The Futility and Necessity of Building The Modern University

To build anything is, in the end, a vain attempt to assert one’s vision on God’s good creation. And yet, we must build. We have been created to build: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

Human efforts at building have gone wrong countless times in history, perhaps first at the Tower of Babel. We have often attempted to “make a name for ourselves.” Perhaps that is why many people become like antibodies when something truly new is proposed.Try to build something new and you will undoubtedly encounter this response. Those who cry “Hubris” at any effort to build certainly have the Babel account on their side–but they forsake a divine mandate.

God calls his people to build artifacts and treasures that will be worthy of being brought into the New Jerusalem (Isa. 60:11; Rev. 21:26). Thus, anything we build is—ultimately—being built for the Lord. This should both inspire and chasten any would-be builders: building for the Lord is the highest purpose imaginable, yet it is a task doomed to fail in this lifetime. Who among us presumes to approximate the goodness of God’s creation? Nevertheless, we must likewise create.

The best universities throughout history have understood both the futility and necessity of building. Wisdom is essential to a life well-lived, but higher education will always be—on some level—an extravagance. The life of the mind rises above material necessities and reaches out towards God himself. Vanity, I tell you. Reading Augustine won’t teach a doctor to perform better surgeries. Or will it?

Universities have for generations emphasized the liberal arts because of a belief that we are not merely workers. Regardless of the job a person performs to earn a living, he should have the dignity to come home, read The Odyssey to his kids, and meaningfully reflect on what it is to be human. Unfortunately, the universities are dying. Institutions with billion-dollar endowments certainly won’t be disappearing any time soon, but, as Colin Redemer has written, “Minerva has left the building.” I won’t bore you by rehearsing the well-trod path of crushing student loans, administrative bloat, ideological capture, and the like. Those who still cannot see the death at hand are not prepared to join us in building for the future. Colin ends his recent Ad Fontes essay on the collapse of higher education with a call to rally around truth as we build the future of humane education. While, of course, this is nothing new, it’s a great place to start. Universities exist because of the audacious claim that one can actually apprehend the truth.

The internet is currently enabling a renaissance in the pursuit of truth. The organizations and institutions that we see forming are only the tip of the iceberg, however, in terms of what must be done. If we want to build for the Lord, we should build institutions that last for generations, and to do so, we need to build on a solid foundation—a humane technological infrastructure that we would be proud to pass on to our great-grandchildren. As someone with a keen interest in technology, I’ve spent much of the past decade thinking about the Christian life in a digital age. The problems stemming from our current forms of technology are now well-established: increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide, surveillance capitalism and the erosion of privacy, algorithmic control, censorship and cancellation, addictive platforms, anemic attention spans. The best advice to combat these issues is also the simplest: “Get off your phone.”

Many have understandably sought refuge in a life of minimal-to-no technology. Indeed, it’s worth considering why a number of Silicon Valley CEOs don’t allow their own children to use the products they develop. While we can certainly gain much wisdom from authors like Wendell Berry, we can’t merely avoid technology. For one thing, it’s hard to participate in the modern economy without using technology (does that make email the mark of the beast?). But, more importantly, today’s Luddites often don’t go far enough in their critiques of technology. It’s one thing to banish screens from your household, but it’s quite a different thing to consider the deeper logic at play in what Jacques Ellul calls a technological society.

For a time, I thought that a pseudo-Amish way of life might be the best way for Christians to navigate this brave new world. Ten years in campus ministry spanning the shift from Millennials to Zoomers showed me that growing up with smartphones and social media can wreak havoc on a person’s ability to function as an adult (praise the Lord for the dial-up internet of my childhood). I scaled back my own use of technology and deleted my social media accounts, while also voraciously reading as much as I could on tech startups, software design, psychology, theological anthropology, and Christian ethics to develop a theology of technology that properly accounted for the harm to our humanity.

Living in Silicon Valley changed my mind, but not because I became more positive about our modern digital technology. On the contrary, I met people doing work that impacted millions who didn’t even consider that what’s best for Facebook or Google might not be best for humanity; tech executives who laughed at the idea that more technology could ever be a bad thing; programmers and designers whose idea of faith impacting work seemed limited to friendship evangelism in the office. I’m grateful to know a number of thoughtful technologists swimming upstream. But the overwhelming force of data, algorithms, and machine learning being leveraged against our souls—or, more often, the souls of our teens and children—have created a society in which we must, as James Poulos says, compute or be computed. Assimilation into the Borg is not inevitable, and it’s time to fight back.

Once you go deep enough into tech pessimism, you’re ready for a more clear-headed form of tech optimism. To start with, there’s no denying the gains in affordability and accessibility that come from online education. You don’t need six figures of debt to get training for a job and immersion in the liberal arts. The internet can bring the highest quality instructors and the highest quality production values right into your home. But that’s just the beginning. The collaborative potential of the internet to further our learning is probably still being underutilized. Consider the “massively cooperative” polymath project, which crowdsources solutions to difficult math problems. A small insight that would have never been worth publishing on its own can move a project forward and be contributed by someone who never would have flown to a conference.

Borrowing a phrase from Ivan Illich, we need many more people developing “tools for conviviality” that can bring the best of the university into the digital age. In-person educational experiences should never be eliminated. COVID made it clear that there’s a serious deforming effect when one’s whole life is subsumed by the virtual. But our future centers of humane learning need to be built on a similarly humane tech stack. One of the few technology projects that is worth considering if we want to build new multigenerational institutions of higher education is Urbit.

Urbit is a new vision of computing by people who dare to attempt to build something worthy of the New Jerusalem. Urbit is far from perfect, its success is not inevitable, and there is much work to be done. But it may be one of the few ways that we can take control of our digital lives and remain human in a digital age. It’s a ground-up rethinking of how computers work and it puts ownership of your digital identity back in your hands. On Urbit you own your data so you choose who you want to share it with. A cryptographically verifiable identity is a foundation for actually building trust online. On the internet you don’t know who I really am, especially with the rise of deepfakes. But on Urbit, I’m always ~rovmug-ticfyn.

Big tech middlemen are cut out because networking is peer-to-peer. When I send you a message on any of our current tech platforms, the mental model most of us have is that the message goes from my computer to your computer. That’s the most intuitive way to understand it, but that’s not how the internet works. My message goes to some company’s server and then to your device. How else will they know when we need to be censored? Urbit gets rid of the obfuscation and makes connecting online work exactly how you’d think it would.

Like any frontier, Urbit is wild and strange. Getting started is a little more complicated than making a Twitter account. The calmness might feel boring while your dopamine resets from algorithmically-targeted content and ads.

As a platform for decentralized apps, Urbit provides the fundamental structure to rebuild humane learning for generations to come.

We cannot build the perfect system. But we must.

Ralph Roberts (MDiv) produces videos on theology and cooking as Hungry Theologian. He has previously worked in church ministry, campus ministry, and UX design.


Related Articles

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This