Technology and Worship
This week I tuned in to a worship service streamed live online. Believers travelled from far and wide to occupy a coveted seat in the temple, itself constructed as a memorial to the faith’s founder. The faithful venerated said founder, whose life made possible this gathering, and heard wisdom from his scripture: service to humanity is best expressed through the creation and sale of beautiful products.
The gathering was one of several events that Apple holds annually in which it touts its accomplishments, reminds consumers of the company’s vision, and announces new products. While some companies are content to publicize new offerings via a press release, Apple, since the days of Steve Jobs, has made the product announcement into an event that grips the tech media. Even at events such as this one, when all the details of a new phone are leaked days ahead of time, the excitement to see Ringmaster Tim Cook and colleagues pull back the curtain is palpable in countless live blogs and Twitter feeds.
I began following Apple’s events in the early 2000’s as a musician and music-lover interested in new iPods that magically continued to increase in storage space while decreasing in physical size. Before the days of live streaming I would watch a recording of the event afterwards. Reading about the products relayed the same information, but witnessing the vision-casting ability of Steve Jobs — what some have dubbed his Reality Distortion Field — was gripping. I felt that Steve understood the value music brought to daily life and sought to improve the listening experience.
Apple has always valued the devotion of its customers and has created products that become more functional the more of them you own (I write as a resident of the Apple ecosystem, benefitting from the mostly effortless syncing of my Macbook, iPhone, and Apple Watch). At this event, however, the depth of devotion that Apple called forth reached a new level.
The livestream began with a four minute montage of the new Steve Jobs Theater, emphasizing the attention to detail. This is where the religious overtones emerged, as the montage faded to black and a recording of Steve’s voice began, explaining that employees of Apple show their “appreciation for humanity” by creating new phones and computers. CEO Tim Cook then took the stage to pay homage to Steve while a large photo of the Apple founder smiled down from behind him. Never mind that Steve’s “uncanny ability to unlock the talent” of his employees came from notoriously ruthless leadership. Apple itself, Cook explained, is Steve’s gift to all of us, an expression of his creativity.
At this point one might forget that Apple is also the richest corporation in history. Such sleight of hand is intentional, and only grew as Cook offered “prayer hands” to Steve’s image before inviting up the next presenter.
Apple’s head of retail explained that the company’s retail locations would no longer be called stores, but the company was instead calling them “Town Squares.” Apple Town Squares aren’t places to purchase electronic devices, but gathering places to connect and collaborate with other people (it’s both ironic and laudable that a maker of devices that so perniciously undermine human relationship and connection is seeking to create such gathering spaces). Apple is advancing a lifestyle, a set of practices, a liturgy by which consumers can orient their lives around the company’s brand and products. Photography lessons and “Teacher Tuesday” at the Apple Store (sorry, Town Square) may serve the community, but are ultimately about selling more computers, phones, and tablets.
Through stories of disease, disability, and danger being overcome via the Apple Watch’s health and fitness features, Apple also offered its own soteriology. With this technology you can overcome human weakness and live the life you’re meant to live. Salvation for only $399. This promise should not surprise, as it is the promise of every idol — “You will not die…and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:4–5).
Selling products and making money are not inherently evil endeavors. When consumerism reigns supreme, however, as it does in America and much of the world, a company such as Apple can easily begin to elicit the worship of its customers.
The book of Revelation sheds light on humanity’s worship. All people either worship the lamb or the beast. There is no neutral ground; life’s choices direct worship in one direction or the other. Until Christ’s return, we will be consistently tempted to cede territory in our lives and our hearts to the beast. Technology particularly accentuates this temptation.
Modern technology continues to give us amazing tools with which to meaningfully create culture and influence the world. The devices we carry in our pockets have power that would have been deemed truly magical 100 years ago. And the pace of technological advancement continues to accelerate. It’s no wonder that we’re tempted to orient our lives (our worship) around technology.
Apple and the rest of Silicon Valley want to continue making technology a deeper part of our lives. This isn’t a bad thing in itself. I can now stay connected with friends across the globe in relationships that would not have been possible a generation ago. Self-driving cars will make our roadways safer. If you’re reading this on the internet, you have access to a wealth of information from across human history. Technology makes many aspects of life immensely easier and more productive.
But make no mistake, technology can slowly draw in your worship in subtle ways. How many times each day do you glance at a glowing rectangle? Andy Crouch helpfully asks, are your devices helping you become a person of wisdom and courage? The answer, of course, is almost always no. Technology can do many things, but it cannot form us into the kind of people we long to be. That process is slow, deliberate, and often inefficient — the antithesis of technology.
Do we all need to give up our Apple devices? Perhaps. At the very least, we must resist the liturgies prescribed by the makers of our devices and instead embrace practices that put technology in its proper place so we can be truly human.