21st Century Towers of Babel
Paul Ohana and David Arnow
God has two problems with the people of Shinar who build the Tower of Babel: they overreach and abhor diversity.
God doesn’t like the idea of people overreaching—in this case, building a grandiose tower that stretches to heaven, God’s realm. The people of Shinar hope that just as their tower will dominate the landscape, it will also assure their territorial dominance and lest they “be scattered all over the world” (Gen. 11:4). The tower to the heavens symbolizes the power of its builders, the fact that they have arrived and intend to hold on to their position.
Nowadays, building mega-skyscrapers serves much the same purpose. The year 1969 saw the founding of The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. At that time, about ninety of the world’s one hundred tallest buildings were located in North America. None were in Asia or the Middle East. Fifty years later, thirty of those buildings are in North America, forty are in Asia, and twenty are in the Middle East.
But announcing your arrival and maintaining your dominance are two different things. Mega-towers can be profitable, or they can bankrupt you. The people of Shinar’s obsession with tower power brought about their downfall. By an act of God or forces beyond the Shinarians’ comprehension—call it what you will—this community fell victim to its greatest fear. They lost their position of dominance and were scattered.
So, if you are relying on owning the tallest tower to guarantee your security or protect your brand, watch out. Sooner or later someone will build a taller tower than yours! Or if your tower says more about your grandiosity than about your business acumen, get ready to pay the price. A 2012 study by Barclays Capital states, “It may have started with the Tower of Babel, but over the past 140 years an unhealthy correlation exists between the building of the world’s the next tallest building and an impending financial crisis.”
But God has another problem with the people of Shinar. God created human beings in the divine image—meaning that we are each unique and not clones of one another. But diversity has no home in Shinar. Shinar has become a completely monolithic culture in which everyone speaks the “same language and the same words” (Gen. 11:1). When it comes to building “a tower with its top in the sky” (Gen. 11:4), a monolith of a different kind, no one raises a word about hubris. No one doubts that building the tallest tower around will guarantee the community’s security. No one questions whether using the community’s new technology—bricks and mortar—to build a fearsome tower is a good use of resources. No one suggests using these valuable materials to trade with potential rivals and in the process to build a foundation for trust and mutual coexistence.
Shinar suffered from what the psychologist Irving Janis called “groupthink.” He defined groupthink as “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”
Groups of very smart people can make terrible decisions because, rather than weigh multiple options and risk internal dissension, they quickly sign on to a party line. The group thus squanders one of its most valuable resources—the different perspectives of its members.
The benefits of diversity become crystal clear when you take a quick look at the team that created Apple’s Macintosh computer. The machine debuted in 1984 and revolutionized personal computing by introducing the graphic user interface and the mouse. In 2014, as the Macintosh turned thirty, members of the team reflected on the keys to their success. One theme recurs. Instead of involving just engineers, the team included a physicist, an archaeologist, and several musicians, and in its early days it was led by Guy Tribble, who had a background in medicine.
Back to Shinar and the Tower of Babel … God abhors the uniformity of thought in Shinar and remedies it by administering a massive dose of diversity. A single community living in one city that speaks one language becomes scattered, creating multiple communities with different languages.
“Pride goes before ruin, arrogance, before failure” (Proverbs 16:18).
Paul Ohana, a management consultant and David Arnow, a psychologist, are the authors of Leadership in the Bible: A Practical Guide for Today, www.leadershipinthebible.com