I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. Honestly, the question did not originate with me. I first heard the question asked by Thomas Friedman years ago in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, but recent events have thrust it back into my mind.
Are we creating a second Babel?
Friedman’s point (which he also repeated in his popular book The World is Flat) is that globalization has been made possible only because of the invention of digital technologies. These digital technologies have shrunk and flattened the world in ways unimaginable to previous generations. If that was true twenty years ago when he was writing Lexus, how much more true is it today especially in the age of COVID?
Friedman, who is Jewish, can’t help but wonder. As wonderful as these technologies can be, are they functionally similar to the biblical Tower of Babel?
Many of you remember the story, but if not, I’ll refresh your memory. In Genesis 11, we are told the world had one language and a common speech. They employed the best technology of their day in order to build an impressive city “with a tower that reaches to the heavens.” Their purpose was twofold: hubris and weakness. They wanted to make a name for themselves (hubris) and also protect themselves from being scattered over the face of the earth (weakness). In Babel, we observe one of the first instances of humans looking to their technology for affirmation and security. The LORD does not look favorably on their efforts, so he confuses their language bringing an end to their building and scattering them across the face of the earth. In the end, Babel resulted in creating exactly the kind of division that the people were trying to avoid by building the Tower in the first place.
It is impossible not to see parallels with digital technology. We have constructed a tower of 1s and 0s stretching not to the heavens but around the globe. Our digital ziggurat has obliterated the global and has made everything local. The plain in Shinar is now on our phone. Unhitched from the limitations of time and space communication now happens in an instant. National borders and distinct cultures evaporate under the all-seeing eye of the digital Babel we have created. We have discovered a way to reverse the scattering curse of Babel.
Or have we?
It’s quickly evident to anyone who has spent any time in digital spaces that easy communication in a global village has not brought about the unity experienced before the fall of Babel. It is quite the opposite. Digital technology has made us MORE scattered than ever before.
Consider this example: Imagine a guy named Edmund who believes the earth is flat. In a pre-digital age, Edmund’s beliefs would have been challenged by his daily, embodied existence among people who believed rightly that the world is round. In a digital age, Edmund doesn’t have to worry about being outnumbered in his beliefs. Instead, he can find a community of like-minded people to interact with for hours every day. He is able to create a world for himself where everyone agrees with him in his conviction that the earth is flat. What has also happened is that he has become more insulated and disconnected from those who disagree with him. Digital spaces haven’t completely killed the local. They simply redefine the local in terms of shared ideology or tribal identity. Edmund’s “locale” is a network of like-minded individuals spread out across the flat surface of the earth. When everyone is constructing their locale in this way, you have the set up for LESS mutual understanding among individuals who might disagree with each other rather than MORE.
I love sharing this picture below. It comes from a NYU study on political discourse on Twitter. This is a heat map showing how much the two political ideologies actually talk to each other (as opposed to about each other) on Twitter. As you can see, right wing and left wing twitter hardly ever talk to each other. The exception is when one side pauses to mock the other.
Digital technology hasn’t healed our tribalism. It has reinforced it. Have you been frustrated that every single issue becomes political so quickly? I’m convinced that it is only marginally about partisan politics. It is mostly about tribalism. Every event that happens is immediately thrust upon us – we don’t have to wait for a newspaper or even a radio/television broadcast. Just open up social media and you will almost immediately see that viral video, read that problematic post, or be informed about today’s latest reason to be outraged or terrified. There is no escape. Because the information comes so quickly, there is no time for critical thinking. There is no reason to pause and gather the facts. Instead, the event is immediately given its “proper” interpretation by each tribal interest group. There is no universal language by which we can make sense of the world. Instead, there are only regional dialects. And it has become increasingly impossible for us to understand each other through our thick ideologies. Heck, we don’t want to understand each other. After all, tribes only care about the support of the tribe. Everyone else is an enemy to be defeated.
Have you noticed how many phones you see at every event? I know you have. Next time you see a clip of a riot on Twitter take note of how many people are just standing there recording the whole thing. What is going on here? Well, it just illustrates that even in our embodied existence we are now somewhere else. We are performing a life in our digital existence even as we sleepwalk our way through our embodied existence. Every event must be captured and put online – because that is where my community really exists. The people that really matter are the digital people who will see this video. What a sick situation we have created for ourselves. Our digital ziggurat has only served to isolate ourselves from our neighbors, families, friends, even our enemies. Ultimately, we are isolated even from ourselves.
I wish I could be more upbeat, but I’m beat. The last time man built a Babel, they experienced God’s judgment leading to scattering. I don’t know if God is judging us or not. I’m no prophet. All I can say is this – There is no doubt in my mind that we have constructed a new, digital Babel in our hubris and weakness. There is also no doubt in my mind that as a consequence of this new Babel we are more scattered, isolated, angry, and anxious than ever.