The Facebook Dilemma, pt. 2: Rebuilding Babel

A Mission Without a Moral Compass

When Facebook launched in the early 2000s, Mark Zuckerberg had no long-term plan or goal. Soon after they had reached 1 million accounts, an interviewer asked him what his plans were for the company and he said “Um … I mean … there doesn’t necessarily have to be more.” (Ah, youth!) Ready or not, “more” was coming. As the company took off, the leadership formalized operations. They made hoodies with a new mission and vision printed on the inside. At first it was simple: “Making the world more open and connected.” As mission statements go, however, it proved too nebulous. It could not (perhaps intentionally did not) answer the question: to what end?

All things have a telos — an end towards which they are pointed — whether inherent or assigned. In this case, FB lacked a clear end or purpose towards which that openness and connectedness would be pointed. Voids love to be filled, and FB’s persistent silence on this question was answered in dramatic ways — in revolutions (The Arab Spring), ethnic-cleansing (Rohingya), and international political interference (Russia in the Ukraine and US). Clearly, more “open and connected” would not be enough to explain their existence. If they didn’t at least attempt to define their own telos, others would define it for them.

The leadership at FB eventually refined the company mission to the current version: “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Granted, they stayed true to the first mission while adding more substance. (Never mind that some people have more power than others and some are censored altogether.) Power apparently belongs to the people and the goal is still to bring down barriers and erase distance. Even so, I cannot help but ask the same question: to what end?

Ancient History

Watching the Facebook Dilemma, I found my thoughts drawn to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. I looked it up and read it multiple times (with the uneasy sense that I might be crazy for even suggesting a connection). It is a surprisingly short little story considering its significance. A mere nine verses in Genesis 11, sandwiched between Noah’s Ark and Abraham’s family line, it gives the reason for why there are so many languages in the world. I would summarize it for you, but it’s easier and more helpful to simply quote it:

GENESIS 11: 1-9 (NIV)
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.

Three things in this story stand out to me. First, the people did something new. They went from building with cut stone to building with baked bricks. Their new technology was exciting and they discovered they could build something special with that technology: city with a tower that reaches to the heavens. Second, their work, their city and tower, had a clear telos: “so that we might make a name for ourselves” and keep ourselves from being “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Glory and unity was the goal. Third, there was no sin named in that telos. God did not say they were wicked or that their work was evil. Even so, God scattered them. Why? Because, “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.” Nothing they plan will be impossible. Implication: some things need to be impossible. The scattering and confusion was not punishment but protection! … Against what?

The placement of this story is interesting. Leading up to the story of Noah’s Ark, God looks at humanity, sees that it is filled to overflowing with evil and regrets (!) having created humans. He decides to wipe out all but Noah’s family and “start over”. God tells Noah to build the big boat, sends him all the animals that need special preserving, and then floods the world. The waters eventually recede, the animals are released back into the wild, and Noah’s family repopulate the world. (No wonder everyone spoke the same language.) Insert the Babel story — unity, purpose, confusion, scattering — and now all the cultures and languages of the world find their beginning. Immediately after Babel comes the story of Abraham: the one through whom “all the nations of the world [would] be blessed.” (Gen 22:18)

Glory & Unity

Whether you read the story as myth, fact, or a blend of the two is an interesting but separate conversation. My first observation from the Biblical narrative should be clear to any kind of reader: that it is good when certain things are impossible for humans. In this ancient story, God, knowing the natural evil in the hearts of people, gave humankind a boundary (the confusing diversity of language) as protection against any future attempt to focus that evil. My second observation, however, goes further. I suggest that the deeper issue is one of misplaced glory.

Seeking glory is in itself not wrong until you consider: whose glory? It is not wrong to glorify great things, only to glorify lesser things. Humans are miraculous creatures, yes, but in view of the infinite and eternal God, humans are lesser things. It is good to order these rightly. Though created for God-glorification, humankind is forever bent toward self-glorification. The boundaries created by linguistic and cultural diversity have made it nearly impossible for humanity to unite in self-glory. Again, that is especially good because we are just as prone (probably more prone) to glorify the evil among us as we are to glorify that which is good. (Consider what sells in Hollywood, consider the news media, consider even the current debate over the vitriolic and polarizing nature of Facebook news feeds. Or if you prefer, consider every revolution in human history alongside each revisionist narrative.)

Coming back to boundaries, we need them but the heart of humankind is also prone to rebel against them. It was our first and is our most enduring sin: to willfully step outside of the good boundaries set for us. To pursue what is not ours to our own destruction. To try to be “like God.”

Rebuilding Babel

It is not surprising that one of Facebook’s early mottos was “move fast and break things.” Break what? Boundaries. Specifically the boundaries of distance, time, nation-state, and language. Instant communication, instant translation, instant mobilization. To what end? “That we might make a name for ourselves.” Individuals want names, groups want names. We are restless and relentless in our search for unity and glory — Ideological glory, national glory, technological glory, economic glory: human glory. Facebook is not the first attempt in the history of humanity to rebuild the Tower of Babel, it is only the most unique in its form and startling in its success. There is no physical tower, no bricks and mortar. Only a digital colossus with a blue banner at the top connecting almost 2.9 billion people — more than one third of the world’s population.

When questioned about all of the shocking things being done by “bad actors” using FB for nefarious ends, one of the interviewees in The Facebook Dilemma, Roger McNamee, said: “It wasn’t that they intended to do harm as much as they were unconcerned about the possibility that harm would result.” Why were they unconcerned? According to, Naomi Gleit, longest serving member of the FB leadership team after Zuckerberg: “We relied on what we thought were the public’s common sense and common decency to police the site.” This view, which has pervaded all of FB’s responses to controversy, is at best naive and at worst self-deceived. The more that technology enables humans to seek unity in self-glory, the more evil we will see unleashed in the world. Why? “Because 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.”

You, like the FB leadership, may argue that there is an amazing amount of good we may accomplish through platforms like Facebook. Yes, but the human heart is also deceitful. We do not know depth of evil living there. We have not yet experienced the degree of all-encompassing wickedness that first led God to “regret” His good creation and wipe it out in a flood. God knows we need boundaries, and the good ones He gives us are not ours to break. Some things should remain impossible.

Ultimate Glory & Unity

Some of my Christian readers might here ask me: “what about the Biblical themes of unity and glory? What about the unity of the church? What about ‘every tribe and tongue’ coming together in the end?”

At the beginning of this little post, I mentioned Abraham. When God confused the languages and scattered the people, He actively prevented them from unifying under their own banner and promoting their own glory. Then God chose Abraham and so initiated a different kind of story — one of humility, submission, sacrifice, and redemption. From beginning to end, the Biblical story is a long arc in which the Scatterer brings back all who are scattered, teaching them along the way to glory in that which is most worthy of glory: God.

Isaiah 48:10-11 (NIV)
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
    I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
    for how should my name be profaned?
    My glory I will not give to another.

God will get the glory in the end. Not in one language, but in every language. And it won’t be on Facebook.

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