The Varieties of Religious Experience: How Apple Stays Divine

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iPhone revelation.jpgThe iPhone Antennagate is, for most intents and purposes, over. Apple's free-case quick fix for the problem tamped down consumer anger -- and Apple's great earnings report blasted its problems off the front page. Analysts predict the issue won't materially affect the company's next financial reports.

The long-term impacts of the problem are less clear. Will unforeseen negative repercussions emerge in the future? Did Antennagate cause some kind of fundamental shift in Apple's relationship with its core fans?

There are scholars who study Apple's consumers as religious devotees. Consumer behavior specialists Russell Belk of York University and Gulnur Tumbat of San Francisco State, even put together a framework for assessing Apple's mystical mythology. The company was built on four key myths, they argued.

Here are the four narratives, as summarized by media scholar Texas A&M's Heidi Campbell, who distilled their work for her May paper "How the iPhone became divine":

  1. a creation myth highlighting the counter-cultural origin and emergence of the Apple Mac as a transformative moment;
  2. a hero myth presenting the Mac and its founder Jobs as saving its users from the corporate domination of the PC world;
  3. a satanic myth that presents Bill Gates as the enemy of Mac loyalists;
  4. and, finally, a resurrection myth of Jobs returning to save the failing company...

The stories they identified aren't myths in the sense that they aren't true, but more in the Joseph Campbell sense of being a story that helps people make sense of their relationship with the world. These ideas are where consumers attach to attachment Apple, so we thought it would make sense to see whether what happened during the affair could undermine any of these key beliefs.

We can throw out the satantic and resurrection myths right away, which didn't really come into play. Antennagate wasn't an attack on Apple's countercultural heritage, and its origin story is well-established.

About the only part of the core Apple fan belief system that the event could have been compromised is the hero myth. Jobs, at first, did not come off looking good. Comedians parodied his admonition that users were holding their phones wrong.

But after last week's press conference quelled questions about the company's practices and this week's iPhone sales report, Jobs not only seems like a hero again, but he reinforced the resurrection myth too.

Jobs even let media representatives into an inner sanctum at Apple, the antenna testing center. Fans responded with appropriate enthusiasm at being shown one of the powerful shrines to Jobs' dedication to perfection. BoingBoing tastemaker Xeni Jardin  posted photos of the place with the headline, "Best thing to come out of Antennagate? Apple's 'antenna testing chamber' porn." Bloggers reveled in using the official name of the facilities, "anechoic chambers," which practically buzzes with gnostic appeal.

Heidi Campbell, for one, doesn't think the company has much to worry about.

"This resurrection myth, and the belief in the infallibility of Mac technologies is going to keep people still invested," Thompson said.

Recalling the pricing and availability problems following the launch of the original iPhone, she concluded, "Antennagate will make waves for a little while, but if what happened to Apple around the launch of the original iPhone and all that rigmarole didn't shake people's faith, I don't think this will."

Indeed, as illustrated in this (hilarious) video that's garnered 5.5 million views on YouTube, it is hard to shake the faith of iPhone buyer that they are purchasing the world's best device.

"What the hell entices you about the iPhone 4, if you don't mind me asking?" an imaginary store clerk says. "It is an iPhone," the cartoon customer response. "You do realize that doesn't mean anything. It's a brand," the clerk responds, but to no avail.

But that's just it: the iPhone does mean something, and it's the type of meaning that transcends rational optimizing about features and raw performance. "Apple weathered the storm because there is such brand loyalty through the religious narrative," Campbell maintained. "When you're buying into Mac, you're buying into an ideology. You're buying into a community."
 


Image: Alexis Madrigal.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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