Do Not Lament the Collapse of the Tower of Babel
Ancient Distributed Systems Researchers Learned that Hierarchies Made of Humans Cannot Scale Arbitrarily High
There’s a great article in The Atlantic by Johnathan Haidt, using the tower of babel as a metaphor for modern political chaos and tribal factionalism:
“The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.”
I think Babel is a great metaphor, but for deeper reasons than reflected in Haidt's piece.
Did you know just how widespread the of Babel myth is? Many cultures from around the world have a similar myth, about an attempt to build a giant tower that ended with a confusion of languages. What would cause that? My hunch is that something like this situation really did happen - either once a very long time ago, or many many times throughout history. The latter seems more likely to me. I think the story of the tower of babel is like a story about a love triangle: it's a story about a kind of thing that tends to happen, due to the interactions of multiple human beings
I'm not sure what Haidt attributes the story to, so I think Haidt is missing something crucial in the analysis. Haidt seems to lament the falling of the Tower of Babel, while perhaps missing the whole point of the story of the tower of babel: that attempts to build the tower cannot work.
To even talk about this kind of thing in a post-Babel situation, I have to trip over a bunch of linguistic hurdles which get in the way of humans exchanging information with each other. I’ll do my best to avoid triggering any factional tripwires here. If you want to help, you can try to see me as a maniac on a street corner holding a sign that says ‘mysteries of the universe answered’ while drumming a catchy beat as a cat dances along.
Pretend you’re reading only for entertainment purposes. Tell your friends you only read APXHARD for the ridiculous images it puts in your head.
Pretend that God is Shorthand for Reality
While you are pretending, pretend with me, just for a bit, that the word ‘god’ is a historical shorthand for “the shared theory of reality of any given culture”, which acts as a combination of how the world works, as well as how one should operate in it. Pretend that, in a world where death is a common visitor, a world where maybe half of all children die before age 5, where rape and slavery and starvation and plagues are as common as, say, twitter outrage mobs are today - pretend that in this world, it’s pretty obvious ‘which way’ we want to go, but the only question is how to get there.
In other words, pretend stories about ‘God’ are just meant to be maps of reality, marking out where the cliffs and sinkholes and poisonous scorpions and dead ends are. Many of us today tend to think of religion as being ridiculous stories about how the world was made, to persuade people to act in certain ways. But pretend with me, (See the cat dancing? Hear the thrumming of the drum? I’m just a madman singing as he pleases, pay no attention to the literal meaning and pretend I'm just tripping here!) just pretend with me that most religious believers historically agreed it was pretty obvious you didn’t want to spend decades wandering around in the desert being stung by poisonous snakes, and most of their disagreement was basically “How do we avoid living in hell? How can we make the world a better place?”
Pretend that motivating primates to act generally requires telling stories rather than making claims about ‘if you do this one thing for long enough, even though it only seems a little good, you are growing something. Even though it doesn’t seem worth it, keep doing the best you can today, and tomorrow will be much greater than you can imagine today because of something called exponential growth."
If it turns out that humans are better at imitating other people - even mythical ones - than we are at grasping exponential growth, the best way to cultivate goodness in a painful world would be to tell stories about really good people. The idea that God shows up in the world to mess with us, then, is the easiest way to explain something a modern audience may be more willing to hear as, “game theoretic traps exist, and they are awful.”
John Nash wasn’t born to wandering Semitic tribes, at least as far as we know. But if he was, I suspect he’d have said something like:
“Take care of the least among you, because otherwise the social coherence of your kingdom will fracture. Powerful foreign enemies will unite you into seeing yourselves as one people, but this unity, like all phenomena, is only temporary. If you are sufficiently united around a coherent image of the good, you'll soon dominate the weaker tribes around you. In the absence of a foreign threat to your survival, your elites are likely to become decadent, and most people will suffer. Your kingdom will be weak, but you'll be lead by people who proclaim both your strength and goodness. You will become blind to your most dangerous flaws. Your emperor’s testicles will be widely visible, but your leaders will praise his fine clothes. Anyone who criticizes the leaders will be punished and shunned, an outcast."
