Driverless Cars and the Tower of Babble

by Jacob Roberts

Technology seems to become more complex by the moment. And accompanying this complexity I often find technology to have a saturating presence, an ability to work its way into every facet of our life. Because of this pervasiveness, questions concerning the intersection of technology and ethics have come to the forefront of our societal milieux.

For instance, on March 19th the world saw its first fatality caused by a driverless car. Among the reactions of shock and heartbreak were questions concerning the ethical ramification of such driverless systems. Who was responsible for the death? Was it the team of software programmers? They were the ones who gave the vehicle the ability to “think.” Or perhaps the culpability rests with the car itself. There are, after all, court cases in the past where inanimate objects and animals were put on trial for murder. Even before the accident, The Atlantic published an article about other moral ramifications of driverless car systems, although these consequences were less serious than death.

While it can seem like the intersection of morality and technology is a relatively new concern, the truth is that questions about the moral ramifications of technology are as old as technology itself. How old is technology you ask?

The word technology comes from the Greek word τέχνολογία (technologia), which means the study of making objects. Thus, technology can be defined as anything that is not naturally occurring. So, while the phone or computer you are reading this devotional on counts as technology, so do the hinges on the door you just walked through or the ceramic tiles under your feet in the bathroom this morning.

In the 11th chapter of Genesis, we are given an account of people using technology in an immoral way. According to Moses, a group of people settled in Shinar and decided to build a large tower (often referred to as the Tower of Babble) out of brick and mortar that would “reach to heaven” (Genesis 11:3-4). The use of brick and mortar is a relatively recent technological innovation, with the oldest known examples—found at the sight of Jericho—carbon dated to approximately 8000 B.C.

Moses goes on to say that the reason these people employed this architectural technology was so they could “make for [themselves] a name” (Genesis 11:4). On the surface, this means that they wanted to gain for themselves a glory and renown that would last for generations. Thus, they sinned in their pride and the passage seems to be nothing more than a fairly simple story that teaches the danger of vanity. If you look more carefully at their motivation, however, you will find two important linguistic parallels that explain their pride in greater detail.

The word used by Moses for “make” in this passage is the exact word he uses just a few chapters before in Genesis 1:27 to describe the creation of Adam and Eve: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Similarly, the word he uses for “name” in this passage he would later use as a proper noun for God (Leviticus 24:16). Consequentially, when these people decide to “make for [themselves] a name”—a phrase constructed of words associated with God and His ability to create—what they are really saying is that they desire to use their technology to be God, or at least like Him.

After realizing the true nature of pride in this passage, I could not help but step back and look at my own use of technology. Do I use technology to make myself famous, or to paraphrase Moses, “to make a name for myself”? Do I attempt to replace God as creator and take control of my destiny?

While these questions may sound silly, they are extremely important to ask. If I had to guess, I bet that the majority of people reading this devotional rolled over this morning, picked up their phone, and checked their social media before they whispered their first prayer to God. It could be they did this to simply check on their friends, but we often instead look to see how many people viewed, commented upon, and reacted to our posts. We look to see if we have made a name for ourselves.

As you make your way through the week, I would challenge you to think about how you use your technology and to ensure that you do not put your own renown before God’s.