The Three-City Problem of Modern Life

But today there is one third city ​​affecting the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not governed primarily by reason (it’s practically the brand of a great entrepreneur for no to be “reasonable”), nor for the things of the soul (the dominant belief seems to be a form of materialism). It is a place, rather, governed by the creation of value. And a large component of value is utility, whether something is useful or not perceived as good or beneficial.

I realize that some people in Silicon Valley think they are building rational companies. Some of them may be. The city’s guiding spirit, however, is summed up by investor and podcast host Shane Parris, popular among the Silicon Valley set, when he he says: “The real test of an idea is not whether it is true, but whether it is useful.” In other words, utility trumps truth or reason.

Our new century, the world from the year 2000 to the present, is dominated by the technological influence of Silicon Valley. This city has produced world-changing products and services—instant search results, next-day delivery of millions of products, constant connectivity with thousands of “friends”—that create and shape new desires. This new city and the new forces it has unleashed are affecting humanity more than Tertullian could have imagined.

And this new city is growing in power. Never before had the questions of Athens and the questions of Jerusalem been mediated by us by a great variety of things that compete for our attention and our desires. Silicon Valley, this third city, has altered the nature of the problem with which Tertullian was struggling. The questions of what is true and what is good for the soul are now largely subordinated to technological progress, or at least the questions of Athens and Jerusalem are now so tied to that progress that it is creating confusion.

It’s hard to escape the utilitarian logic of Silicon Valley, and we lie to ourselves when we rationalize our motivations. The most interesting thing about the cryptocurrency craze was the ubiquity of “white papers”: the framing of each new product in purely rational terms, or the need to present it as a product of Athens. And then there was Dogecoin.

We are not living in a world of pure reason or religious charm, but in something entirely new.

Reason, religion and the technology-driven quest to create value at any cost are now interacting in ways we barely understand, but have a profound influence on our daily lives. Our two-decade experiment with social media has already shown the extent to which reason, or Athens, is being flooded with so much content that many have referred to it as a post-truth environment. Some social psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt, believe it’s driving us crazy and undermining our democracy. Humanity is at a crossroads. We are trying to reconcile various needs—of rationality, of worship, of productivity—and the tension of this search manifests itself in the things we create. Because all three cities are interacting, we are now living with technology-mediated religion (online church services) and technology-mediated reason (280-character Twitter discussions); religiously adopted technology (bitcoin) and religiously observed reason (Covid-19 safety cathedrals); rational religion (effective altruism) and “rational” technology (3D printed assisted suicide pods).

If Tertullian were alive today, I think he would ask, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, and what do they have to do with Silicon Valley?” In other words, how do the domains of reason and religion relate to the domain of technological innovation and its financiers in Silicon Valley? If Enlightenment champion Steven Pinker (a resident of Athens) walked into a bar with a Trappist monk (Jerusalem) and Elon Musk (Silicon Valley) with the goal of solving a problem, could they ever reach a consensus? ?

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