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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Three-City Problem of Modern Life

NASA can land a probe on Saturn's largest moon, 764 million miles from Earth—yet no one has been able to mathematically demonstrate the exact positions of the Earth, sun, and our own moon at a given point in the future. Scientists can make estimates, but these all rely on simplifications.

Two-body problems, like mapping the movement of one planet around one star, are solvable. These binary orbits are easy to predict. But a serious complication arises if a third body is introduced. Our moon, which has the gravitational forces of both the sun and the Earth acting upon it simultaneously, is part of an infamous three-body problem.

Trying to solve for the movement of three large bodies in one another’s orbit creates a circular logic. The calculations rely on the initial positions of the three bodies, but these initial positions are unknowable over time because the bodies always affect one another in unpredictable ways. In the 300 years since Isaac Newton outlined the dilemma in his Principia, diligent physicists have only been able to offer special-case solutions for restricted versions of the problem. “In a nonlinear system like the chaotic three-body problem,” writes Caroline Delbert for Popular Mechanics, “all bets are off, and our intuitions are scrambled.”

The three-body problem is the best metaphor I’ve found for a social complexity that affects us all today—a problem resulting from the interaction of three major centers of gravity. This dynamic is scrambling our intuitions and making us long for order in what feels like an increasingly chaotic world. We’re caught on the inside of a three-city problem.

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” asked the Christian apologist Tertullian in the third century. By this he meant, what does the reason of philosophers have to do with the faith of believers?

He was concerned that the dynamic in Athens—the reasoned arguments made famous by Plato, Aristotle, and their progeny—was a dangerous, hellenizing force in relationship to Christianity. If this force came into contact with religious belief and practice, it would corrupt the way that believers approached God. For Tertullian, Athens (the world of reason) and Jerusalem (the world of faith) were two fundamentally incompatible domains.

The question of whether Athens is incompatible with Jerusalem—the relationship between these two cities, which symbolize two different ways of approaching reality—is a question that humanity has wrestled with for millennia. The Catholic Church arrived at a synthesis between the two, with the late Pope John Paul II writing that faith and reason are like “two wings on which the human soul rises to the contemplation of the truth.” 

Others are more skeptical. (One of Martin Luther's fundamental tenets was sola fides—or “faith alone.”) In the broader culture, the juxtaposition of religion versus “the science” points to a widespread belief that there is little if any overlap in the Venn diagram. Yet the tension between Athens and Jerusalem is like a two-body problem: We can at least understand their interaction. The secular versus religious “culture war” debate is familiar to us; we can predict the shape and sound of those conversations.

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But today there is a third city affecting the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not governed primarily by reason (it is practically the mark of a great entrepreneur to not be “reasonable”), nor by 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 is at least perceived as good or beneficial.

I realize that some people in Silicon Valley think of themselves as building rationalist enterprises. Some of them might be. The city’s guiding spirit, however, is summed up by investor and podcast host Shane Parrish, popular among the Silicon Valley set, when he says: “The real test of an idea isn’t whether it’s true, but whether it’s useful.” In other words, utility trumps truth or reason.

Our new century—the world from 2000 to the present day—is dominated by Silicon Valley’s technological influence. This city has produced world-changing products and services (instantaneous search results, next-day delivery of millions of products, constant connectivity to thousands of “friends”) that create and shape new desires. This new city and the new forces it has unleashed are affecting humanity more than anything 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 mediated to us by such a great variety of things that vie for our attention and our desires. Silicon Valley, this third city, has altered the nature of the problem that Tertullian was wrestling with. The questions of what is true and what is good for the soul are now mostly subordinated to technological progress—or, at the very least, the questions of Athens and Jerusalem are now so bound up with this progress that it’s creating confusion.

It is 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 every new product in purely rational terms, or the need to present it as a product of Athens. And then there was Dogecoin.

We’re not living in a world of pure reason or religious enchantment, but something entirely new.

Reason, religion, and the technology-driven quest to create value at any cost are now interacting in ways we scarcely understand, but which have vast influence over our everyday lives. Our two-decades-long 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 making us crazy and undermining our democracy. Humanity is at a crossroads. We are trying to reconcile various needs—for rationality, for worship, for productivity—and the tension of this pursuit shows up in the things we create. Because the three cities are interacting, we are now living with technology-mediated religion (online church services) and technology-mediated reason (280-character Twitter debates); religiously adopted technology (bitcoin) and religiously observed reason (Covid-19 cathedrals of safety); 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 either 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 (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, would they ever be able to arrive at a consensus?

