The Power of the Tower: How Facebook Became Our New Tower of Babel

Photo by Ben Vaughn at Unsplash.com

The direction of humanity changed forever on a day that few of us realize. 

On July 16, 1945, a team of scientists and engineers watched the first successful atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The team, dubbed “The Manhattan Project,” had been secretly developing the weapon at the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II.

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the laboratory and so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” watched from afar that morning as the bomb released a mushroom cloud 40,000 feet high. His description of that moment has since become famous:

He quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, Hindu scripture: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only time nuclear bombs were used in war as a weapon, Oppenheimer, who was instrumental in creating this new weapon, many of the scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project, began to question what they had done. Oppenheimer realized that this new technology, needed to stop Hitler who really could have taken over the world, could lead to the future destruction of humanity. Following the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer openly opposed the creation of the Hydrogen Bomb, an even more powerful and deadlier bomb, and began working with U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to control the use of nuclear weapons. His opposition to the H bomb cost him his livelihood, as he was blacklisted during the McCarthy error.

Nuclear power is neither inherently good or evil; it is a tool. It has the potential to create clean energy for all, but also to destroy humanity.

In 2021, the threat of nuclear destruction is much less on our minds than in the 1950’s, when children would practice hiding under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack on the U.S., but we are grappling with another invention that has the same potential to destroy or create: the internet. 

There is no Trinity test moment for us when someone we acknowledged when the internet era began, but I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg had the foresight of Oppenheimer when he created Facebook. When it was created 2004, in a college dorm room at Harvard, it was a tool to check out other students and rate their looks, which is sort of an Ivy League tradition when they sent out an annual book of everyone’s picture. But it quickly grew to serve another purpose. Zuckerberg said, “Yeah, well, I never started this to build a company. Ten years ago, you know, I was just trying to help connect people at colleges and a few schools. That was a basic need, where I looked around at the Internet and there were services for a lot of things that you wanted.” 

It was meant to connect people, but as we learned this week in hearings on Capitol Hill by a whistle-blower from the company, Facebook makes more money when people disconnect from each other, and when the user can potentially harm themselves. The more hate speech, divisive content, and disinformation, the more time we spend on Facebook.

I will never forget attending a seminar on 21st-century communication. The presenter began her presentation with the following: “Facebook is not the product, you are.” What she meant was, you think you are using Facebook, but really, Facebook is using you. Instagram, a picture-based social network owned by Facebook, knowingly tailored their platform to get more teenage girls to join, and they did this by developing features that caused them to develop negative feelings about their bodies. There is evidence that this led to the proliferation of eating disorders amongst this population.

It is time for us to acknowledge the importance of this moment, to have Oppenheimer’s eye for the future, and the foresight to fight for a brighter future.

In this week’s parashah, we read the short story that is known throughout the world: the story of the Tower of Babel, which we read today. There’s an interesting connection to the first part of the parashah, the story of Noah and the destruction of most of humanity, and the tower of Babel. In Hebrew, the deluge that destroys humanity is called the Mabul מבּול and the word, בבל. God destroys the world during the Mabul, but promises that God will never again destroy humanity. God, however, does not promise that no one will destroy humanity. In this respect, God gives us the power over our species fate. 

The Tower of Babel story begins like the story of Oppenheimer and Zuckerberg. In Genesis 11:4, we read the Tower’s purpose:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה  נִבְנֶה־לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן־נָפוּץ עַל־פְּנֵי כׇל־הָאָרֶץ׃ 

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235 – France) says that the purpose was to build a home for weary Nomads. The height of the tower would enable shepherds to keep track of their flocks and would serve as a beacon for other shepherds to join them. Kimchi explains that the desire to make ‘a name for ourselves’ was a way to perpetuate the city lifestyle over the Nomadic nature of humanity at the time. It was meant to change humanity for the better. 

This is the world of John Lennon’s Imagine: a world without division, where everyone is the same, where we speak the same language, worship the same God, or no God at all. 

This idea of uniformity in all things is actually the motivation for many of the most horrific dictators and emperors in time. Even Hitler did not look at his acts as evil; they were necessary steps that needed to be taken in order to bring world peace, and unity. 

The Tower of Babel had its own human creator, an Emperor named Nimrod. Nimrod, the grandson of Noah, is introduced as the first man of might (a gibor or hero) on earth. According to the Midrash, he was a mighty hunter, he was gifted the clothes that Adam and Eve wore in the garden of Eden, and he developed a following. 

With the tool of intelligence which led to new technology, Nimrod changes the intention of the tower. The rabbis say that Nimrod did this all to promote idolatry, the worship of other gods, but there are no other gods mentioned in this story. I propose that the gods are actually us, human beings, and he was at the center of us all. He was meant to be the god. 

During the construction of the Tower, Nimrod perpetuated the idea that bricks were more important than people. The Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24) teaches that when a man fell down and died, no one really paid attention, but if one brick fell down, they would sit and weep and say:  Oy to us, when will another one be hauled up to take its place.”

Bricks over people was arguably his greatest sin.

It is interesting to note that Zuckerberg used to end his meetings with his staff with the words: Company over country. 

Facebook’s greatest sin is profits over people.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we have built a new Tower of Babel. The internet spawned Facebook and social media. This week, we learned that Facebook is not inherently neutral; the company is in control of how it can be used. For years, we thought we as the users of Facebook were to blame; but the architects and the Nimrods who own created them have more power than we had possibly imagined. In recent years, we have learned that Facebook has led to the perpetuation of the genocide of the Rohingya people in Burma, it has led to tearing our Democracy apart, and damaging relationships between families and friends. It has siloed us, leading us to only want to hear the speech or viewpoints on the world that we want to hear, the views that support our own preconceived notions of the world. Through its attempt to bring the world together, the platform has torn us apart.

This time, God isn’t here to tear the tower down. It is up to us, to our leaders in government, but also to each one of us. We must recognize the power of the internet and social media. We have a choice to use this new tool for good or evil, for-profit or for the betterment of humanity. 

I will end with another vision for the future. It is from a group called the Internet Society. Their vision: the internet is for everyone. They say that the Internet is a place of possibility and opportunity. It is where we collaborate and innovate for a better world. Where we share our hopes and strengthen our bonds. It is where we work, learn, and make progress.

Their goal is to empower people to keep the Internet a force for good: open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy.

This is our challenge. The sin wasn’t building the tower; the sin was how we used the tower. 

We must keep this in mind as we have almost unimaginable power in our hands, as Oppenheimer realized on July 16, 1945. We can follow God’s path of creation, not destruction, of unity without uniformity, and where the dignity of human life is more precious than any brick, algorithm or dollar. 

About the Author
David Baum serves as rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, a small (but mighty) Conservative Kehillah (community) in Boca Raton, Florida, sits on the Rabbinical Assembly Social Justice Commission, former president of the Southeast Region of the Rabbinical Assembly and Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis.
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