Technology and the Tower of Babel

This morning I jumped in the car to do a hospital visitation and my car radio was stationed to KLOVE.  I do not normally listen to the radio while I drive but it was already on so I listened.  The ‘between song’ topic of conversation was about a piece of Colorado state legislation-ballot initiative no. 29. As the Washington Post has reported (you can read the article here), a dad and Denver-area anesthesiologist Tim Farnum has worked to make the sale of smartphones to people under the age of 13 illegal.  Not only could a pre-teen not buy a phone for themselves, the bill would also make it illegal for parents to purchase smart phones for their own children.  If the Bill has its way smartphones, much like alcohol, will become a controlled substance or contraband for the youth and children of the state.

The issue has both fierce support and strict disdain from parents in the Denver area.  The idea that the government would invade the sanctity of the home and parental decisions about the welfare of their children has been the real topic of debate.  Dr. Farnum’s support base has seen what many other adults have seen. Kids are addicted to technology! Addiction is a loaded term that people don’t like to throw around because for many substance or sexual addictions have been soul crushing experiences. Even still, the term is appropriate when describing the enormous personality and mood changes that constant technological stimulation brings out in our kids.

“‘If you tell them to watch the screen time, all of a sudden the fangs come out.’As he tells it, his once energetic and outgoing boys became moody, quiet and reclusive. They never left their bedrooms, and when he tried to take away the phones, one of Farnum’s sons launched into a temper tantrum that the dad described as equivalent to the withdrawals of a crack addict.”

It is at least true to say that technology is changing the social arena. Conversations that once were deemed to sensitive or personal for even a well thought out formal email now happen flippantly through text message.  Instead of learning how to read body language and dealing with the emotional ramifications of delivering challenging news in person we just click “send”.  We are forced to suffer alone.  We receive and deal out harsh words through text or social media that we would never have the gaul to say in person.  The dark recesses of anonymity and distance embolden us to say heinous things and inflict emotional abuse in new ways.  In a world of constant connection that is marketed as tolerant, there has never been a time in history where we are more emotionally distant, cold, and hateful.

Technology has the potential to bring out the worst in us.

Technology also gives us immeasurable advantages.  I am currently writing a blog post on my MacBook Pro while occasionally glancing at my iPhone.  I am far from a tech hater.  Much of the discussion so far has been political or moral in nature but what about the theological?

I remember one day in college sitting down for a Greek exegesis class on the Gospel of Matthew with Prof. Scott Frost but the discussion was not about Matthew.  Somehow we had gotten him talking about a paper he had written in Seminary (if memory serves me right) about the rise of technology as a second Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

-Genesis 11:1-9

He attempted to make the biblical case that it was only when the nations were unified in language in Genesis that God sensed a threat and acted.  He moved on to suggest that there has never been a time since that the world has been so connected (other than a momentary glimpse of kingdom reconciliation at Pentecost when everyone heard the Gospel in their own language).  Sure, you may be able to see someone of a different nationality on a street corner in a city but you would still have a language barrier.

Once we were separated by distance, language, and culture.  Now, western culture practically dominates global interaction, anyone can be in your virtual presence on your smart phone as fast as it takes to push the FaceTime, Duo, or Skype application, and advancements in translation software can have you understanding or speaking any language without any effort.  He asked the question: Are we in danger?

I found this an interesting thought.  I think the ultimate answer is yes, but not maybe for the same reason he suggested.  I just don’t know if language is the real problem here.  The narrative of Genesis thus far has let us know that humans broke faith with God and in breaking faith we God they sullied their connection to him and as an unforeseen consequence their connection with one another was also tarnished.

The relational divide is both vertical (with God) and horizontal (amongst humans).

Leading up to Genesis 11 and the story we are considering one witnesses the snowball decline of humanity’s situation with the brokenness culminating in the flood narrative where:

The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.

-Genesis 6:5

The situation is dark indeed and it is far from resolved in the Noah story. Over and over sin causes relational divides between God and his creation and between people.  Many biblical scholars are puzzled by the placement of the Babel narrative within Genesis.  A number of people have suggested it really ought to be earlier in the book “historically speaking”.  But what if this story is not meant to be a historical insight but a theological one highlighting the ways that humanity ceaselessly tries to downplay their situation and unify in an attempt to squeeze out the necessity of God?

In Genesis 11, a unified language eases social pressures and allows for a false sense of relational connection that ignores the foundational human ailment – estrangement from a holy God.  In this story, humanity experiences a false sense of hope that God judges will only lead them to destruction. God has to destroy the very thing that conceals their need.  He does this in our lives too, tearing down our facades and showing us the root of our issues as sin.

One thing that technology has the potential to do is numb us to the reality of our situation.  Constant connectivity to the world seems to mask our broken connection to God in sin.  One Google search will fill the affirmation void we crave in justifying our sinful desires as we find communities at the click of a button that are more than willing to call our sin “harmless self-expression”. The relational and physical distance of wireless communication allows us to deal substantial emotional and spiritual damage without having to witness their affects or pick up the pieces.

Because of screens we are dulled to our real brokenness and the real solution in Christ.

Theologically speaking then the question should be changed from whether or not a child or pre-teen having a smart phone is medically or socially problematic.  The discussion should not center around an issue of personal or states rights in legislating smartphone control.  Instead as Christians we need to ask the question:

Does having a smartphone bring us closer to Jesus?

Now specifically, does subjecting children and teens to the fullness of technological freedom and anonymity contained in smartphones help show them their need for Christ and holiness?

Sadly, I haven’t seen much theological reflection on the nature of our technological world (at least that isn’t wacko).  Maybe we need to have a deeper conversation about the void that technology has been filling in our younger generations and ask what the church’s role is in shaping the future of technology…

Logan Patriquin

Logan is Lead Pastor of SAWC. Navigate to "About Us" - "Meet Our Pastor" to learn more.