The description in the Bible[i] of the incident of the Tower of Babel contains a number of details. It was undertaken by most of humanity and it required use of new technologies in its construction. The ostensible purpose was to create a new city with an extremely tall iconic structure. They wanted to make a name for themselves and keep everyone unified, living together, in proximity, instead of having to scatter all over the world.
Is this so different from our modern obsession with building mega structures in densely populated urban settings? Is there something wrong with wanting to build and leave a legacy of awesome iconic structures? What about our pride in being a part of a large diverse population, living together in a bustling, vibrant, world-class city; is there something inherently wrong with this kind of a living arrangement?
Yet, in the case of the Tower of Babel, there must have been something profoundly sinful about this kind of activity, because the solution required breaking up the apparent unity of the people of world. Indeed, the Biblical text notes that if mankind were permitted to complete the project, then nothing they proposed doing would be beyond their reach. But, is that a sin? Indeed, doesn’t the Bible[ii] also challenge us to develop the world to its full potential?
Consider also how the project was stopped. The Bible reports that G-d confounded mankind’s ability to communicate with each other. Instead of speaking one common language, they began to speak in their own unique languages. The people were unable to understand each other and were forced to disperse. Their project was left uncompleted.
It would appear that we still suffer the ill effects resulting from this one overwhelmingly wrongful activity of building the Tower. At the same time, it seems that we keep on trying. Whether it is the United Nations or other global initiatives, we are still trying to unify the world. But to what end? Is unity a worthwhile goal in and of itself or is there something more important?
Unity is not an appropriate end, if it serves no useful purpose. If people unite in order to do harm, then what good is that? UNESCO is just one of the most recent examples of misusing the banner of unity in order to pursue nefarious purposes. History is replete with attempts to unify the world. From the ancient Assyrian, Egyptian and Babylonian empires, to the Greek and Roman empires and, most recently, the Nazi Reich, many have tried forcibly to unite the world. However, their intent was not to improve the world; it was to dominate their fellow man and satisfy their own selfish needs and desires.
On another level, a group may ostensibly seek to achieve beneficial goals. It is assumed that, generally, the means used by group members to achieve these goals will also be good, consistent with their pure intent. If, however, inappropriate means are used to accomplish their goals then it is hard not to view their expressions of pure intent with suspicion.
It is suggested that this is one of the inherent flaws in the Tower of Babel project. Even if the ostensible purpose was a good one, there were insidious problems with the manner in which it was executed that raise genuine ethical concerns about the nature of the entire project. It begins with the means used to construct the Tower.
The Abarbanel[iii] discusses how the very construction process was problematical. It began with mankind divorcing itself from the pristine order of the world. Instead of locating the project in an area where there were sufficient natural resources to accomplish the task, they sought out one where they had to create the building materials, artificially. This did prompt technological innovation, including creating bricks that were fired in an oven, instead of using natural stones and fashioning a new type of mortar. Nevertheless, why seek these kinds of artificial things in order to satisfy their cravings for luxuries. This focus on technology for its own sake diverted mankind’s attention from other more important things. It separated them from their traditions and they were no longer grounded in the natural order of the world. They didn’t focus on knowing and acting in accordance with divine truths. Most importantly, this included how they treated their fellow man.
The Pirke D’Rabbi Elazar[iv] describes how arduous the building process was in constructing the Tower. It was not easy to fashion the bricks and bring them up to the top of the Tower as it was being built. Intense focus on the task at hand was required and this resulted in a callousness concerning anything outside of building the structure. A worker might fall and die during the construction process and the people paid no heed to him. However, if a brick fell, then they sat down and wept about its loss. They exclaimed their woe about when another brick would be fashioned and brought up in its stead.
Technology can be incredibly useful as a means of aiding in the achievement of a goal. However, both the goal and means must be ones that benefit mankind. Technology for the sake of demonstrating our prowess is an abstract exercise divorced from our reality on this world. The Tower of Babel is a powerful example of how technology for its own sake is a misguided exercise that leads to no good end. Indeed, it often results in a lack of sensitivity to the needs of the people it could otherwise benefit. In this regard, I can’t help but note how useful the computer and digital technology was in researching and creating this post. At the same time, it is certainly no pleasure sitting around the dinner table when everyone else seems to be totally focused on their phones or other digital devices. These devices can also cause great harm. Texting while driving can cause deadly accidents. Crossing the street while reading emails on a phone or tweeting is a danger both to pedestrians and occupants of cars. It’s time to re-engage with life and re-energize our sensitivity to others around us.
The challenges of cyberspace and virtual reality hark back to the Tower of Babel experience. Divorced from reality, many find it permissible to insult others, in cyberspace; in a manner they would not consider doing in face-to-face conversation. Bullying, libel, slander, gossip, fake news, hate and other deleterious activities find casual and free expression on Twitter, Facebook or other platforms on the Internet. It is a powerful medium, which connects the world in words, photographs and videos, in an intimate and immediate manner hardly imaginable even two decades ago. However, is it serving as a means of unifying the world for good purposes or wrongful ones? Whether it is ISIS recruitment, harming children, spreading hate, libeling Israel or other nefarious purposes, this unifying vehicle can easily be abused.
The world of analogues and digital processing can serve extremely useful purposes, when they are grounded in accomplishing real world purposes. However, as tools for separating ourselves from reality and dwelling in a digital world, they are fraught with all sorts of danger. This is one of the important lessons of the Tower of Babel. It may be ancient, but its teachings about the use of technology are still fresh and cogent in our modern milieu.
We must seek to align appropriate means to good and desirable goals. The end usually does not justify the means. If the means are wrong then the end should be re-examined. This is because if the means are inappropriate, then the end is usually wrong, as well.
[i] Genesis 11:1-9.
[ii] See Genesis 1:28. See also Psalms 82:6.
[iii] In his commentary on verse 11:2.