Steve Jobs (1955-2011): Death of a Human Tech God?

Steve Jobs died today at the age of 56.

Way back in 1994—some years before Steve Jobs would make his own resurrection complete by returning to the then-faltering Apple—Umberto Eco famously posited that the world was divided by “a new underground religious war” pitting the users of Macintosh against those of Microsoft. Further, he insisted, “I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed,” Eco continued:

the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach—if not the kingdom of Heaven—the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

Eco was neither the first nor the last to highlight the religious or spiritual dimensions of our technological affections. Indeed, a veritable cottage industry of scholarship has emerged to track the religiosity of Apple users in particular, much of it focusing on Steve Jobs as the stone once rejected that became the cornerstone, not just of Apple’s tremendous success, but of a new technological culture that placed people, their needs and desires at the center rather than geeks and their way cool, geeky ideas. Jobs made technological devices the extensions of human experience that Marshall McLuhan showed them to be, just as the digital age was dawning. He elevated its status from lowly tool to digital connector, relationship maker, global boundary crosser. Jobs helped to make our world bigger, while drawing us closer.

For all the talk of Apple as a cult, and Jobs as its perfectionist god, we do well to remember that he died a very human death after living a remarkably, inspirational human life. It is, in fact, Jobs’ human failures, setbacks, and losses that have made his contributions and triumphs so remarkable. May pixels perpetual shine on him.