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In a broad sense, we are all rational, religious, and value-seeking creatures. We are “rational animals,” as the great philosophers of Athens articulated long ago. And humans have always been religious creatures, even if many no longer actively participate in organized religion. Since the dawn of time, the vast majority of humans have believed in the supernatural, or in things that can’t be fully explained. Things are no different today. Lastly, everyone creates and seeks things that they believe are valuable—whether it’s a special meal or a product or a family. If you live in a city and look around right now, nearly everything you see is the product of human value-creation. These three forces are always at work when human beings act, but we have little understanding of how they interact.

Our failure to understand the three-city problem is causing many people to isolate in one city or another without realizing it. Academics confine themselves to their academic boroughs and occupy themselves in the life of reason; some Christians are calling for the adoption of a “Benedict option,” the case for communal religious life, with boundaries separating it from the broader culture; and Silicon Valley engineers immerse themselves in the “ecosystem” where capital and contacts flow freely, but where a sandal-wearing Franciscan friar walking down the streets of Palo Alto in a brown robe could easily be mistaken for an eccentric founder. There is little cross-cultural literacy.

Many products built in the isolation of Silicon Valley bear the marks of a child that was raised in a fanatical home without exposure to the outside world (and yes, the same can be said for the other two cities). Facebook, now Meta, built products that created enormous economic value quickly; yet over a decade later, its own studies have revealed detrimental effects on the mental health of teens who use its Instagram app. One gets the impression that, in the product’s infancy, questions of mental health were never even considered. Or consider Dopamine Labs, an LA-based company (geographical location means nothing for our purposes—it has the ethos of Silicon Valley) that builds features into apps to make them more or less “persuasive.” There is no regard for what is rational, let alone what is spiritual. And in the early days of the pandemic, most of us tried to keep up with family and friends in disembodied ways using FaceTime or Zoom, but it was never really enough. While these tools were useful, the companies profiting from them gave little thought to how the technology would affect society at the level of our desires, our relationships, our humanity. These technologies were developed within the walls of one city (Silicon Valley) alone, in response to specific problems; they lack the long-term and expansive vision of the complex layers of humanity represented by the three cities as a whole.

The extent to which people begin clustering in one of the three cities—the extent to which they isolate, fortify the walls, and close the gates—is the extent to which our culture suffers. Nobody can remain isolated in one city for long without losing perspective. Self-styled rationalists hostile to religion close themselves off from millennia of embedded wisdom (or they merely invent their own form of cult or religion, based on reason). Religion that doesn’t respect reason is dangerous because it denies a fundamental part of our humanity, and the detachment can result in extremism that, at its worst, can justify unreasonable or even violent practices in the name of God. And Silicon Valley’s excesses—like the now defunct company Theranos, the cult-building of Adam Neumann, or the technology bubble of the late '90s—are characterized by a detachment from reason and a failure to recognize the secular forms of religiosity that led to those things happening in the first place.

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Living in any one city too long results in a feeling of disintegration. I had to work out the three-city problem in my own life. In my late twenties, after a brief career on Wall Street and several startups later, I felt radically incomplete. I took a short sabbatical to study philosophy. Four years later, I was in formation to become a Catholic priest at a seminary in Rome.

At a certain point, I realized that I had spent time in each of the three cities and found each of them missing a healthy degree of interaction with the others. I eventually left the seminary when I realized that I had mistaken my longing for transcendence—for Jerusalem—as requiring me to leave the business world altogether. I had felt so lonely there, so out of place, that I thought I was required to renounce one city before stepping foot in another. That is the tragedy of the three cities: the artificial walls that trifurcate us.

When I left the seminary, I decided that I would try to live at the intersection of Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley. The solution to the problem, I have found, is a more integrated view of human nature.

In the ‘western world’, we have a long history of avoiding the question of human nature. One could even argue that we have long given up on trying to come to some agreement about it.

At the Peace of Westphalia, the treaty that helped to end the bloody Thirty Years War in 1648, belligerents agreed to disagree about basic questions of human life, like whether human freedom should be ordered toward anything in particular, in order to stop fighting. The idea of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”) was adopted around this time. It referred to the right of a prince or ruler of a particular area to enforce their preferred religion on the population. If someone didn’t want to comply, they could simply move to another area controlled by a sovereign whose beliefs they preferred. This was a convenient way to avoid having to come to any agreement on those fundamental issues and to avoid battling to the end over them.

