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The Tablet as Totem: Is Steve Jobs Our Moses?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on January 26, 2010

Every culture has its totemic objects that define and reify what people believe to be valuable and important. Nothing is more totemic, of course, than the tablets that Moses brought down from the mountain that contained the Ten Commandments. The tablets structured society and life. They were an ordering device that embodied the top-down, hierarchical movement of message and information of the day.

We may be about to experience something similar in modern culture. Envision, if you will, a secular Moses in the guise of Steve Jobs, bringing a high tech Tablet out that defines and reifies our modern day culture. This Tablet is an enabling device that embodies the flat, social, interactive, co-creative movement of message and information of today. It enables us to order ourselves.

Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, talks about totemic objects. To the French, wine is a totemic drink that embodies their culture and has non-rational, almost magical elements to it. It may very well be that the Tablet is a totemic object for the US, especially for the Gen Y generation, embodying its practices and hopes, expressing it’s core values.

I believe that innovations that succeed usually embrace ritual, whether intended or not. That ritual may be traditional or contemporary but ritual, it is.

Reader Comments

James Gardner

January 27, 2010 4:44 AM

Of course, it could just be that the hype around this fabled device has now reached such a pitch that we now begin to ascribe religious awe to it that is more commonly found amongst those of faith.

The danger, of course, is that with such a degree of expectation, no matter what Apple do later today, it will disappoint.

I am of the view that the Tablet - when it comes - will be an amazing device, filled with potential. But, as with most big hits from Apple, the potential is fulfilled when the company is able to create a game-changing ecosystem around the core product experience. That's going to take time to happen.

Still, we will know all in a few hours.

James Gardner

Gregory Pleshaw

January 28, 2010 2:04 AM


As always, appreciate your ability to be on top of the latest trends in the way Gen Y (or whatever we are) is using the new technologies to further erode the ability of capitalism to make money from information exchange. I think you understand this implicitly, but to unpack what I mean, I suggest you read the following excellent polemic from Kevin Kelly, which is now two years old but Kelly has always been way ahead of the curve. (Economics of Increasing Returns, etc.)

In the meantime, I invite you to check out an insane proposal I wrote about the future of literature that the Tablet, iSlate, or whatever its called is going to enable through its technological capacities. It's called "Static Books Are Dead: Can't Believe I Wrote One!"

I wrote the piece for an innovative online collaborative project called Share This Book, spearheaded by Australian techno-futurist Mark Pesce, which attempts to create an online book written by 60 or so different collaborators. We're using a vast array of tools to create this thing, including Google Wave, and its entirely possible that it will simply be released as a totally free e-book, because, well, Information Wants to Be Free, still and all, despite out best efforts to contain it and make a bit of scratch out of creating it.

ps: I just found out from the NYT that the thing is called iPad. Excellent. Whatever you call it, it will change the way we view a thing we used to call "a book."

much love,


October 16, 2010 3:30 PM

The loan seem to be very useful for guys, which are willing to ground their own company. In fact, it's easy to get a car loan.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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