Apple’s Oldest Innovation

Michael Metzger

Steve Jobs’ final innovation is actually a very old one. Apple’s new headquarters, a circular “Spaceship,” was the brainchild of late Apple co-founder. But its spherical shape is actually a very old innovation. It’s found in all sorts of older Christian traditions.

In the planning stages for years, Apple’s new headquarters is scheduled to open for business in 2016. Revised renderings reveal a glassy, four-story, 2.8 million square feet of spherical building. Able to accommodate up to 14,200 colleagues, the headquarters does not include a single straight pane of glass. It’s a sphere.

Jobs’ spherical inspiration came learning about the benefits of roundtable environments, such as MIT’s Building 20 (http://www.doggieheadtilt.com/why-the-wounds-are-faithful/). In 1999, Jobs designed the new Pixar headquarters with the building wrapped around a central atrium. It featured mailboxes, meeting rooms, coffee bar, gift shop, and cafeteria, all designed to literally drive people towards routinely bumping into colleagues. Apple’s new headquarters is designed to be a testimony to Steve Jobs’ final innovation.

What Jobs probably didn’t know is that spheres are actually testimony to older Christian traditions. As Iain McGilchrist notes in his magisterial The Master and His Emissary, the ancients believed the sphere “reflected the shape of the cosmos, the universe, and ultimately of the Divine.” He cites the long history of spherical thinking, from “at least as early as the Corpus Hermeticum, a body of early Christian texts from Hellenic Egypt dating back to the third century” all the way to a thirteenth-century bishop, Alain de Lille, throughout the Hermetic tradition in the Renaissance, notably in Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century and Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth, who wrote of ‘an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere,’ an idea that was given its most famous expression by Pascal in the seventeenth century.”

It appears that roundness and the image of the sphere has come and gone with the influence of the right hemisphere. Circular motion accommodates the coming together of opposites, helping individuals see things as a whole, and in depth. Shelley speaks of the phenomenological world as a sphere: “The devotion to something afar / From the sphere of our sorrow.” Wordsworth’s most famous lines speak of the phenomenal world as a sphere: “the round earth and the living air, rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,” phrases which convey much more than the banal fact that the earth is a sphere and that it rotates. Van Gogh agreed, writing, “life is probably round.”

To the early Greeks, the sphere was the perfect shape, expressive of eternity and divinity. Older Christian traditions, including early Western ones, represented the cosmos in the curved roundness of the ceiling of the apse, or of the dome of the church, or of the tympanum over the great west door – but rarely on the flatness of a wall. This was long before there was any idea of the roundness of the earth.

With the Enlightenment, interest in the sphere waned. Straight lines became prevalent. The reason this happened is arresting. Modernity and the Enlightenment tend to rely more on language, a function of the brain’s left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is binary, either/or. Computers are binary, one or zero. This is why a computer cannot draw a circle. It can only connect two points in a straight line. A circle is a never-ending spherical line. Circles are products of the right hemisphere, where we think both/and.

Circles and straight lines go a long way toward explaining the inefficacy of much of the modern Western church. It is only in the brain’s right hemisphere that we have direct access with reality. It is only in the right that we imagine spheres. “Straight lines are prevalent wherever the left hemisphere predominates,” McGilchrist writes. The language of “concepts” and “principles,” as well as three-point outlines are reflective of left hemisphere straight-line thinking. But the left hemisphere has no direct access to reality. Straight-line thinking yields a faith with, at best, only indirect access to reality.

Spheres are why Celtic Christianity proved so effective. As George G. Hunter notes in his book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, the Christian faith flourished in Ireland (and later Europe) because early Irish Christians built “round” communities with buildings that often had two concentric circles. This contributed significantly to the health of Irish Christianity in two main ways. First, it made the experience of faith less individualistic and more community-oriented. Second, Hunter writes that “Celtic evangelization took people’s ‘right brains’ seriously; it made the gospel’s meaning vivid, engaged people’s emotions, and energized their response by engaging their imaginations.”1

As the proverbs remind us, there is really nothing new under the sun. Steve Jobs was a visionary and a fabulous innovator. But his final innovation is a very old one. What if a well-respected Christian had pointed out to Jobs that Apple’s new headquarters actually reflects an ancient faith tradition? We’ll never know how he might have responded, but these kinds of connections are vital if the Christian faith is going to one day be taken seriously by those presently disinterested in the Christian faith.

Jeff Simpson contributed to this article. A recent graduate of the University of Maryland College Park, Jeff is working this year as an intern with Cru at the University of Maryland.

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1 George G. Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism (Nashville: Abington, 2000), p. 38.

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8 thoughts on “Apple’s Oldest Innovation”

  1. An interesting line of thought that appears to become cylindrical. Balanced thinking involves reflection of left and right. The championing of one side of the brain IMO is unhealthy. Analogue and digital bring different insights. The Celtic line of thought was smothered by the structural dominance of the Roman @ Whitby. Celtic thinking consistent of communities that included celebrating individual calling.(often with individuals living solitary lives).
    This is the irony that Henry VIII selfish acts destroyed a monastic community of compassion that was lost beneath a battle of metaphors between the individual and the state. Celtic thinking IMO holds a healthy tension between shape and individualism, reflected in the celebration of the uniqueness of each natural item. A tension between the item and the culture it exists in. A flower moulded by its essence and the climate it exists in. The imposition of a structure has the danger of cloning or clowning(accepting only the positive). Holding too tightly to a metaphor essentially becomes a smothering of the essence. Trapping the essence at a particular point.

  2. One of the phrases Jobs liked to talk about was something like “Apple is at the intersection of Technology and the Liberal Arts” which seems to play into the left/right hemisphere whole brain approach you’ve been writing about recently.

  3. The danger of too tunnel shaped thinking is severe ear or sieve ear responses. Responding to uniqueness and creativity expands the boundaries of possibilities enabling aesthetic, kinaesthetic outcomes as well.

  4. ‘The uniquely Christian mind, therefore, is a rare find. Humanism, secularism, intellectualism, and materialism have invaded our thinking to such a marked degree our [testimony] has become diluted—in some cases, nonexistent. ‘ Charles Swindoll.

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