"Then, when the foreign invaders come, it will be too late for you.”
Nash, Book 0, Chapter 0.
The story of Babylon then might be simply read as, “attempts to build empires out of hierarchies lead to the raising of some class of people as being so high above everyone else, they are treated like gods, but this affront to egalitarianism fractures trust, and without trust the whole thing falls apart.”
The tower, like soylent green, was made of people.
Do you think it was the laborers hauling mud bricks in the hot sun, paid in sloppy porridge and watery beer, who thought themselves as gods for building the tower? Or was it the priests, the scribes, the god kings atop the tower?
When the arguments started, who do you think was fighting against who? Was it the workers at the bottom against the priests atop?
Or was it more likely to be different sub-tribes united under some syncretistic blend of protozoic corporate kool aid? Would the bottom fight the top? Or would the tribes with different backgrounds fight each other over just which priest should stand head and shoulders over the others, of which picture should be etched on top, or which song should be sung or which flag should be flown?
If I'm a priest, and my people at the bottom are mad at me, I'll tell you what I do. I'll tell you where my incentives lie. I tell my people look, it’s those other priests who are causing your problems, and their followers with their stupid language and weird cooking habits and ironic facial hair.
When the top and bottom of a hierarchy see each other as enemies, the incentives at the top are to divide the bottom. In the immortal words of Mark Twain, “at least I ain’t a ninja.”
Remember, for ancient peoples, you might see their belief in God as being what modern materialists today would say is simply the territory. Physical reality, to some extent, but mostly economics, game theory, and the dynamics of memetic evolution.
Building a tower to the heavens to ‘make a name for ourselves’ is a great way to convince people, hey, yo, join the most prosperous empire around, we’ve got a great stock program, benefits, you name it, all lead by these wacky priests who give Q&A’s every Friday, can you believe how open and non-hierarchical our giant hierarchy is?
But this isn’t fair to Babel! So let’s give them their due. These people weren't stupid, nor were they evil. Far from it. Arguably the tragedy of Babel is that they conceivably all had good intentions.
Building a Giant Tower is Good, Actually
If you can replace the idea of ‘god’ with just ‘the territory', you can start to understand the perspective that says we should make ourselves like gods. This is just the drive to understand the world and, through our understanding, control it to make things better. And this drive to make things better is a great instinct, honestly! To me, the ‘point’ of the story of Babel is not that ‘people should accept the suffering of the world as is, and not try to make things better.’ It’s that we shouldn't imagine we can shape the entire world to be the way we want it to, and we certainly shouldn’t form giant hierarchies to do so.
We have to always keep in mind the frailty of human beings, the difficulty of empathy in extremely specialized, unequal civilizations, and the computational intractability of predicting the behavior of a chaotic system more than a few hops out.
In other words, if you have respect for the territory, you are less likely to get seriously injured than if you hold the territory in contempt.
Having ‘respect for god’, says the guy drumming on the street, as the cat keeps dancing, even if there is no person called ‘god’, simply means continuously reminding yourself that, in the cosmic sense, you’re a total dumbass, and this place is dangerous. So it’s wise to be cautious about making big changes to the world.
It is prudent to avoid believing you are capable of solving problems in systems that you cannot reliably predict.
Rebellion against ‘god’ then, even if there is no real god, might be seen as a belief that reality is flawed and in needing of improvement.
Is that even wrong? It isn’t hard to understand at all why, if God really is just ‘the territory’, some people look around at all the suffering in the world, and go, "Wow, what a mess. Something is wrong here." I can totally understand the perspective that says ‘this world is so full of suffering, if there is a God, man he’s got serious problems. But if humans work together, we can make this place great”
What could go wrong there? I think this is a super important question. My answer is a simple fact that is deeply unpopular:
Some of the most horrific things human beings have done to each other, they have done believing it was truly for a good cause.
