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Is Apple fandom a religion? (+video)

As Apple fans await Tuesday's expected announcement of a smaller iPad, an anthropologist notes the event's similarities with religious revivals.

By Francie DiepTechNewsDaily Staff Writer / October 23, 2012

The audience waits before a 2008 Apple product launch event.

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Apple's emphasis on its icon and the company's policy of not live-streaming its launch events are just a couple ways that Apple product launches resemble religious revival meetings, according to one anthropologist.

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There's supposedly a new iPad in the works. Apple is expected to unveil a pint-size version of the tablet on Tuesday at an event in San Jose, Calif. CNET's Sumi Das has a preview.

Many Apple observers and academic researchers have covered how Mac fan culture can seem a little like a religion — or a cult. With the upcoming iPad "Mini" launch event, however, TechNewsDaily wanted to take a deeper look at Apple product launches. We asked Kirsten Bell, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, to look at some launch videos for us.

She came to some of the same conclusions as her predecessors, including Eastern Washington University sociologist Pui-Yan Lam, who published an academic paper more than a decade ago that called Mac fandom an "implicit religion."

"A stranger observing one of the launches could probably be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a religious revival meeting," Bell wrote to TechNewsDaily in an email. Bell now studies the culture of modern biomedical research, but before she got interested in scientists, she studied messianic religious movements in South Korea.

Apple's product launches take place in a building "littered with sacred symbols, especially the iconic Apple sign itself," she said. During keynote speeches, an Apple leader "addresses the audience to reawaken and renew their faith in the core message and tenets of the brand/religion."

Even Apple's tradition of not broadcasting launches in real time is akin to a religious event, Bell said. (Today's event will be available live on Apple's website.) "Like many Sacred Ceremonies, the Apple Product Launch cannot be broadcast live," she wrote. "The Scribes/tech journalists act as Witness, testifying to the wonders they behold via live blog feeds."

Apple-as-religion isn't the perfect analogy, Bell said later, over the phone. "It's ultimately a somewhat superficial comparison," she said. "Religion is trying to do something different from a computer brand." Religion tries to give life meaning and explain humanity's purpose, she said. "It's trying to explain questions that are very different from what science and technology is oriented to."

For anyone seriously trying to understand Apple product launches and culture, using the religion analogy could help, but it might also keep people from noticing other interesting aspects of the culture that don't fit in with the metaphor, she said.

Yet there are strong reasons people have long compared Apple culture to religion, Bell said. "They are selling something more than a product," she said. "When you look at the way they advertise their product, it's really about a more connected life." A better life is something many faiths promise, she said.

In addition, like many faiths, the Apple brand emphasizes its origin story and its founder, Steve Jobs. Few other technology companies are so strongly associated with one person, although one came to mind for Bell: "Microsoft would be the only one that would even come close," she said.

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Copyright 2012 TechNewsDaily, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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