Journey Through the Age of Babel

How the internet and all this is like the tower of Babel

6 mins read
Du Zhenjun, BABEL TOWER, Ran 乱, 2010

Tyson Yunckaporta yarns about many things, but one string I’d like to hop onto is this. The very abomination of communication in English, across the Internet, which is precisely where I meet him. Us-two meet in the null space of a global culture which has no name because it’s so ubiquitous. You could call it globalization, or development, or progress. These are just modern names for the now offensive term civilized. As much as we change the words, the Gods see what we’re doing and they don’t like it. This is a story told over and over again, perhaps because we keep doing it. As Yunckaporta writes:

Inland on freshwater Country, the Baakindji people faced extinction when they experimented with nation-building long ago, which worked well enough until the land and sky moved and they were no longer able to move with it. Their story, as I was told, recalled a time when all the tribes and clans of the region gathered and stayed in one place in permanent settlement. There were abundant resources to support this lifestyle and the people assimilated into one uniform language and culture, forgetting their previous diversity.

A massive meteor crashed nearby and killed most of the people, scorching goannas with different marks to make diverse varieties as a reminder to the survivors of the right way to live. Move with the land. Maintain diverse languages, cultures and systems that reflect the ecosystems of the shifting landscapes you inhabit over time. That is the blueprint and we are not the only people who know it — you might recall a similar biblical story in Genesis about the Tower of Babel.

There is an undeniable pattern in the sum total of all those old stories from around the world, indicating that sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.

Every city-state grows and sucks its environs dry, until it collapses. As Yunckaporta says, “Civilisations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them and then themselves.” This is the eternal law of state-craft, but we think we always think we’re being crafty this time. But it’s the same every time. We think the problem is just how we’re doing it and don’t understand that permanent settlements are inherently lies. There are no permanent settlements. Everything goes Ozymandias in time.

Tyson Yunckaporta is an Australian indigenous philosopher and I agree with almost everything he says and also viscerally disagree because I just don’t wanna. I find Yunckaporta’s ideas to be both true and completely indigestible. When he says, “Rather than fighting brand wars to make this doomed globalising system feel more fair and inclusive, we might instead develop some new systems of transition,” I’m totally down. Just, uh, later.

My trouble and my trauma is — that as much as I disagree with it — I am a deeply globalized guy. I was born in an airport and raised deep in the heart of Empire. I have the English virus deep in my brain. I have the tapeworm of technology deep in my viscera. As much as I critique this culture cuttingly, but cannot cut it out of my life. As Al Pacino said in Scent Of A Woman:

“Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard.”

Thus I meet Yunckaporta in this one place and he tells me to go no place and I agree, but I just don’t wanna. It’s too damn hard.

Diversifying Disaster

Where is the tower of Babel, in modern parlance? Well, we’re in it, you and I. This liminal space where we can communicate or auto-translate, in effectively one language. We think this is progress, but ‘progress’ is not an evolutionary concept, nor is it a good idea. Evolution is a constant process of adaptation to the environment, and you don’t know what the environment is going to be like. The point of diversity is not to be nice. It’s to survive. The only way to survive in the wild is by being wild.

The globalized culture I was grown in, however, thinks it can domesticate diversity. We think we can label it, legislate it, and make it a part of the global monoculture rather than many cultures apart. This isn’t possible and, as importantly, it’s not the point.

We think we can fence diversity off, placate it with politeness, and honor it with token days. We think we can put Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committees within corporations, offer land acknowledgements before conferences, and homogenize wildness into some annual plan. Diversity — instead of many things which no person could possibly agree with — becomes one thing that everyone has to agree with. In this, I weirdly agree with the racists. I don’t want to be included in this shit. Inclusion is imperialism with a smile.

As Yunckaporta says:

In this way, liberalism has been frequently rebranded to vanquish competing ideologies. The success of liberalism lies in its ability to wear whatever shape a population projects through disruption or dissent. Thus at the beginning of this millennium it remains the only show in town. It is an illusion that currently dominates the globe.

You can see this liberalism devouring black culture and queer culture and mindfulness and everything it can find to keep itself going and growing. They take the right to be peacefully left alone and make it into the demand to be included into the global monoculture. They take many differences and make them into one Diversity™.

Brown people like me are the poster-children for this globalizing project. We learn the white language, we study at white schools, we administer the Empire. We intermarry and forget and our old culture becomes a tourist destination or a cookbook. As Noel Ignaetiv observed about the Irish and Italians before, we become white in a generation or two. White is not a color or a culture in this sense. It’s a monocultural mood.

With people that look like me running Google, Microsoft, and even the British Rumpire, why complain? Being an inheritor of globalization, why do I find it so repulsive? Because I am cursed with the knowledge that being ‘developed’ doesn’t actually lead anywhere. The view from near the top of the pyramid is that it’s a pyramid scheme and it’s all coming down. We’re not the inheritors of shit, we’re just the ones left holding the bag of flaming doo-doo as it burns on the doorstop of the gods.

And yet knowing this, why do I find Yunckaporta’s injunction to ‘move with the land’ instinctively repulsive too? I mean, how? I like my house, I like my land, I like my money, I want to curse my cake and eat it too. I think of Jesus and the rich man:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

I also think of the Buddha’s path, which was to abandon the life of a prince and householder to don the cloth of the dead and beg for his food. The Dhammapada is very clear and I’ve read it a hundred times. I just don’t wanna. It’s too damn hard. As much I know this life is ultimately suffering, penultimately speaking, I like this life. Maybe next time.

This is why I laugh at the idea of deus ex machina, that AI will ‘solve’ our problems. We know the answers. We just don’t like the answer, so like petulant children we keep asking.Solving the problem of collapse with AI is like solving a heroin problem with fentanyl. It might make you feel better, but that’s just more of the fucking problem, isn’t it?

With the problem of global cultural collapse the goal seems to be putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, and no one wants to listen to scripture or culture or even nursery rhymes as to why that’s just not possible. Rather than being one ‘correct’ mishmash of neutered cultures, we may instead have a bunch of incorrect cultures each doing their thing again. Rather than having everything we want except ‘renewable’, we may have to dramatically lower our expectations.

I think the story of Babel recurs so much because we keep doing it. This globalized collapse is just the latest and most blockbuster reboot of the same old same old. We want the incest of the internet just as kings want to marry their cousins. Whether you build the tower of Babel with bricks and Semites or fiber-optics and satellites, it’s all Legos to the gods. Playthings.

Every city-state, every population that assembled in one place has disassembled, without exception. But when your city stretches across the globe, when that collapses, where do you go? Hence when Yunckaporta says “it really is not possible to maintain massive nations and cities in any sustainable form,” it’s both completely true and completely unbelievable. This is the mystery of life in Babel time and the mystery is not so much that we don’t know the answer, it’s that we don’t want to know. So here us-two are, perched in the middle of this precarious pyramid as the tornados come to Chicago and the hunger comes to Colombo. Here we are in Babel time, just babbling on and on as it ends.

Indrajit Samarajiva

Indrajit Samarajiva is a blogger and entrepreneur. He studied Cognitive Science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and attended school in Columbus, Ohio, USA. He lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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