In the best situations, a group of people convinced they can make the world better, all cooperating, really can make things better. But what often happens is that the group becomes a hierarchy and either disintegrates, or steamrolls their neighbors.
The ‘disintegrating’ part was the story of babel; ‘steamrolling their neighbors’ was the story of the dual evils of the 20th century, Nazism and Communism. These were both considered progressive ideologies at one time. One of them was rightly thrown under the bus for killing millions of people; another one was kept around as a sort of hidden dream, even though it killed tens of millions, because at least they did so for good reasons.
And, lest we forget the firebombing of Germany and Japan, as well as the use of nuclear weapons on civilians, 'streamrolling the neighbors' was also something America did. The key difference is that, probably for the first time ever, a hierarchy with the capacity to dominate the entire world chose not to. At least, we choose not to do so explicitly. We still created a global trade empire based more or less upon our military dominance, but we let the defeated countries take part in the trade empire, on better terms than they'd would hoped for prior to the trade empire's construction. Yet the American hierarchy remained.
And then the hierarchy grew, became self interested, complacent, stagnant, and arrogant.
Hierarchies simply don’t work beyond a certain size. They don’t scale. That’s the lesson I take out of the history. Unfortunately, this lesson is deeply unpopular among people today who are convinced if we just had the good guys in power, we could fix most of the problems of the world. There is still a dream to construct an even taller tower. The ancients would say this is an affront to God. As a modern materialist I'd argue that it's impossible to keep incentives aligned using a hierarchical structure, because the direction of the incentive vectors at the top will dominate those at the bottom.
I suspect that we are saying the same thing.
Even if there is no angry man in the sky coming to kick the sandcastle over out of jealousy, there’s a game theoretic reason why games of humans arranged in a hierarchy can’t go on forever. Empires based upon social games like, say, property rights and free expression - these will only work if the hierarchies don’t get so steep that they fail to maintain trust. But the incentives for those an the tower are always to grow it. And the impact of those on the bottom is often invisible to those on the top.
The only way to maintain trust is for the bottom to have the ability to challenge the top. But when the game includes the ability for the bottom to challenge the top, the top tends not to like this. And they’ll reliably come up with great reasons why it’s good for the bottom to just shut up and play along. Haidt’s article seems to miss this aspect. The article seems to lament the fall of the tower and then offers a recipe for rebuilding the tower, without trying to ask the question “what if the problem is really tall towers made of human beings?”
There really is a hereditary caste running America, and has been for decades. There really are giant institutions that have tremendous influence over the lives of hundreds of millions of people. What if asking the question “how can we keep the tower the same height it used to be” is the wrong question, and a better question is, “is one giant tower really a good idea in the first place?”
History Ping Pongs From Chaos to Hierarchies
The Catholic Church was often criticized as being Babylon during the last time when new communication technology (the printing press) fractured a corrupt hierarchical system and lead to endless factional violence. Yes, something like "the cultural impact of the internet" really has happened before. Liberalism arguably came out as a cultural solution to the obvious costs of endless wars and violence, which lead to the peace of Westphalia.
I think most of human history has wandered between various attractors: chaos and conflict between different tribes, out of which one tribe becomes dominant, uses a hierarchy to control as many other tribes as possible, becomes decadent, fractured, weak, and fails, leading to chaos. It’s only within the past few hundred years that something different has come along: Liberalism. Liberalism is fundamentally a belief in individual freedoms and individual rights. Liberalism prevents the tower from getting too tall by saying, it doesn’t matter how high you are up there in the tower of social status, you can’t tell me what I need to believe, you can’t tell me what I need to say, you can’t tell me what I can do in my own house, and you can’t take away my property without following a precisely defined ritual.
The top of the tower hates that. But my kids hate eating their vegetables. Even my parents need to be told what to do sometimes. If authoritarianism is inevitable, should it be one-way? Or should it be bidirectional?
The most important political questions to me, are those such as “how many towers are there? and how tall are they?” I don't care who is on top: if the tower is too steep, it will crush its base. Arguments over which tower we should join, or what this tower should or should not do, are all less important to me than insuring there is no tower tall enough to crush its base.
