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[24.0] Babel, baby!
language: off the rails
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.
6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused [Hebrew balal = confuse] the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Happy Sunday, cuties! Starting the day off with some Biblical readings? Now that’s what I call wellness:
Odds are you’re familiar with the passage above, or at least the ~*spirit*~ of the parable. The Tower of Babel is found in Abrahamic texts—though less prominently in Islam than in Judaism and Christianity. It’s an origin myth for humanity’s various languages (and, imho, explains why Esperanto never really took off :/).
Synopsis: Humankind gets a little too ambitious and builds a tower that tickles the heavens. God punishes humanity by rendering us incapable of understanding one another, forcing us to scatter. Think Humpty Dumpty, but with tongue.
There are tower myths in almost every culture. They are among the archetypes that Jung called autochthonous, stories that have arisen independently in many different civilizations. The version I know best is from Genesis, a narrative about the primal site of linguistic confusion, that city where understanding is no longer possible. It is a story about technological hubris, or maybe about civilization itself, a parable about the perils of scaling. All of humanity comes together to build a tower to heaven, hoping to usurp their creator, only to find that their language has been garbled by a jealous god. Sense turns to nonsense. Meaning dissolves into noise.
The Tower of Babel says size matters!! Scaling begets peril; stay small, stay humble, stay in your lane, or else.
The Book of Jubilees, a canonical text to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as well as to Ethiopian Jews, quantifies the Tower of Babel’s exact proportions. It was “5,433 cubits and 2 palms” tall, or 8,150 feet. As Wikipedia notes, that’s three times the Burj Khalifa’s height.
O’Gieblyn is less concerned with scale involving cranes and concrete—let alone “bitumen,” whatever that is—and more invested in the type requiring blue chips and data sets. She approaches the Tower of Babel as a lens for her encounters with GPT-3, a cutting-edge natural language processing algorithm. GPT-3 contains a bajillion gigs of babble harvested from cyberspace; it has the capacity to filter that pablum and produce some uncanny and yet coherent content. On command, it can write in iambic pentameter, pen fictitious news stories, and cast light on our deepest existential questions. Here’s a snippet of its musings, in which it equates scale (the amount of information we retain) with our human essence:
The unconscious is a huge and infinite field of potential. Anything can be found there. It is a sort of reservoir, which we can draw from. You may ask why I refer to it as a reservoir. There are two reasons for this. First, its contents can be accessed and brought out at any given time. And second, it is accessible by everybody. I have heard some people describe this process in terms of a computer’s disk drive.
GPT-3’s got range and sounds more gainfully employed than either you or I. No joke: some think tools like GPT-3 may soon overtake creative jobs, creeping into more +•left brain•+ (yuck) work like writing, journalism, music, etc. Endorsing each other on LinkedIn won’t prevent the apocalyptic collapse of entire industries!
O’Gieblyn’s essay avoids ringing like a dirge for human writing—her own profession—by digging into language about language. Like, how do we tend to justify or condemn the rise of GPT-3-esque tools? What can we discover about ourselves in the process?
Unlike “disruption” discourse, in which continuity and discontinuity both normalize tech encroachments, profiting off “the gloomiest of doomsayers with the giddiest of cheerleaders,” spiritual discussions surrounding may A.I. appear more divisive.
At the heart of O’Gieblyn’s inquiry is the question of whether complex algorithms can have a soul. Upon asking an A.I. evangelist whether tools like GPT-3 harbor consciousness, for instance, one may get the expected retort: a challenge to prove that humans aren’t machines. As in, What isn’t an automatronic task? Those on a more “defensive” side—a.k.a. warning against spreading, unregulated A.I.—are thus forced to conduct a public CAPTCHA test (“I’m not a robot”). With that kind of self-defeating, auto-minimalist approach, it’s as if humanity engaged in a pessimistic debate about its own status or dignity before the Tower of Babel’s foundations were even poured.
O’Gieblyn doesn’t frame it as such, but perhaps the Biblical parable is a warning against “connection” kink. Was the Tower really erected in the name of a common unifier? What power dynamics compelled such construction? We can draw a line from the “We are one!” hubris of Babel to, say, binders full of tech giants preaching “connection” as their raison d’être, as though money were irrelevant. Depending on one’s Biblical interpretations, both Tower and tech involve power-hoarding factions whose vapid “Ubuntu!”-esque preaching, overambition, and subsequent mistakes can harm and divide everyone else.
I think we’ll stop questioning whether these machines have souls once they start destroying more of what we love. It’s not that hard to personify wrath! Just ask all the storms we name.
Trains encapsulate this personifying trend. Nineteenth-century British doctor John Eric Erichsen discovered “railway spine,” his term for a phenomenon in which survivors of train crashes, who sustained no physical injuries at the event, continued to relive the moment of impact, experiencing great physical pain as a result. Trains, moving at speeds previously unknown to human beings, brought unprecedented dangers and psychic effects. And with it, the discovery of trauma as a human experience.
The animalization of the train charged full speed ahead. Tbh, it’s hard to tell what’s the chicken and the egg here. Yes, dubbing trains an “iron horse” was in part a rail industry marketing gimmick. Yet popular culture has often scrutinized attempts to imbue inventions with humanity. Ahem, Dr. Frankenstein? And many modern-day technologies mimic animal characteristics (like DARPA’s terrifying robot dogs) more intentionally than trains do, rightfully raising alarms. Recognizing a technology’s spirit can arouse both excitement and suspicion, if not fear; “innovation” isn’t inert. (To some extent, though, tech’s rubber, we’re glue. Language operates as the perceptive hinge, sanctified to potentially Babel-level heights. From our poetic perch, we risk overlooking less charismatic technologies.)
At the same time as “iron horse” marketing, others described the train as something more human than mechanical, highlighting the perils of its innovation. French author Émile Zola, for instance, penned La bête humaine (The Human Beast), which depicts the blurry boundary between human and train, man and beast. In it, a train engineer with homicidal urges keeps himself from killing people by maintaining an erotic relationship with his locomotive, whom he names “La Lison.” While his engine is being repaired, the engineer witnesses a murder and falls in love with one of the accomplices. Push comes to shove, several people are killed. A jealous lover derails the engineer’s train, killing La Lison. The engineer recovers, but his relationship to trains doesn’t; he and his deputy fight while carrying soldiers to the front of the Franco-Prussian War. They kill each other, sending a pilotless train and its passengers to their doom.
Could such unequivocally carnal, destructive imagery have compelled the rail industry to reclaim “iron horse” language through its ad campaigns? Idk, ask Jeeves!
Traumatic accidents like derailments are random and hard to explain. The more we permit the most “futuristic” technologies of our time to retain their inexplicability and randomness, the more we’ll fall into myth-making to lend order to the destruction they leave in their wake.
Either way, tech overlords should scale back before they’re smote! Or before their life partners dump them again:
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.