I worked at an Apple store for a few years while completing my undergraduate degree. When the topic was raised in conversation, I was inevitably asked whether I found it as cult-like as Apple’s critics claimed it to be. It’s undeniable that the retail side shares similarities with worship groups I was exposed to in high school. I was told to carry a text with Apple’s core doctrines around my neck; I was encouraged to use terms like ‘as it happens’, while avoiding ‘problem’ words like ‘unfortunately’ when telling someone their phone was fucked; I was regularly asked to clap in the morning before I started a shift.
The idea that Apple is a cult plays into narratives about post-WWII, “post-religion” societies. In short, once religious doctrines and beliefs lost their authority in liberal countries, we began to cast around for new sources of meaning, new movements to invest ourselves in. Branding and technology may have partially filled that void.
Apple is the prime example of this phenomenon. The strength of the Apple consumer comes from the notion of making the interface between technology and user as seamless as possible, creating, in effect, ‘heightened beings’. This philosophy is present throughout Apple’s design. They make trackpads and magic mice designed to respond to various finger swipes. They’ve created Siri, a digital sidekick and concierge reliant entirely on one’s voice. Store managers go to strange lengths to create interactions between people and machines. Screens on laptops in stores are placed at a 70-degree angle; it’s an ugly viewing angle and encourages customers to correct it – creating a physical bond.
There are, however, more overtly religious doctrines that are evident in the company’s ethos. The first is the celebration of the similarities between users, the notion of a community based on the shared use of Apple’s devices. Support forums, the Apple Genius Bar and the workshops that are conducted in store all act to bring the community of users together, in a similar fashion to churches or other religious institutions. Once, when conducting a workshop, I was taken aside by a manager. Don’t single out customers, she said. “Always refer to them as a group,” she told me. “They’ll feel like they’re part of something bigger.” Religious communities rely on an inclusion-exclusion dynamic, with dress often distinguishing the tiers. Despite seemingly going against the inclusive ethos of Apple, the distinct separation of employees from customers with the prominent blue shirts and sleek name tags is intentional. It iterates the various roles within the ‘Apple Church’ in a show of leadership and insider or expert knowledge. Some employees were fortunate enough to have the word ‘Genius’ around their necks, a mark elevating them in the hierarchy.
While Apple’s critics call it a cult, it is first and foremost just another company that manufactures first world gadgetry by exploiting third world labour. And yet the similarities in structure and branding between Apple and religious organisations are undeniable. It’s unlikely the company intended to replace religious faith, but it may have functionally adopted the mantle in the pursuit of a superior consumerist model.
Illustration: Wangyi Xin (Cabbage)