Dao Du Jour II, Day 34: Dao, Babel, and the Metaverse

Chapter 34: Perfect Trust

“Doing its work,

it goes unnamed.

Clothing and feeding

The ten thousand things,

it lays no claim on them

and asks nothing of them.

Call it a small matter.

The ten thousand things

return to it,

though it lays no claim on them.

Call it great.

So the wise soul

without great doings

achieves greatness.

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

As we approach the one year anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, we can expect much reflection about what it meant, why it happened, and what it forbodes for our democracy. Let me hazard an answer about the why: Babel.

Upon first reading the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the first question many students have is, basically, “Wtf?” These people are building a great city, erecting a tower reaching up to the heavens; why confuse their speech, scatter them, and metaphorically knock the tower down like a cruel older brother smashing his little sibling’s lego set?

The obvious answer is that, like Adam and Eve, the people were trying to play God: reaching for the heavens and resisting God’s imperative to spread across the earth.

That is true enough, but incomplete. The real meaning of the tower of Babel is what stands next to it in the text. In Genesis 12, Abram is called by God to leave the country of his birth and go forth into the unknown, and promised that God will make of him a “great nation.” God even gives him a new name: “Abraham.” The contrast with Babel is clear: in that story, the motivation for building the tower is for the people to “make a name for themselves.” The Babel-onians aim to be a big deal, to be self-made men; the Hebrews are a small matter, destined to be made great by God. In Biblical terms, a “self-made man” is an oxymoron.

When the Metaverse began to emerge into our collective consciousness, I decided to go back and read the novel in which the term was coined, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). As many have pointed out, Zuckerberg’s, ahem, renaming of Facebook as Meta, as well as his creepy video touting the Metaverse as the future of the internet, are ironic given that the novel is a dystopia. The plot of the novel is that the eponymous drug makes people lose their minds when they are exposed to it digitally while plugged into the Metaverse, and join cults and begin speaking in tongues when they take it in what techies call “meatspace.” What results is Babel and “Infocalypse.”

Which brings us back to January 6th. The Metaverse is the tower Zuckerberg wants to build to reach the heavens. He is of course shamelessly, transparently attempting to rebrand his company in the wake of the revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen. But Haugen was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back, a bookend to the Cambridge Analytica scandal; in between the two, 2016 and 2021, is the gradual degradation of our information ecology that eventuated in the storming of the U.S. Capitol. While Trump was the drug, Facebook and social media more broadly were the pipeline. They have thoroughly confused our speech and scattered us—into tribes, filter bubbles, echo chambers, pushed us toward conspiracy theories, chained us in Plato’s cave, plugged us into the Matrix.

But beneath it all is a two-pronged crisis: in trust and belonging. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has identified both; the first in his campaign, the second in his recent book, Trust. As traditional forms of belonging have eroded due to globalization, people have replaced them with artificial substitutes through social media and other drugs. This has led to the mainstreaming of a mentality that formerly flourished only on the fringes of American politics but had been fermenting for decades on the Right: the distrust of what Rush Limbaugh called the “Four Corners of Deceit”: media, academia, government, and science. Social media provided the informational ecology a demagogue like Trump could leverage to push this distrust to the hilt: a breakdown of trust not just in in democratic institutions, but in reality itself, a kind of low-level mass psychosis. Make America Great Again is a fundamentally Babel-onian creed. (It should not surprise that, according to his mother, when Trump was a child he would glue together the building blocks of his little brother. I leave you to ferret out the Biblical significance.)

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that civilization was a fragile, thin veneer keeping at bay a state of nature in which life is “short, nasty, brutish, poor, and solitary.” It is worth considering the last in the context of social media, the pandemic, and Trumpism. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the latter takes root in societies plagued by a high degree of loneliness. People glom on to faux forms of belonging, like shipwrecked sailors clinging to driftwood to just stay afloat. Today, our flotsam is served up by algorithms as we drift through an ocean of noise. We do not even need to swim to the Sirens; they come to us.

But what the Biblical story of Babel—and this chapter of the Daodejing—suggest is that prior to trust in government, or the media, or science, prior to even the trust in your neighbor, is the fundamental trust in reality. When the term “faith” is used in the Bible, it usually doesn’t mean belief in a creed. It means trust. Basic trust in the nature of things is the foundation of trust in ourselves, in our neighbor, in our community, in our country, in humanity.

In this respect, Buttigieg figures as the anti-Zuckerberg. While the latter aims to build vertically, creating a new virtual infrastructure destined to alienate us even further, the former has been charged with building horizontally, creating a new physical infrastructure to reweave the social fabric.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?