If the top grows too steep, I think it will blind itself to its own destruction. Whether this is God coming to smite the arrogance of humans, or game theory just playing itself out, I don't think it matters. I think towers of some size are inevitable - but instead of one giant tower dominating the landscape, I think we are best with a forest of smaller trees. If failures are inevitable, it is better for their scope to be limited.
And many throughout history have reached the same conclusion!
Liberalism Is an Unstable Equilibrium
The antidote to endless alternation between brutal chaos and stifling hierarchies is liberalism. Individual freedom, based upon individual rights. Many religions have discovered this concept, which is to say many attempts to construct comprehensive prescriptive maps of the territory reached the same conclusion.
European liberalism came in part from arguments about individual souls. Muslims do not bow to people. Hindus believe the divine resides in all of us. Sikhs carry swords to defend members of other religions from persecution.
So yes, I think liberalism is great. But I don't think it lasts. I don't think liberal civilizations are stable, any more than a skull can sit stably atop a spine. Liberalism will lead to inequality, and inequality will lead to various attempts to create political structures. Some people will be motivated by the benevolent aim of reducing inequality, and others, well, because political power attracts a certain kind of person.
The end result of liberal civilizations running for long enough should be multiple towers growing taller and taller, each telling the masses, "join us, so we can crush that other tower which threatens your freedom." Does that sound familiar?
Maintenance of these awkward setups known as liberal societies requires constant awareness, continuous adjustment, and either commitment to something beyond material reality, or deep, deep appreciation of the distant future consequences of present actions, (so that you take today seriously) coupled with knowledge of the computational intractability of precisely predicting the future (so that you don’t get full of grandiose dreams that will ruin you).
What's that, you might say? What if we created some system to ensure liberal values were universal? Perhaps a system of scholars or priests or artists to extol the virtues of liberalism? This is why the tower keeps coming back.
We can't automate morality. We can't automate a just society. I think the only way this works is if the knowledge and desire for egalitarianism and liberalism are passed on via small, one-to-one relationships. The meme of liberalism is K selected.
There has always been a desire to create hierarchies, and these hierarchies are generally created out of either fear or greed. Military command and control structures are hierarchical. So are startups that make it big. America entered a military state for the second world war, and I think we never left it, because I think a lot of us do believe in the tower as being a fundamental good.
As Haidt’s article describes, Americans really were largely united in purpose and being for a few decades after the end of world war two. As long, of course, as you ignore the plight of black Americans and other excluded minorities. Depending on who you ask, this is either a stain on the record, or entirely the natural result of single power hierarchy.
I agree with Martin Gurri (quoted in Haidt’s article) that modern physics emerging at the same time as mass media and communication lead to the creation of a priestly class of experts who were given power in exchange for their promise to lead us to new heights. I agree that we are losing trust in those experts, and breaking down into these warring factions that speak different languages. Haidt’s article does a good job describing the pain of chaos and confusion, but seems to lament that and then long for another tower.
I think the problem is the tower.
Yes, America had unity of purpose and message, but it came about because of narrative control by a centralized elite. Yes, the elite was largely committed to good aims, but it tended to see any opposition to it as being a problem, and this is the whole problem with the tower. The story of the tower of babel is, I think, a metaphor about the folly of believing that massive human cooperation via a hierarchy with unlimited scope to ‘right the wrongs of the map’ can lead to enduring progress. Where Haidt sees the collapse of the tower as being a Bad Thing because of the ensuing chaos, I see the collapse of the tower as inevitable because there is a reality to individual rights and steep towers simply cannot respect these rights.
I think these norms end up capturing the extrapolated game theoretic consequences of human social structures. I think natural rights exist as properties of reality, in the sense that they make the prediction “civilizations which do not respect these rights will fracture.” This theory makes a prediction, but it’s not testable in a lab. I try to always think in bets, and I’m more than comfortable using history as a backtest.
So Now what?
