God Is In The Details?

I had the pleasure of seeing Alain de Botton speak yesterday at the Art Gallery of Ontario, discussing his new book Religion for Atheists. It was an interesting lecture (he would prefer sermon), based on the thesis that the traditions and structures of religion, while incredibly useful (if pointed in their purpose) are not replicated in the secular world.

In other words, we don’t really have any vehicles to explore and discuss our emotional and psychological worlds. Our inner, personal journeys are… well, largely inner and personal. Our outward interactions are often superficial, by contrast, often lacking the same meaning and depth. While the institutions of most major religions focus on helping to support the spiritual and moral development of their faithful, those that do not subscribe to those religions unfortunately often lack the same supports.

There were a couple of remarks that struck me as particularly noteworthy. The first was that, in scale, there is little organization in the secular world that compares to the size and scale of organized religion. The Catholic church, for example, had $97 billion in revenue last year, and a presence in most communities throughout the world. The only real comparables are large, multi-national corporations. Yet while religions focus on the inner, moral needs of their ’clients’, corporations have a far more external, tangible and material focus.

His other particularly noteworthy comment was that ’aesthetics matter’. The prevalence of art, music, story and verse in religious experience is designed to engage and keep engaged the whole person. An intellectually rigorous thought, poorly presented, has little relevance. Ideas — even bad ones — that are presented with verve and artistry resonate more significantly, and benefit from — and are more likely to receive — repeated exposure. Despite this, however, aesthetics don’t get the consideration they should — particularly by the multi-nationals.

In the secular world of commerce, however, there is one organization that does stand out for its ability to create an overall aesthetic experience — and emotional response — that is second to none: Apple. They not only produce products that engage and appeal like few others, but every aspect of their operations is designed with care to resonate and invoke a positive emotional feeling of satisfaction, even at a subconscious level. Every aspect of their interactions has been reflected on, revised and refined, usually at a level of detail and precision that other organizations would not even consider. The scope and magnitude of this is engagingly told in the book Inside Apple; a particularly revealing example was of a designer working through hundreds of permutations of the box that the iPhone would be shipped in, to arrive at a design that was intuitive, exciting and able to be packed efficiently in bulk for distribution.

A visit to the Apple Store in the Toronto Eaton Centre on Thursday provided fresh reinforcement of the degree to which the Apple brand is revered. Walking in the front door was overwhelming, simply because of the number of congregants milling in the store. Nearly 100 of the faithful were attended to by at least 30 readily identifiable employees. According to the resident Genius assigned to help me, this was a ’slow time’, where they were actually able to catch up on their appointments.

Every aspect of my experience reinforced the careful consideration of process, design and experience for which Apple has become known. I was greeted and my appointment was acknowledged. I was welcomed by name. The people I interacted with were helpful, knowledgeable and genuinely seemed to care about what they do. In a world where customer service is usually graded on a scale that starts at indifferent and works its way down, my personal experience was extremely positive. Despite the presence of a milling throng, I was helped promptly and remained the singular focus of the person I was dealing with.

Much of my experience was also mediated by Apple products.  A dongle for a VGA interface was apparently stored in a locked drawer. A swipe on an iPhone, and the drawer was remotely unlocked. The same iPhone scanned and checked out my purchases. To pay, the phone scanned a barcode on the nearest credit card machine, which promptly displayed the cost of my transaction.  Swipe the card, and then sign with a finger on the iPhone. Be advised that ”a bag is on the way”. All from where I stood. The entire experience was seamless – No checkout, no line-up, no opportunity for second thoughts.

There is no question that Apple is a secular organization. Their focus is on profitability. They make material products. Their emphasis is rooted in the external world, where they exist to make things that people will willingly buy. But their design — of their products, their stores and their interaction — has a level of thought and an aesthetic appreciation that creates an experience bordering on the seemingly magical — or spiritual, if you will. Their tangible products invoke emotional responses, often bordering on the worshipful. As an organization, Apple may not directly support or address our inner journeys, but they do an awfully good job of faking it.

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