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DeSales Pick: Appletopia

Posted on Nov 8, 2019 in DeSales Blog

Introducing DeSales Picks: books that we recommend to deepen your knowledge of Catholic conversations around technology. We begin with Brett T. Robinson’s Appletopia, published by Baylor University Press.

We are what we imagine.

Brett Robinson’s Appletopia offers a compelling glimpse into the mind of Steve Jobs and his brainchild, Apple. Robinson examines how Jobs’ “Appletopia” appeals to our human religious imagination. In order to create Apple’s massive cult following, Steve Jobs marketed Apple products to appeal to religious and technological imaginations. Not only did Apple products reach new heights of popularity, but Apple’s product marketing also carved a new way of imagining the way technology shapes our lives. Appletopia

Robinson’s book makes a compelling case that the language of marketing is worth both a religious person’s attention and vice versa. Advertising appeals to our imaginations, our emotions, and our affective framework for the world. Thus, the language of marketing often can reveal the state of our affective cultural framework.

Robinson, Director of Communications at the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, finds that the language of technology deeply resonates with the language of religion. Each field relies on symbols to make esoteric concepts accessible—“to make the unknown sensible.”  In religion, neophytes require simple, pictorial explanations (like St. Patrick’s shamrock) for deep theological mysteries like the Trinity. In marketing tech products, manufacturers use appealing images to explain its product, made of mysteries—CPUs, RAM, and the cloud—to the technologically illiterate.

When Apple told us to “think different,” it didn’t just coin a slick slogan. It presciently described the revolution it performed on our collective imagination. Apple taught us—its audience—to think about technology differently. Apple’s products would actually reshape the way we think. New technologies not only reflect the culture but also shape the culture. And culture shapes our imaginations.

Apple iPod Ad

by thethreesisters via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

By examining iconic Apple ads and key marketing campaigns, Robinson reveals the underlying ethos of Jobs’ inventions. Robinson hones in particularly on the first iPod marketing campaigns, which portray the iPod as a tool to reaching euphoric transcendence or elevated consciousness. But Jobs isn’t the only tech guru using religious imagination. Robinson examines flagship Verizon and AT&T campaigns, which also promise transcendence, transformation, and connectedness.

While not alarmist, Robinson makes a compelling case for Catholics working in the digital world to think about how their products appeal to their consumers’ imaginations and how they shape communal practices and culture.

Communities organize themselves around what is of “ultimate concern,” the thing at the top of their “hierarchy of order.” Which, simply put means that everyone worships something. Human community and existence are always ordered around a person, cause, or achievement: if not God, then an idol: a god we’ve chosen for ourselves.

For many of us, work achievement, success, money, even relationships, or (all too often!) ourselves sits at the top of our “hierarchy of order.” Robinson demonstrates compellingly that this religious sensibility and need to worship continues to exert influence on us, despite being ignored in our popular media and sidelined in our contemporary social discourse. Our cravings for belonging and transcendence are now being presented to the masses through the devices that have become nearly ubiquitous in our lives: iPhones, iPads, and personal computers.

Apple has pitched its products as “tools for seeking a lost sense of transcendence.” Apple markets these products as solutions to our “restless hearts.” But the iPhone age has taught us the painful lesson that these products feed off of our restless needs but ultimately leave them dangerously unsatisfied.

What can we learn from this?

Clearly the followers of “Appletopia” hunger for something more. Although the restless hearts of the information age may flock to the new cathedrals of Apple stores, the religious experience Apple consumers long for can only be found through a Church. The Church can actually fulfill the promises that Apple offers through its marketing that promises euphoria, connectivity, transcendence. The Church offers a truly transcendent experience of God through encountering the divine in prayer and liturgy.

Robinson’s book outlines a demographic—a congregation if you will—that has been primed for the proselytization by the cult of Appletopia. Apple’s religiously-influenced marketing highlights a field ripe for evangelization. “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few” (Mt 9:37). There is an audience ready and waiting for a new kind of digital evangelization.

In the community of the Body of Christ, the Church offers the world the universal community and personal transcendence for which we hunger. And so the Church must be able to speak to this new culture and community shaped by Steve Jobs’ revolution of technology and imagination.