What Has Silicon Valley to do With Jerusalem?

What has Silicon Valley to do with Jerusalem?

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More than you might think, but that question, of course, is a riff on Tertullian’s famous query, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was a rhetorical question. By it, Tertullian implied that Christian theology, represented by Jerusalem, should steer clear of Greek philosophy, represented by Athens. I offer my question, in which Silicon Valley represents technological “innovation,” more straightforwardly and as a way of introducing this exploration of the complex batch of issues raised by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s recent essay, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.”

Gobry’s essay is a spirited call to action itself inspired by a discussion of technology, politics, and theology between Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and theologian N.T. Wright, formerly bishop of Durham. That discussion was moderated by NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. As for Gobry, he is a French entrepreneur and writer currently working for Forbes. Additionally, Gobry and Douthat are both Roman Catholics. Wright is a minister in the Church of England. Thiel’s religious views are less clear; he identifies as a Christian with “somewhat heterodox” beliefs.

Needless to say, I found this mix of themes and personalities more than a little interesting. The issues it raised, in their broadest form, include the relationship between technology and culture as well as the relationship between Christianity and technology. These issues, of course, can hardly be addressed adequately in a blog post, or even a series of posts. That said, beginning with this post, I’m going to offer a few of considerations, briefly noted, that warrant some further discussion.

Reduced to its essence, Gobry’s essay is a call for the Church to reclaim its role as a driving force of technological innovation for the good of civilization. The logic of his argument rests on the implications of the word reclaim. In his view, the Church, especially the medieval church, was a key player in the emergence of Western science and technology. Somewhere along the way, the Church lost its way and now finds itself an outsider to the technological project, more often than not a wary and critical outsider. Following Thiel, Gobry is worried the absence of a utopian vision animating technological innovation will result in technological stagnation with dire civilizational consequences.

As I thought about Gobry’s post, the first set of concerns that came to mind centered on three key terms: Church, Technology, Innovation. We could easily spend a lot of time specifying the sense of each of these. Part of my unease with Gobry’s argument arose from their equivocal nature and how Gobry deployed them to analogize from the present to the past.

I assumed that Gobry, as a Roman Catholic, primarily had the Roman Church in view when he spoke of “the Church” or Christianity. On one level this is fine, of course. It’s the tradition out of which Gobry speaks, and, moreover, his blog is addressed primarily to a Catholic audience. My concern was that the generalization obscured non-trivial nuances. So, for instance, even the seemingly cohesive and monolithic world of medieval Catholicism was hardly so uniform on closer examination. Consequently, it would be hard to speak about a consistent and uniform attitude or posture toward “technology” that characterized “the Church,” even in the thirteenth century. Things get even thornier when we realize that technology as it exists today was, like so much of modernity, funneled through the intellectual, economic, political, and religious revolution that was the Reformation.

But that was not all. As I’ve noted numeroustimes before, defining “technology” is itself also a notoriously challenging task; the term ends up being a fiendishly expansive concept with fuzzy boundaries all around. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the medieval era there was no word that did the same semantic work as our word “technology.” It is not until the ninth century that the Carolingian theologian, John Scotus Erigena, first employed the term artes mechanicae, or the “mechanical arts,” which functioned as the nearest equivalent for some time.

Finally, “innovation” was also, in my view, a problematic term. At the very least, I do not think we can use it univocally in both medieval and contemporary contexts. In our public discourse, innovation implies not only development in the “nuts and bolts” of technical apparatus; it also implies the conditions of the market economy and the culture of Silicon Valley. Whatever one makes of those two realities, it seems clear they render it difficult, if not impossible, to make historical generalizations about “innovation.”

So, my first major concern with Gobry’s essay was that speaking about “the Church,” “technology,” and “innovation” involved us in problematic generalizations. Generalizations are necessary, especially within the constraints of short-form writing. However, every generalization obscures particularities and nuances. Consequently, there is a tipping point at which a generalization not only simplifies, but also falsifies. My sense was that in Gobry’s post, we were very close to generalizations that falsify in such as way that they undermined the thrust of the argument. This was especially important if the historical analogies were intended to carry a normative force.

