Published On: Tue, Nov 29th, 2011

The iPad: Disseminator of Unhappiness?

Last week, the Chief Rabbi of England, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, issued a statement in regard to the recent death of Steve Jobs: “The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i. When you’re in an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about “i”, you don’t do terribly well.”

Isn’t that a bit like shooting the messenger? Since the discovery of fire, technology has only been as good as the hands it’s in.

He went on to say that “the consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness.”

In a similar vein, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone – Vatican Secretary of State – proclaimed that “the economic crisis highlights the un-sustainability of a market totally self-referential and, while raising new questions about the responsibility and ethics of financial processes, represents a fundamental question with compelling importance about the meaning of fate, dignity, and the spiritual vocation of the person.” While not referring directly to Steve Jobs or the iPad, the cardinal was nevertheless taking a potshot at the materialistic culture of which e-technology and the iPad are necessary byproducts in a market-driven economy.

While it is certainly true that iPods and iPhones can envelop a person in a self-imposed bubble of texting, music and video games, the technological innovations of these devices also accelerates communication (some of it lifesaving information) at the speed of light. In this regard, both the rabbi and cardinal’s remarks are greatly enhanced by their instantaneous circulation across the internet. To be sure, consumerism has its drawbacks. It can feel like chasing a carrot until we keel over from a heart attack. But it also breeds advances that enrich our lives and hopefully bring them to gratifying fruition.

It is difficult to catalogue all of the benefits of Mr. Job’s innovations. But a cursory list includes: medical information transmitted and disseminated at hospitals across the globe, educational tools at the beck and call, economic data evaluated on a minute-by-minute basis, bills paid from home, photographs exchanged between loved ones, et al.

Strangely, both the rabbi and cardinal are receiving kudos in some conservative circles – something to do with the sanctity of the family. Uh-oh, not that canard again! Cardinal Bertone said that self-referential materialism clashes “against the marriage between a man and a woman, against the defense of life from conception to natural death”.

Did I miss something or is that the sound of ice cracking beneath his feet?

Most conservatives justifiably believe that the family is the basic cornerstone of society. What the iPad or consumerism has to do with undermining family values is a bit vague. Perhaps the good cardinal was merely pointing out the dehumanizing effect technology has upon interpersonal relationships. It is true that online pornographic addiction and Facebook infidelity are new phenomenon in society that can adversely affect the integrity of not only marriage or family but the well-being of the individual as well.

However, Mr. Jobs eschewed pornography. “We believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone,” he wrote in 2010. “You know, there’s a porn store for Android [a rival variety of mobile telephone]. You can download nothing but porn. You can download porn, your kids can download porn. That’s a place we don’t want to go.”

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Germany recently disinvested itself from a publishing company that made millions by distributing pornography the old-fashioned way, through books. “Germany’s Deutsche Welle news agency reported that in 2008 lay Catholics had sent share-owning dioceses a 70-page dossier on Weltbild [the publishing house], pointing out that the firm was selling pornographic titles. The agency said an October survey by a publishers’ trade magazine had turned up 2,500 titles under the keyword “erotik” on Weltbild’s website.”

Oh dear, some days it’s hard being Catholic. Isn’t there a parable in the Bible about counting the costs?

(In an interesting sidebar, the Church recently revamped the language of its missal and where can one go to find the changes – you got it! – by downloading them onto their iPod.)

Give credit to the rabbi and cardinal for recommending virtue in the face of a secular society that is largely narcissistic and acquisitive in nature. Hope and charity are solid foundations for building a good life. Crass materialism is its own vice with its own crass brand of neophytes. (See the Kardashians.) And a church without sin is a church without a congregation. However, the good cardinal might want to double-check the portfolio holdings of his own religious home before casting stones at the homes of others, especially as it concerns the enduring legacy of Steve Jobs whose innovative technologies helps to keep the wheels of wealth-creation turning.

About the Author

- Robert Maley has worked in publishing, banking and – as incongruent as it may seem – the theatrical world. After many years of living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he now resides in the more pastoral setting of Virginia. A playwright with an MFA from Columbia University, he has had several plays produced off-off-Broadway. Presently, he is a critic of the Cultural Marxism to which he once allied, especially as it pertains to the arts, faith and academia.