Decades after the truce, John Locke—whose philosophy influenced the American founding fathers more than any other—wrote about human nature as if it were an “unknowable x.” He knew that disagreements over religion (Jerusalem) and over reason (Athens) were dangerous, so he declared the question of human nature an unfathomable idea that people would no longer have to debate or even care about.

Locke’s ideas influenced what would eventually become a commerce-driven society where questions about what it means to be human were relegated to the realm of personal opinion, rather than public debate. People may have private desires, but they can sort them out in a free market. Nobody is in an authoritative position to question what someone else wants. It might even be blasphemous to do so. If human nature is an unknowable x, we must live and let live.

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But the ancient questions are reemerging due to the unsettling nature of technological change. We are being forced to confront these timeless, existential questions by developments that cause conflict between the three cities: like the possibilities of artificial intelligence, or the moral questions raised by genomics, or the tension between freedom and public safety brought into greater light by Covid-19, or the dawning realization that social media seems to be making us miserable.

People are beginning to ask the most basic questions: “What does it mean to be human, and what is technology doing to us?” Are we currently, as author Yuval Noah Harari suggests, in the process of “upgrading ourselves into gods” through technology? Even the framing of his question points to a fusion of the three cities. The perennial religiosity of humanity is merging with the technological innovation driven by Silicon Valley and causing us to ask the quasi-rational question that Harari poses near the end of his book: “What do we want to want?”

The nature of desire is complex—and highly social in nature (as I explain in my recent book Wanting). We cannot answer the question about what we want to want as isolated individuals, or within the walls of any of the three cities. Human desire is complex because it built all three of these cities—Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley—and it is only by drawing on their collective wisdom that we may begin to approach a solution.

I believe that we can dare to hope that the inhabitants of Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley might choose to work together toward a common good. We simply cannot continue to keep our heads buried in the sand.

We may start by acknowledging the existence of these three cities and finding ways to open up trade between them—to turn them away from rivalry and toward cooperation. One way to begin making progress is to start taking anthropology seriously again. The three-city problem is a question of foundations. In each city, there is a different conception of what it means to be human—and each one is reductionist. We can only build things as great as our anthropological vision. The problem with the transhumanist movement is not that it wants to do too much but that it wants to do too little. Humans are often treated as merely upgradable computers that need some hardware and software adjustments to become less buggy—not creatures made to worship (or, in the words of Bob Dylan, creatures that “‘gotta serve somebody”).

One of the problems with merely encouraging more “dialog” or ideological diversity within organizations is that few people take the time to revisit these fundamental anthropological questions and presuppositions. People sometimes gather to discuss the prevention of AI bias while failing to ask more fundamental questions, like what will happen to our humanity if our faces are stripped away and turned into avatars, or what our lives might be like if we are reduced to a set of data points.

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The three-body problem starts with knowing the initial position and velocity of three physical bodies. The further complication is that we usually do not know the starting position of the concerned parties—we are all ignorant of each other’s fundamental assumptions. But humans are not planets; we are capable of dialog that can keep us from operating in the dark, as we have been. If we at least know the starting positions of the people involved, we might be able to stop talking past one another and begin to address the fundamental questions of humanity, rather than bypassing them or assuming that we’re all talking about the same thing, like “the benefits” of a particular technology. How we think of what the benefits are in the first place depends on which city we’re coming from—and what kind of city we ultimately want to live in.

C. S. Lewis, in the first chapter of his book The Abolition of Man, writes that “the Chest” of a person is the central meeting place, the middle term, between their visceral, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions. He was writing well before the rise of Silicon Valley, of course. But his haunting phrase could just as well describe the future that we’re building—one without a “middle section,” or without a Chest—without an intersection and unifying core or center. The future will be dystopian, he writes, because “we make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

If we continue to pretend that human nature is an unknowable x, then we will continue to build technology for an unknowable creature and be surprised when we find misery in our midst. We will build things like the $12 billion porn industry—now fueled almost entirely by technology—without asking the most basic questions about what that industry is doing to us and to our relationships with one another.

What is valuable in one city is not necessarily valued equally in the others. But there is a place of compossibility—a place where the existence of one individual does not negate the possibility of another, and where the values dominant in each city coexist with and benefit the others.

If we don’t feel whole, or we find that technology leaves us wanting, it is because we have sold ourselves short. But there is a broader and fuller vision of humanity that we can recover.

The most important innovations of the coming decades will happen at the intersection of the three cities—and they will be created by the people who live there.

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