If we don't want a dominant hierarchy (which can bring about order by crushing liberalism), and we don't want endless factionalism (because it destroys order and will likely lead to violence) we need to have liberal values be maintained, right?
Most civilizations have had some priestly class charged with maintaining cultural value. Think of Brahmins in India, Confucian scholars in ancient China, the Catholic church in pre-reformation Europe, Protestant ministers in parts of post-reformation Europe, Communist party leaders in modern China, Mullahs in Iran, the kool-aid posters at Facebook, Q&A sessions at major big tech companies today.
Who is maintaining liberal values today? Who plays that role in America today? Can anyone really play that role? And, perhaps more importantly, do we want anyone playing that role?
If the legitimate reason for governments is to protect certain ‘god-given rights’ (i.e. to protect against game-theoretic traps that come from too much power in one place), what happens if those rights can be cheaply protected via new technologies?
Freedom of speech doesn't need to be something governments guarantee, if technology exists which makes censorship de-facto impossible. Private property rights don't need to be a promise from governments if there is technology that makes property impossible to steal from a sufficiently skilled user.
And now I'm at risk of touching the only partisan tripwire that I think really matters. I shall not name it. If you’ve followed along thus far, you might know exactly what I'm talking about. And if it’s not clear, try asking yourself, how can technology safeguard rights better than governments?
What kind of technology could I possibly be talking about?
Technological Implementations of Liberalism Can Last
I won’t say its name, because it’s already a tripwire and we are living in the post-babel era. If it isn’t obvious, I think you’ll eventually figure it out. I don’t need to name it, because I don't think it’s necessary to sell you on it. I think it rides along the game theoretic mechanisms that previous towers have tried their best to pretend don’t exist. You are perfectly free to defect against it. Go right ahead! It uses incentives, not fear, to keep itself safe. Those of us who love it enjoy seeing people defect against it. It enables cooperation at massive scale, with no hierarchies. A first in human history! I think it is a threat to all unjust hierarchies, for that reason: it enables the dream of technology-based cooperation without any hierarchy, any CEO, any ranking algorithm, any political parties or coordinated narrative control systems. Like previous incarnations of this spirit of liberty, on the outside it looks like shambolic chaos, and it’s surrounded by a circus of total nonsense, which makes its power and promise even more invisible to anyone who doesn’t want to see it.
I think many of us long for another tower. We don’t think any other way is possible. And at some level, we don’t want to see the alternative, because the tower has always had its critics, and, as you’d expect, they’ve been made deeply unpopular by the tower. The tower has always told us, “build me taller and I will be able to right the wrongs of the world”. This is what it’s always said, right up to the end.
And, to add to modern insanity, many critics of the tower have formed their own tower, which then proclaims itself to be 'opposed to towers'. So for a lot of us, the only criticism we've heard about the idea of 'tall towers' has come from another tower, which might make us think it's towers all the way down, and the only way forward is to build our tower, the good tower, the pro-tower tower, even higher.
Yes, I think there is definitely a way out. The printing press did change Europe, and ushered in the enlightenment, but it took a hundred years or so of violence and chaos. Timescales seem to be accelerated now, so maybe it'll only be another few decades or so before the dust settles. What I suspect is likely to happen will end up flattening any hierarchies that aren’t based upon admiration of shared ideals, because exit from existing hierarchies upon dominance and fear will become cheap. As a result, hierarchies which rely only on the voluntary cooperation of their members will continue to thrive, now safer than ever from the depredations of those based upon fear and control.
If it’s not obvious what I'm talking about, it will be eventually. Just keep looking for something which satisfies the necessary criteria. Look for something that almost all existing hierarchies are vehemently opposed to because supporting it means giving up power and control. Look for something that experts in the tower insist is dangerous, despite those same experts having been consistently wrong about it in the past.
I think for most people, the hardest part is imagining it’s possible. It is, I think, a reason for great hope. There have been many things in the past which fit that shape, and they have generally tended to shape the course of human history more than anything else.
It’s about to get wild. Hold onto your butts.