Strong leaders are key figures of any organisation. Regardless of holding actual power, or merely projecting it, the head of a company, a religious organisation, or a country embodies the entity´s vision of itself and of its future. In the history of Western civilisation, we recognise the recurrent thread of political and state power being an extension of divine authority; the age of Reformation, followed by Enlightenment and a full articulation of the separation of church and state have informed a modernity where the rule of law and the “profane state” hold little account of religious authority. But are we truly free of frames of representation that follow these patterns of religiosity? Today, we still trust in God to save the Queen, and we still witness the leader of the “free world” being sworn in using a Bible. It seems that we maintain symbolic acts and public formats inspired by religious protocols, and it is worth wondering where else in our contemporary society we still encounter such predispositions.
The world of IT and the larger realm of technological innovation might be the last place to find religiosity. Framed on the absolute belief in science and man-made progress, technology inspires an earthly attitude towards mankind, where the ingenuity and genius of the human mind are the only tools of transcendence. This realm, however, is heavily populated with patterns of behaviour, consumption, and following that can be seen as cult-like, and the figure of the “tech guru” is the most telling example. The industry itself appropriated the term “guru” to refer to visionary individuals, most often founders and CEOs of revolutionary companies, and inventors of products that change the world.
An iconic example is, clearly, Steve Jobs, whose emergence as a visionary and “guru” was strengthened by the IT world being in a stage of genesis. Arguably thinking and working ahead of his time, Jobs managed to drag the entire world along the path of innovation. Not only did he inspire new ways of life, he also set the tone for the persona of a tech leader. In stage presence, in narratives of companies and products, in body language and behaviour, the tech world seems to religiously abide by forms and patterns that define the industry.
Events to introduce new products are ceremonies for hungry masses. In the 2007 Apple event to announce the first iPhone and the wide screen iPod, Jobs´ presentation is essentially one big prophetic exercise; it draws on previous world-making features of Apple products to predicate further progress: “the iPod didn’t just change the way we listen to music, it changed the entire music industry.” The presentation goes on to call out existing products as under par and stagnant, and to announce a “revolutionary” mobile phone. Apple “reinvents the phone” – to have this primacy of introducing the product into a pristine world, it needs to rhetorically wipe the slate clean, prove existing technologies obsolete. The old gods are dead, long live the new.
This mantra around “changing the world” has become commonplace; most tech start-ups assume the mission to “make the world a better place,” which, despite being an indistinct exaggeration of the scale and impact of their business, it clearly retains some power to persuade. Persuasion, in fact, seems to be the name of the game. As a profane pre-requisite of faith, persuasion is often heavier than facts and figures in the structure of a presentation or a speech.
TED talks, for instance, are the perfect recreation of an altar-like structure for, among others, tech gurus. A TED talk is a ceremony, where extra-discursive elements play an equal if not stronger role than discursive ones. A strategic use of low and high camera angles shape the presence of the speaker – low angles emphasise their stature, while high angles place the speaker in the context of the stage: central to the scene, yet the smallest element, among the TED logo and huge screens. The smallness of the speakers is rhetorically inverted, as attention will be, nevertheless concentrated on them.
In terms of content, author and keynote speaker Carmine Gallo analysed 500 TED talks and found that the talks that go viral are made up of “65 percent personal stories, 25 percent data, facts, and figures, and 10 percent resume builders to reinforce speaker credibility.” A TED talk is a ritual, comprised of a recipe for success regarding content distribution and packing of information, and placed in carefully arranged settings.
Emotion, novelty, and use of visual materials – they all draw on assumptions about the audience, while also directing the public´s response: in the context of a TED talk, one might expect to be touched affectively, to be presented a new, innovative idea, and to be charmed by amazing visual aids. In the larger context of a visionary tech “guru” launching “revolutionary” products and “making the world a better place,” audiences will be equally mesmerised into buying these revolutionary technologies and enjoying their better worlds for a maximum of two years, when a new product is launched and the ritual starts again.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Cover image: Two demonstrators showing off the “EyePhone” in 1989. Photo sourced from AP Images.