Steve Jobs and High-Tech Spirituality

Delighted to host today a guest post by Kip Kosek, author of the just-released-in-paperback Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and American Democracy. Kip contributes to a thriving conversation about the influence of alternative spirituality on the architects of the iconic products of our age, including those from Apple. For more on this topic and on Steve Jobs and religion, check Elizabeth Drescher's post at Religion Dispatches.

by Kip Kosek

What does Steve Jobs, who died on October 5 at the age of 56, have to do with American religion? Of course, there’s the robust “cult of Mac” that venerates each new Apple product as a sacred gift sent from the divine land of Cupertino. Yet Jobs was more than the architect of an obsessively loyal customer base. He was also part of a creative nexus that brought together the alternative spiritualities of the counterculture and the advanced technologies of the personal computer.

As Fred Turner explains in his illuminating book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, hippies and hackers had a lot in common. The counterculture’s preoccupation with energy fields, aliens, and Eastern religions resonated with the invisible networks and virtual reality imagined by early personal computer developers. The Whole Earth Catalog, an eclectic resource of ideas and products for back-to-the-land types, was an inspiration for the Internet, “sort of like Google in paperback form,” as Jobs later put it. In the mid-1970s, Jobs traveled to India and declared himself a Buddhist. From a certain perspective, Apple’s design principles embody a Buddhist aesthetic of simplicity, even nothingness. The iPod wheel as the Wheel of Life.

Jobs was not the only trendsetter whose search for transcendence dovetailed with his faith in technology. Kevin Kelly, an editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and later a founder of Wired, has produced several provocative speculations about the spiritual consequences of high-tech. A Christian, but an unorthodox one, he believes that artificial intelligence will produce a revolution in religion. His essay “Nerd Theology” suggests that “as we make other minds, these minds will change our mind about God.”

In his spiritual outlook, Kelly is an anomaly, as was Jobs. Relatively few Americans have embraced Buddhism or pondered the theological implications of Watson. Nonetheless, the extraordinary innovations that shape our technological lives are inseparable from the computer pioneers’ participation in the American religious fringe. They thought different. Now we all do.


Anonymous said…
As you said this high-tech spirituality represents only a small group, it reminds me of Eck's book "A New Religious America." This, I believe, is just one one the many so called religions she and her cohorts at the Pluralism Projest would document. I wonder if this spirituallity is indeed documented by her.