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Steve Jobs and Secular Hope

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 19, 2011 08:35 AM

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On Monday morning, Apple announced that Steve Jobs would be taking a medical leave. (He's struggled with his health since 2004, when he had surgery for pancreatic cancer; in 2008, he had a liver transplant.) Technology and financial analysts have long wondered about the fate of a post-Jobs Apple.

Andy Crouch, a theologian, asks a very different question: "I'm interested in the health of our culture," he writes, and in "what will happen to it when (not if) Steve Jobs departs the stage for the last time." Jobs is world-famous as a businessman and inventor. Nevertheless, Crouch writes, his major contribution is cultural: "his most singular quality has been his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope."

Crouch points to Apple's logo, which placed "a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure - the bitten fruit - and made it a sign of promise and progress." (Interpretations of the Apple logo abound: The Apple is supposed to have fallen not just from an Edenic tree, but also from Newton's apple tree; the bite represents the human thirst for knowledge, and is also a pun on the word "byte.") If Crouch's interpretation seems far-fetched, listen Jean-Louis Gassée, an Apple executive during the 1980s: he looks at the Apple the same way. "One of the deep mysteries to me is our logo,," he says, "the symbol of lust and knowledge, bitten into, all crossed with the colors of the rainbow in the wrong order. You couldn’t dream a more appropriate logo: lust, knowledge, hope and anarchy."

To Crouch, the logo represents Jobs' secular optimism. He notes that, while the last decade has been hard on Americans, "one thing that got inarguably better, much better, was our personal technology." Right after 9/11, in October, 2001, Jobs introduced the iPod. in January 2010, in the midst of the financial crisis, Jobs introduced the iPad. "Politically, militarily, economically, the decade was defined by disappointment after disappointment," he says, while "technologically, it was defined by a series of elegantly produced events in which Steve Jobs, commanding more attention and publicity each time, strode on stage with a miracle in his pocket." Jobs' is "the gospel of a secular age."

Crouch, as a Christian, can't help feeling that it's a modest gospel, characterized by an "austerity of spirit." It's also weirdly technological and businesslike. Jobs represents the hope that renewal and innovation can make life more elegant and meaningful - but he also embodies the fact that what was once new will inevitably grow obsolete and be swept away. Crouch quotes Jobs' commencement address at Stanford in 2005:

[D]eath is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.

"It is a religion of hope in a hopeless world," Crouch concludes - "hope that your ordinary and mortal life can be elegant and meaningful, even if will soon be dated, dusty, and discarded like a 2001 iPod."

Perhaps so - but it's also a strong statement of faith in human independence and individuality. If you're of a religious cast of mind, it might feel insufficient; if you're more secular, it's inspiring. As the intellectual historian Charles Taylor puts it in his book A Secular Age, part of what makes a secular world possible is "confidence in our own powers." An acute sense of their limits isn't necessarily dispiriting; it can be invigorating, too.


Steve Jobs introduces the Mac in 1984.


Steve Jobs' commencement address.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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