Put Not Thy Trust in Technology

In his recent Atlantic essay, “After Babel: How Social Media Dissolved the Mortar of Society and Made America Stupid,” Jonathan Haidt turns the Biblical story of Babel upside down. This tale in Genesis relates a time after the great flood when all the people of the earth spoke one language and joined together in a plan to build a great tower that would reach into the heavens, thus “making a name” for themselves. Observing the project, the Lord concludes that “nothing will be impossible” for this monolingual people, so he confuses their language and scatters them over the face of the earth. The implicit message is that the Babel project was a bad idea. For Haidt, however, there was nothing wrong with the project. Its only problem was its failure.

The post-Babel situation is, according to Haidt, a disaster and the “best metaphor he has encountered” for “the fractured country we now inhabit.” Haidt imagines the post-Babel world to be one in which people wandered amid the ruins of the destroyed city “unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.” The same is true today, he asserts. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language and recognize the same truth, cut off from one another and the past.” Conversely, a world of “one people” who all speak the same language would be a much better place. It is also one we came closer than ever to attaining in 2011, when Google translate became available on our smartphones, and social media enabled us to “connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable.” But then, between 2011 and 2015, technological changes converted social media into an echo chamber of mob dynamics, and we entered the post-Babel era.

Haidt does not provide a careful exegesis of the Babel story. That’s not his interest. Babel serves as little more than a hook. His primary concern is the role of technology in our culture. Specifically, he argues that social media has fragmented humanity, a state of affairs he simply assumes to be undesirable. Technology, he holds, should not divide us but permit “cooperation at larger scales.” But the Babel story argues for caution in pursuing a modern Babel project through technology. Why?

For one thing, unanimity and homogeneity can promote and perpetuate error. Where everyone speaks the same language and operates with the same aspirations and fears, self-examination and self-criticism are likely to be neglected. Likewise, mass consciousness can threaten the development of individual identity. In such a setting, peace might be likely, but so too might be authoritarianism and even totalitarianism, in which divergent points of view are overlooked or actively suppressed. The builders of Babel are, from the Bible’s point of view, too sure of themselves and too disinclined to ask hard questions of one another and themselves. Likewise, the less fragmented and contentious world that Haidt desires may be too worried about preserving peace to challenge the views of the experts and leaders who often determine what is deemed true and good.

Pursuing a modern Babel project through social media technology is not any better than the ancient Biblical project pursued with bricks.

The Babel project is also highly prideful. Its builders think they can overcome natural human limitations through new technology – in their case, by baking better bricks. But building a tower, even one that reaches the heavens, does not change the human beings who would ascend it to make gods of themselves. Babel’s builders are blind to the difference between the human and the divine. They may think they are transforming themselves into gods, but they are in fact overlooking the essential difference between the human and the transcendent, a distinction that prevents them from recognizing what is truly good. Unity among the peoples of the earth is an eschatological hope; it is not a goal that can be achieved through human technology and planning.

Pursuing a modern Babel project through social media technology is not any better than the ancient Biblical project pursued with bricks. Mindless homogeneity and alienation that undermine the search for truth and limit the development of human souls are too high a price to pay for large-scale global cooperation. There is still a risk that technology will enslave us, promoting a false sense of ever-greater power while hiding our dependence on powers not of our making and beyond our control.

Haidt’s admiration for the Babel project reflects his preference for technological remedies. He suggests that we “harden” democratic institutions by ending closed party primaries, introducing ranked-choice voting, and having nonpartisan panels draw electoral districts. Likewise, he wants to reform social media, by modifying the “share” function on Facebook to make it more difficult for multiple users to share the same content; requiring social media platforms to verify that their users are real human beings;  mandating greater oversight by the Federal Communications Commission or Federal Trade Commission; and raising the age at which companies can collect personal information from children. But according to the Genesis account, technology is less the solution than the underlying problem.

The Babel project reflects a universal human aspiration. It expresses powerful desires for security, stability, and permanence, achieved through rational and peaceful means, made possible by common speech, uniform thoughts, and technology. The dream of a united humankind living together in peace and freedom is not going to die anytime soon. From this perspective, the concern of Haidt and others about the fractious nature of our world is understandable. No one would want anger, dishonesty, and mob dynamics to continue if they could be eliminated without cost. But the Babel story suggests this is not possible. Conflict and anger are inherent hazards of a society in which human beings are free to express their views and explore the views of others in a desire to live better lives. To put our faith in technology to eliminate or even ameliorate these risks promises to make our problems only worse.

In the Bible, the Babel story is immediately followed by the call of Abraham to a new way of life. From this, some have concluded that the Babel story is a prelude to a better way for human beings to live together that is more mindful of our gifts and limitations. This approach aspires not to large-scale projects, but to the small and intimate, beginning with the instruction of one man, then one family, and then one people. It emphasizes not better technology, but better people, whose lives and habits of acting, feeling, and thinking enable them to use technology to engage in fruitful and even spirited dialogue. And while it recognizes the appeal of unity, it does not seek to establish this through human efforts, but to trust that such unity already exists and can be better, but never fully, known and appreciated by those with the desires and virtues necessary to seek it.