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2001-04-04
Babel Revisited
or Why Human Beings are Too Smart for Their Own Good.

2001-03-07
Anime: It's not just for breakfast any more!
Dan sets out to prove that one can both be a grown up and enjoy watching cartoons. Sometimes even in the same day.

2001-02-28
The Electric Slide
Sure, the web can be used to sell books and movies, but what's it really good for? Tons of crappy amateur movies! No, not those amateur movies.

2001-02-21
What I Really Want To Do Is Direct
The Oscars approach, and Dan revisits Cast Away to examine how likely Tom Hanks is to pick up his third little gold statuette.

2001-02-14
How Romantic Comedies Ruined My Life
Cupid may be shooting arrows, but Dan's wearing full plate mail.

Check the archives for more columns.

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Babel Revisited  

[This essay was originally written for a class in my fall semester 2000]

Doomsayers unite! The end is at hand. It's not some late-blooming Y2K bug, or immanent nuclear war, or even the death of modern culture.

God is coming back. And boy is He unhappy.

Now don't label me as some sort of religious fanatic hell bent on salvation; if anything, I consider myself an ardent anti-religious fanatic. But this is not to say that I am not a spiritual person, as I inevitably find I must draw a line between those two terms. I have been studying religion for a few years now; this has resulted in some interesting experiences.

I remember very distinctly being in one of my religion classes not so long ago. My attention was beginning to wane, and my eyes had drifted to the ceiling to study the fascinating intricacies of what, to most people, appeared to be ceiling tiles.

It was at this point that I heard a voice.

It said: "God is not here."

I beg of you: do not succumb to the temptation of dismissing these as thoughts of a madman. I find that there are instances in one's life where one's mind is so perfectly clear of thoughts that any idea that enters into being at that moment will disturb the perfectly smooth surface like a pebble thrown into a pond. This was one of those times.

I'm not under any illusion that this was God Himself, nor do I fear that I suffer from some latent form of schizophrenia. It's quite obvious to me that it was just a realization that I came to at that particular moment, and it just happened to come through with unerring clarity.

Before this point, I don't think it had even really occurred to me that I was looking for God. My excuse for studying religion had always been that I wanted to know what made people so passionate about God. It was always about other people to me: my parents, my friends, even my co-workers. What made them so sure they had found some sort of ultimate Truth? This was the breaking point, the moment that made me realize that in order to understand why everybody else was so concerned with God, I had to become concerned with God. And what I understood at this point was that the God I was finding through the study of religion was not what the God that I was looking for: this was the God of technicalities and semantics. I was looking for the God of faith, and so I had to start my search anew. And at that moment, the bud of an idea formed, a green shoot off the trunk of my mind. Maybe God was right under our noses, and we never realized it. But as this idea developed, sprouting into a fully developed branch of thought which must be carefully watered and pruned, I saw with horrible certainty the full extent of what this existence of God entailed.

The Apocalype is coming. More accurately, it is the Infocalypse, if I may borrow the term from author Neal Stephenon. I use Mr. Stephenson's term because I believe that our next downfall will be brought about by information technology. Just as I am not a religious fanatic, I am not a neo-Luddite. I have spent years working in the information technology field, and I am have more of an affinity with technology than most people I know. Because of this, and because of my fascination with the study of religion, I have noticed several places in which the paths of these seemingly disparate fields intersect.

Take Genesis 11:1-9 for example. The story of Babel is rather well known, even in the secularized religion of today's American culture: all humans speak the same language, so to show their united power, they band together to build a tower to reach the heavens. Understandably, God is upset, believing that they are trying to challenge his authority. So, rather petulantly, he scatters the humans and confounds their language, so that they cannot work together. If the Bible is literal, then since that point in the past, cultures have been developing roughly in parallel, but with separate languages and practices. Interestingly, this has the side effect of causing religion to also develop differently among these cultures; but perhaps God divided the worship of Himself into different forms so that people would be too busy fighting over Him to work together.

This dispersion of religions has an interesting corollary in the world of computers. Computers each have an essential piece of software called an operating system. The operating system is responsible for the basic functioning of a computer: where the files are placed, how you access other programs, and how your computer relates to other computers. In the world of computing we have three major operating systems, often called "platforms": Windows, Macintosh, and Linux. Since the underlying code in each operating system is different, a program must be adapted to run on each of them. This process is called "porting" the software.

My apologies if the following analogy seems a little farfetched, but let's think, for a moment, of the peoples of Earth as different computer platforms. They have different cultures, different underlying "code" that governs how they function in certain situations. The belief in God is, essentially, a computer program. But just as you can't take a program from one platform, and expect it to run on another platform, you can't take one person's idea of God and expect it to be accepted by another person. The idea must be ported to other people; it must take advantage of the way their underlying code operates. Hence, in order to be understood by the merchant culture of pre-Islamic Arabia, God makes references and analogies to elements of business in the holy Qur'an. So, the foreign idea of monotheism is applied through familiar Near Eastern practices of mercantilism.

