Platforms, alternate truths, and a society come undone: a new reading on Biblical technology.
Facebook, the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg once wrote, is “the digital equivalent of a town square.” We used to have shared space and shared closeness, but that was a long time ago. Not to worry, Zuckerberg tacitly argues: Facebook will recreate that lost intimacy on your screen. After all, it’s a cause perfectly aligned with the company’s mission statement: “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Facebook is a global platform provider that’s here to undo the distance between all of us. What could go wrong?
Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words, the Torah tells us in the story of the Tower of Babel—a story from this week’s annual-cycle parsha of Noach. And as they migrated from the east, the Torah goes on, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there….And they said: Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens to make a name for ourselves; lest we be scattered all over the earth.
A people haunted by distance engineers a system to stay together. By the story’s ends, Hashem scattered them… over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.
What could go wrong with a digital town square designed to hold us together? The Tower of Babel could go wrong. The world might collectively turn to a platform to hold all people together, only to see the world and its peoplehood fall apart.
Indeed, many think this is happening today. Chamath Palihapitiya, once VP of user growth at Facebook and later one of social media’s harshest critics, is a representative voice amongst these people. “It literally is a point now,” Palihapitiya told a Stanford business school audience in 2017, “where…we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
Facebook, along with any number of other technologies that propose to serve as society’s new connective tissue, pose the risk of turning us all into a new Babel. And with this new risk, a set of connected Biblical puzzles that have troubled scholars for centuries have taken on new urgency today. How, exactly, did the people of Babel go wrong? What did the people of Babel fail to see or do that doomed their project so completely? God decides to scatter these people who wanted so desperately not to be scattered—but what fault did God find with them that deserved such a punishment? And how, by extension, can we avoid their same sins, and their same fate?
On the face of it, God’s motivation seems to be to punish a people for hubris. The people of Babel had said to one another: Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens to make a name for ourselves. And it is this project which prompts God’s reaction: They are one people with one language for all, God warns the angels, and this is how they have begun to act. Now nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. If they succeed in this audacious project—if they reach the heavens and make themselves a name—then what else could they do?
God stops these people before we or they can find out. Let us go down then and confound their speech, God continues, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech. So begins the process by which HaShem scattered them… over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city and the tower.
So perhaps the story of Babel is a story of innovation on earth against God in Heaven, a view for which the commentary of Rashi offers support. But then again, there might be another issue at play.
When God puts a stop to the people’s endless power, he prevents them from doing what they propose to do—yuzmu la’asot. Which is a phrase that is surprisingly close to another phrase from a very different context later in the Bible, in Deuteronomy / Devarim. If a man appears against another to testify maliciously, the Torah commands, and gives false testimony, you shall punish the false witness for all that he schemed to do / zamam la’asot. The wording God uses against the people of Babel is strikingly similar to the wording used against the false witness.
Maybe the problem of Babel isn’t unfettered technological strength. Maybe the problem of Babel is unfettered falseness.
Indeed, the whole project of Babel is one of people who, like false witnesses, use verbal sleights of hand to exchange the fabricated for the real. Come, the people declare from the outset:
let us make bricks and burn them hard. And brick served them as stone, and lime served them as mortar. And they said come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens to make a name for ourselves…
In the Hebrew the wordplay is rich: make bricks / nilbinah leveinim; burn them hard / nisrifah lsreifah. And so artificial bricks / liveinim replace stone / avanim; lime / cheimer is transformed to mortar / chomer. Of course this is the idea of any engineering: technological fabrication replaces natural reality. And in the case of Babel, all of this becomes work in service of the people’s mission: come let us build / havah nivneh… to make a name for ourselves. Which seems like a significant goal, as the story of Babel is framed on both sides by long family trees, and yet all the characters of Babel are completely anonymous. In a world devoid of names, only the tower provides a name. In a nameless techno- existence, an engineered identity, a fabricated truth, is all the truth there is.
Or so it seems. But even with all the fabrication, the story offers us some clear in-real-life truths. One truth is that the people now live in a valley: they had traveled from the East, the Bible tells us, and they settled in the Valley of Shinar. Another truth is that the people fear that their society will come apart: they say they need to build, they need to make a name for themselves by building, lest we be scattered all over the earth.
The second fact may shed light on the first. Many scholars have pointed out the oddity of building a tower to the sky from within a valley: if the goal is to reach the heavens, then it would be far smarter to begin from higher ground. But then again, maybe building from a valley is the point. The people of Babel live in fear that they will be scattered over the earth; they are razor-close to seeing their world fall apart; this is a society with no solid footing to stand on. So they build their innovation to cover up that absence of level ground. They engineer a new reality to let them reach for the sky—as if they were not fragile and unmoored and afraid to lose each other, deep in a valley.
The people of Babel are afraid to be torn apart and so, to stay together, they engineer an un-reality to bind them all. That unreality serves to both cover up and deepen real-life problems. None of this sounds so different from Facebook, the platform designed “to build community and bring the world closer together” by way of a digital—not real—town square.
But Facebook is hardly the only platform that can be described this way: many other modern technology projects just as neatly fit the bill. “YouTube has exploited the pleasures of hanging out” argues digital critic Vicky Osterweil: in an era when viewers are hungry for belonging and content producers are hungry for views, cynical YouTube demagogues “are incentivized to intensify the feelings of us vs. them, because embattled loyalty churns clicks and sells shirts.” Nor is this just a story of the newest technology alone. Former radio and TV news producer Ariana Pekary left TV journalism because, she found, networks select guests and topics for ratings, not for inherent informational value. Not to worry, a colleague once tried to reassure her: “Our viewers don’t really consider us the news. They come to us for comfort.”
We’ve lost the town square, we’ve lost a sense of belonging, we’ve lost the comfort we used to give to one another. So we turn to our platforms to replace what’s lost. Sometimes we turn (unwittingly or not) to literal fake news—the rumors and lies so much of technology seems purpose-built to enable. But fake news itself only has such a hold on us because it is a symptom of a larger problem: the problem of how we turn to our technology platforms to begin with. Those platforms promise us a new reality in which what’s been lost – closeness, comfort – still exists in a newer, shinier form. We have a place to turn to and a new world to connect in, the platforms promise, so everything’s still OK. Until we suddenly find ourselves busily tending to the lives we watch and make within those platforms—and not tending to the actual, in-real-life togetherness that is slipping away.
They are one people with one language for all, God tells the angels, and this is how they have begun to act. You could read anger in God’s voice. But you could read disappointment in God’s voice too. These are people who know their society has its fractures. They are aware that the situation is dire. And they know, too – or they ought to know – that they have the greatest product in history to save themselves from splintering. They have shared words.
But these people do not use their special product, those shared words. Instead, they build technology that gives them a new belonging, and new meaning, and a new reality designed to make it all better. Why shouldn’t God be disappointed?
We live in acrimonious times, and technology has helped fuel that acrimony. This technology was largely designed to bring us together, but instead it has brought us apart. We may or may not be trapped in a new Babel, but it often certainly feels that way.
But there’s still room for hope. Maybe we’re still at the beginning of building that Babel—we still all share a same language, or a remnant of it; and God has yet to come down. We just need to see that the reality we need to build for ourselves isn’t in our platforms. It’s not in the towers we architect or the systems we engineer, mortar upon brick. The reality we hold – the one we actually live in – is in our voices, and our ears, and in the words we can still use to get close to one another once again. We have those words, those tools we’ve always had. It’s not too late to use them.
I’d like to thank my friend Dan Friedman (@danfriedmanme) for his editorial guidance on this piece.
Translations from the Tanakh based on the English translations in Sefaria.