Reflections on the Three City Problem, Part 2
The "Three Cities" (Athens, Jerusalem, Silicon Valley) are not just a problem—they are also the solution.
For more context, please see the introductory article that I wrote about this framework in WIRED Magazine last summer. It’s certainly not necessary, though, because I’m going to lay out the core idea out again here—and add to it.
The Foundational Idea
The third century Christian thinker Tertullian asked, “What has Athens got to do with Jerusalem?” By this he meant: what does Greek philosophy (Reason) have to do with Christian revelation (Faith)? They were two radically different things in Tertullian’s mind.1
If Tertullian were alive today, I think he would have to add a third city to his question and ask this instead:
“What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, and what do either of them have to do with Silicon Valley?”
We live in a world now dominated by technology and fueled by capitalism. That has proved to be a powerful force. But we’re now on the verge of outsourcing reason to AI, and Jerusalem is being courted from every side— including from things like “faith-tech”, a booming sector.2
Silicon Valley represents a complex set of things converging to create enormous wealth and innovation. And that reality is affecting our relationship with both faith and reason unlike any other time in history.
It’s also creating a highly volatile environment. We can’t afford not to understand how these three forces, encapsulated in these three metaphorical cities, are interacting.
The Three Body/City Problems
I refer to our unique situation as “three city problem” after the infamous “three body problem” in physics (some of you may also know the sci-fi book by the same name), in which the movement of just two celestial bodies can be predicted with a great degree of accuracy—but the introduction of a third body into the system makes it chaotic and unpredictable to the point where precise prediction becomes impossible. To this day, the three body problem has never convincingly been solved.
The problem of AI represents a classic three city problem. Artificial Intelligence is essentially a synthetic, disembodied version of Athens supercharged by Silicon Valley.
Sam Altman, the head of OpenAI, is a quintessential denizen of Silicon Valley. The things he wants to develop AI for don’t need to be reasonable. They certainly don’t need to be edifying (there are already widespread reports of AI being used to generate pornography using people’s image and likeness, against their will). They just need to be innovative.
Silicon Valley has a logic of its own, and it’s not necessarily aligned with yours.
I’m not suggesting that anyone is ever completely in Athens, Jerusalem, or Silicon Valley. On the contrary, I believe it’s impossible to not have all three of these cities inside of us—at least if you’re a modern American who has a smartphone in your pocket.
We can’t live our lives in the modern world without being immersed in the spirit of democratic capitalism that made Silicon Valley, or without touching the technology it created; we can’t live without basic faith, or trust, in something, even if that thing is as simple as getting in an Uber and trusting that the driver isn’t drunk; and we can’t live well without exercising our reason in some way. We may not be perfectly rational creatures, but we’re rational creatures.
It’s our very nature. We’re creative beings; we seek transcendence; and we’re rational beings. All of us.
The point of the three city problem is that few people integrate these three dimensions of life well—and there are structures in place that encourage the siloing and fortification of each city against the others. We might even say that a mimetic rivalry has developed: each type of worldview is suspicious of the others.
This leads to a disintegration of the person, and the inability for society to solve its most pressing problems in a robust way. On a personal level, many people go back and forth between different modes of looking at things and rarely integrate them. This is something most of us need help doing. It’s certainly not something we learn to do at school. (Most schools, anyway.) Is it happening in families? I don’t know. It didn’t happen in mine.
My thinking on the three city problem is leading me to see new a HR framework, a new educational approach, and even a new investment thesis, among other things. I’m betting that, in the end, an integrated approach of the three cities is our best hope for integral human development in the long-run.
Certainly, I want my family to be situated at the intersection—and I strive to be there in my daily life. But it takes a great deal of intentionality. If a person just wakes up today and lets the current take them where it goes, they’re likely to spend 90% of their time in Silicon Valley, 10% in Athens (say, if they read a good book), and 0% in Jerusalem.
The implications that this is having on identity and our sense of “home” cannot be overstated. On one level, the three cities represent different ideas or at least approaches about what it means to be human. On a deeper level, they represent deeply entrenched identities.
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