The prior analogy is intended to quell the doubts of those who scoff at the idea of any similarity between God and technology. This is where my spiritual revelation comes into play, that branch of thought of which I spoke earlier. It was apparent to me that there were connections to be drawn between technology and theology, and the one that resonated most clearly to my mind was the Babel story.

At the dawn of the 21st century, human beings are more connected than they have ever been. A little more than a decade ago, essayist David Quammen lamented the fact that humans were tending towards a unanimity of thought that he believed was "a form of overall mental impoverishment."1 Quammen thought that one of the causes of this unanimity was television, which seemed to tell everyone what was currently important to think about. This example is possibly best represented by the one topic that has permeated the entire American consciousness of the weeks in which I write this: the presidential election. It has become impossible to turn on a television, a radio, or a computer without seeing something about it. Seeing how it has been so thoroughly covered, I shall not give it further space here.

The development of the Internet has evolved unanimity of thought even further. Not only are we all bludgeoned over the head by what we should be thinking about, but now we can get bludgeoned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, through text, video, and audio, in any language we want, with any bias that we choose.

The Internet, as an entity, is really very peculiar: it both is and is not physical. If everybody turns their computer off, does the Internet still exist? This is, of course, the modern version of the unanswerable "if a tree falls in the woods" question. The Internet exists largely in what its early pioneers call "ether", a term borrowed from 19th century physicists. To those thinkers, it was the medium through which electromagnetic waves traveled, the substance that made up the entire universe. To the Internet pioneers, it was much the same thing.

In 1973, Bob Metcalfe invented a computer networking protocol that he called Ethernet; the protocol is still with us, as is, through it, the idea of the mysterious and insubstantial substance that is ether. The Internet is nothing more than electrons traveling at enormous speeds through wires; but these electrons travel so constantly and in such volume, that they seem to have created a mystical existence that mimics that substance that the 19th century thinkers described as "weightless, transparent, frictionless, undetectable chemically or physically, and literally permeating all matter and space".

Since ether was something intangible and immaterial, it shouldn't be surprising that it was also used as a synonym for the heavens. God is immaterial and intangible, so it makes sense that he would exist in a realm bearing the same qualities. We still use the term ethereal to describe things as "unworldly" or "spiritual".

So we start to see a connection between the immaterial, intangible substance of the heavens, and the immaterial, intangible substance of the Internet. And perhaps this is where we should begin to worry about God's wrath.

In Genesis, God scattered humans because they were working together to build a tower to reach the heavens. He thought he could prevent this by making it impossible for humans to communicate with one another. Well, guess what? Millennia later we're on the same track. But this time we've found something a lot more substantial than spoken language to bond us together: we've got the universal language of mathematics. And the language of mathematics is nowhere more prevalent than in the world of computers. While a person in France might use different words to interact with his computer than a person in Japan, both of their computers speak the same language: binary. No matter where you are in the physical world, these alternating strings of 1s and 0s mean the same thing across the virtual world.

This is why we should worry. Last time, God was ticked off by some people who thought they could build a tower to heaven (and that sure sounds like a brilliant and reasonable idea, doesn't it?); imagine what He'll do when He realizes that not only is all of humanity once again working in concert, but now we may actually have a door into His realm.

On the other hand, in light of some of the less than productive uses to which humanity has put technology, perhaps it's God that should be worried. Think of the potential damage that could be wrought: hackers could break into heaven and get a hold of God's confidential information, auctioning it off on eBay for untold sums of money; malicious pranksters could send Him viruses cleverly disguised as confessions of love; or what if they could somehow disconnect him from the rest of the Net? Would humankind be cut off from God? This frightening possibility could explain why God takes the somewhat vengeful, and yet only vaguely explained, act of cutting humans off from one another in Genesis. The fact that He had to separate humanity could imply that we were capable of doing something harmful to Him, or perhaps harmful to ourselves.

But the way I see it, there is a bright side to this "deus en machina." Humans will finally have some sort of access to God. Got a question? Just fire up the web browser and surf over to www.god.net. The skeptics and atheists will have to concede. And this should open up new markets for psychics and mediums; after all, if heaven is in the ether, then think about all the souls of the departed who can be accessed by a quick e-mail?

This may seem, perhaps, a little blasphemous. In this case, please accept my sincere apologies; my intent is not to offend. I do not in any way put this forth as the Holy Truth. It would be arrogant of me to think that I have stumbled upon the existence of God after thousands of years of dedicated thought and study by minds much greater than my own. I humbly suggest this theory as just that: a theory. If it makes just one person sit back and think, then it has served its purpose.

The relation between God and the Internet does not mesh perfectly; I will be the first to admit that there are plenty of holes in my theory. But as a framework, it seems appropriate. Since God final and greatest creation was man, and man's final and greatest creation was technology, it seems only fitting that technology should bring us back to God.


Works Cited


Quammen, David. "Thinking About Earthworms: An Unpopular Meditation on Darwin's Silent Choir." The Art of the Essay. Ed. Lydia Fakundiny. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.


"ether" Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. [Accessed 21 November 2000]



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