. I mean, people by a dozen one week and the following week the go out and by a dozen more! That's just amazing, how do they do that?

      Just before he died Steve wanted us to look at making an edible iPhone, unfortunately the chocolate casing tended to melt in your hand and the electronic components inside are poisonous enough to completely ruin your day.

      But rest assured, should apple the fruit enjoy too much success, our lawyers are ready!"
      jorwell
    • She has nothing to prove..... apple is kinda a subject that has not to be

      tested

      Products are cool and period... Millions are buying them and that is the proof
      People are waiting hours... nights... making drama....!!!

      And you still need proof..... :-) WE ARE THE KINGS OF THE UNIVERSE....!!!
      dkaparunakis@...
      • Weirdo

        You sir are weird.
        mikeh810
    • I can

      Attention to detail and a willingness to do something new.

      Look the tablet space. The iPad and the Surface are amazingly well made and thus cool, the fire, nexus and 50 other misc. tablets are not cool.

      This is changing too to some extent. Some companies are spending more money on fit and finish and they are becoming cool too. It is the difference between the generic Dell laptops and their newer XPS line.

      All you have to do is read the speculation leading up to products like iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad and you will understand just how far out on a limb Apple went to make these products. The industry laughed about how stupid the design of the first iPhone was and how hopeless it would be for Apple to enter that industry, but today all cellphones essentially look like iPhones.

      Read about the launch of the iPad. People even made fun of the name. They joked about how stupid someone would have to be to purchase a tablet when you could purchase a netbook for less money that had a keyboard and more ports, that ran existing windows software.

      So for me, that is why Apple's products are cool.
      DougPetrosky
    • Agreed

      I think she is embarrassed to admit that things are not always as they appear or perhaps more complicated than they appear.
      at0m1k