But today there is one third city that affects the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not primarily governed by reason (it is practically the mark of a great entrepreneur to not “reasonable”), nor by the things of the soul (the dominant belief seems to be a form of materialism). Rather, it is a place ruled by the creation of where the. And a big part of value is utility – whether something is useful, or at least considered good or beneficial.
I realize that some people in Silicon Valley see themselves as building rationalistic enterprises. Some of them may be. However, the city’s guiding spirit is summed up by investor and podcast host Shane Parris, popular among the Silicon Valley set, when he say: “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 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 powers it has unleashed are affecting humanity more than Tertullian could have imagined.
And this new city is growing in power. Never before have the questions of Athens and the questions of Jerusalem been addressed by such a wide variety stuff who compete for our attention and our desires. Silicon Valley, this third city, has changed the nature of the problem Tertullian struggled with. The questions of what is true and what is good for the soul are now largely secondary to technological progress – or at the very least the questions of Athens and Jerusalem are now so connected with this progress that it creates 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 has been the ubiquity of “white papers” – the framing of any new product in purely rational terms, or the need to present it as an Athens product. And then there was Dogecoin.
We do not live in a world of pure reason or religious enchantment, but in something entirely new.
Reason, religion, and the technology-driven quest to create value at any cost is now collaborating in ways we barely understand, but have a huge impact on our daily lives. Our two-decade experiment with social media has already shown the extent to which reason, or Athens, is awash with so much content that many have called it a post-truth environment. Some social psychologists, such as Jonathan Haidt, believe it drives us crazy and undermines our democracy. Humanity is at a crossroads. We try to reconcile different needs – for rationality, for worship, for productivity – and the tension of this pursuit is reflected in the things we create. As the three cities interact, we now live with technology-mediated religion (online church services) and technology-mediated reason (280-character Twitter debates); religiously adopted technology (bitcoin) and religiously perceived reason (Covid-19 cathedrals of security); rational religion (effective altruism) and “rational” technology (3D printed assisted suicide pods).
If Tertullian were alive today, I believe he would ask, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem — and what do both 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 the Enlightenment champion Steven Pinker (an Athens native) walks into a bar with a Trappist monk (Jerusalem) and Elon Musk (Silicon Valley) with the goal of solving a problem, could they ever come to a consensus?