Let me start with a confession: There are 19 Apple devices in use, to various degrees, in my home and home office. (Music lovers need back-up iPods since they are now endangered species.) There's another iMac on my desk in New York City.
So, yes, I worked my way through an online copy of the latest Apple announcement event, the first one staged in the Steve Jobs Theater at the company's massive new Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, the one that looks like it is part high-tech monastery, part "resistance is futile" spaceship.
So I get the fact that Apple is, as one of my mass communications texts puts it, a "belief brand" that has reached "iconic" status for many users. I know people who feel the same way about Tesla automobiles, Birkenstock sandals, Chick-fil-A and various craft beers.
So I was intrigued when I saw that New York Times (another belief brand) headline that read: "At the Apple Keynote, Selling Us a Better Vision of Ourselves."
I thought, for a moment, that someone had finally written a hard-news report about the semi-sacred role that Apple plays for many. I was disappointed when I saw that it was a first-person "Critic's Notebook" essay by James Poniewozik. Still, this is -- as GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc told me in an email -- an "elegantly written piece" that, if you read between the lines, points toward a valid topic for news coverage.
Really? Well, read that headline again. Then read this passage:
This enhancement of reality is what each video-streamed Apple event sells, more than any particular iPhone or set-top box. If advertising once told us that “Things go better with Coke,” this event -- a jewel box for Apple’s products and the people who use them -- says that “Things look better with Apple.”
This year is the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. It’s also the 10th anniversary of the Apple keynote at which Steve Jobs announced the original device. ... Mr. Jobs, who died in 2011, loomed over Tuesday’s nostalgic presentation. The Apple C.E.O., Tim Cook, paid tribute, his voice cracking with emotion, Mr. Jobs’s steeple-fingered image looming as big onstage as Big Brother’s face in the classic Macintosh “1984” commercial. Mr. Cook even revived Mr. Jobs’s patented “One more thing ...” line, but reverentially: “We have great respect for these words, and we don’t use them lightly.”
These online-streaming keynotes have become as important a production of Apple as the devices themselves. An Apple event is a distinct kind of TV special: an extended commercial -- this one ran nearly two hours -- that people watch willingly, to get a glimpse of the new products and an art-directed idea of their better selves.
That Apple watch on your wrist? It may soon warn you that your heart just isn't right. Your life -- both glorious and mundane -- is storied up "in the cloud," as a kind of memory eternal.
There's more. The shining Apple retail stores serve as local sanctuaries for the faithful around the world, offering the ties that bind.
You can sense that Apple wants to expand that role:
Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president for retail, said new Apple stores would be rebranded Town Squares, places for community gathering, education — and buying the occasional thousand-dollar phone. (“Apple retail,” Mr. Cook said, “has always been about more than selling. It’s about learning, inspiring and connecting with people.”)
You will do such fantastic things with this technology, the presentation said. You’ll get healthy! You’ll learn! You’ll play ennobling games!
By all means, read it all. This was a valid subject for personal commentary.
However, I truly believe that there is a larger story hidden in Apple and its ever-expanding cultural role -- especially now that Cook is being hailed as an emerging "moral leader" in America and the whole world. Is this religion-beat news?
There are also people, even former Apple insiders, who have some worries about the deeper impact of all this invasive technology, especially the iPhone. If reporters decided to dig into this they would find interesting voices on the left and, of course, the right. Consider this chunk of a column I did on the subject a few months ago: "A decade later, the omnipresent iPhone shapes lives, families and even souls."
Flash back to original iPhone unveiling:
At one point in that ... demonstration, Jobs began jumping from one iPhone delight to another. He wryly confessed: "I could play with this thing a long time."
To which millions of parents, clergy and educators can now say: "#REALLY. Tell us something we don't know."
One key iPhone creator has had doubts, as well, especially when he watches families in restaurants, with parents and children plugged into their omnipresent smartphones.
"It terms of whether it's net positive or net negative, I don't think we know yet," said Greg Christie, a former Apple leader who helped create the iPhone's touch interface. He spoke at a Silicon Valley event covered by The Verge, a tech website.
"I don't feel good about the distraction. It's certainly an unintended consequence," said Christie. "The fact that it is so portable so it's always with you … and it provides so much for you that the addiction actually, in retrospect, is not surprising."
There is more to this puzzle that mere addiction, according to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. In a recent podcast – yes, he noted many people listen on iPhones – he tried to summarize the cultural, moral and even theological trends seen during the first decade in which the iPhone and related devices shaped the lives of millions and millions of people worldwide.
Rather than being a luxury for elites, he said, this device "has become something considered a necessity, and in this world, if we're playing by the world's terms, of course it is. … The question the iPhone represents to us is: Who owns whom? Do we own the iPhone, or, increasingly, immorally, does the iPhone own us?"
So, religion-beat pros, has anyone heard of scholars or researchers who are doing work on this semi-religious role for technology? Please leave links in the "comments" section.
Alas, Neil "Technopoly" Postman is no longer around to interview on these topics.