Moreover, because the generalizations were problematic, the analogies were also. Consider the following lines from Gobry: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day. The technological and other accomplishments of the great monastic orders are simply staggering.”

As a matter of fact, the second sentence was absolutely correct. The analogies in the first sentence, however, were, in my view, misleading. The first clause was misleading because it suggested that “innovation” was of the essence of the monastic life. To the contrary, as George Ovitt concluded in his excellent work, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, technical considerations were consistently subordinated to spiritual ends. The monastics, were, in fact, much else even if they were at times innovators.

The second clause—“the [monastic] orders were the great start-ups of the day”—was, in my view, misleading because it imported the economic conditions and motivations of the early twenty-first century to the medieval monasteries. Whatever we might say about the monasteries and their conflicted relationship to wealth—most monastic reform movements centered on this question—it seemed unhelpful to characterize them as “start-ups.” The accumulation of wealth was incidental to the life of the monastery, and, historically, threatened its core mission. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth is certainly high, if not first, on the list of aims animating a start-up.

After voicing these reservations, I was glad to get some feedback from Gobry. You can read it here; you can also read my response below Gobry’s comment. Gobry thought I made a bit too much of the definitional nuances while also making clear that he was well aware of the distinctions between a twenty-first century start up and a thirteenth century monastery.

Naturally, I never doubted Gobry’s awareness of the fine points at issue. But when the fine points are relevant to the conversation, I think it best to bring them to the surface. It matters, though, what point is being made, and this may be where Gobry and I might be in danger of talking past one another. Gobry’s essay reads a bit like a manifesto, it is a call to action. Indeed, it explicitly ends as such. Given that rhetorical context, my approach may not have been entirely fair.

It would depend, I think, on the function of the historical analogies. As I mentioned in my reply to his comment, it matters what function the historical analogies—e.g., monasteries as start-ups—are intended to play. Are they merely inspirational illustrations, or are they intended as morally compelling arguments? My initial response assumed the latter, thus my concern to clarify terminology and surface the nuance before moving on to a more formal evaluation of the claim.

Twice Gobry clarified his interest in the comparisons:

“What interests me in the analogy between a startup and a monastic foundation is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a specific goal,”

and

“What interests me in the analogy between monastic orders and startups is the distinct sense of mission, a mission which is accomplished through the daring, proficiency and determination of a small band of people, and through concrete ends."

That sounds a bit more like an inspirational historical illustration than it does an argument by analogy based on the assumed moral force of historical precedent. I’m not sure it’s such a great illustration for the same reasons I didn’t think it made a convincing argument. What’s more, if the crux of the analogy is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a goal and a sense of mission executed by a devoted community, then the monastic tradition is just one of many possible religious and non-religious illustrations.

Fundamentally, though, even while Gobry and I approach it from different angles, I still do think we are both interested in the same issue: the religious/cultural matrix of technological innovation.

In Gobry’s view, we need to recover the innovative spirit illustrated within the monastic tradition and also by the building of the great medieval cathedrals. In a subsequent post, I’ll argue that a closer look at both helps us to see how the relationship between technology and culture has evolved in such a way that the strength of cultural institutions that ought to drive (and also shape and constrain) “innovation” has been sapped. In this light, Gobry’s plea for the church to take the up the mantle of innovation might be understood as a symptom of what has gone wrong with respect to technology’s relationship to religion as well as to culture more broadly. In short, the problem is that technological innovation is no longer a means directed by the church or some other cultural institution to some noble end, it is too frequently pursued as an end in itself. For the record, I don’t think this is what Gobry himself is advocating.

Gobry is right to raise questions about the relationship between technological innovation and, to borrow historian Lynne White’s phrasing, cultural climates. White himself argued that there was something about the cultural climate of medieval Europe that proved hospitable to technological innovation. But considering the evolution of technology and culture over the subsequent centuries, it becomes apparent that the relationship between technology and culture has become disordered. In the next post, I’ll start with the medieval cathedrals to fill out that claim.