Epistle to New Masters of the Universe

Editor’s Note: This is a slightly edited version of a presentation the author made to the Annual Summit in Silicon Valley of the technology site Always On. – Robert Royal


Silicon Valley will continue to change the world – but in what ways? What kind of world will it produce?

That will depend in large part on the vision of the creators and entrepreneurs of the Valley: in how they use the new technologies they develop, and the new wealth that flows from them. And that vision in turn may depend on whether they recognize the connection between their accomplishments and the heritage – moral and intellectual – that made these accomplishments possible.

Christianity became ascendant in Europe and the Mediterranean by the late Roman Empire, and helped morph that empire into what came to be called the West. Significantly for the future blossoming of science and technology, although Christianity is of course grounded in belief in a transcendent, and thus in a not fully knowable God, it also accepts and even rejoices in the rationality of the universe that God created.

In fact, this religion refers to the Second Person of the Triune God as the Logos, a Greek term that does not just translate into the English “word,” in the sense of vocabulary, but also encompasses the idea of Reason.

So the Christian worldview underlying Western civilization trusted in the goodness and rationality (the “knowability”) of the world. That means Christians had confidence in the fundamental order and predictability of the natural world, which led to the pursuit and discovery of such “laws” of science as gravity, motion, conservation of energy, etc., and that led to a veritable explosion of ingenuity.

Humanity went from stumbling upon the odd invention or serendipitous scientific or medical discovery every millennium or so (the wheel, the plow), to a more intentional and increasingly systematic exploration of our world and its vast capabilities. The exploration and sometimes exploitation of this rich potential through trial and error and the scientific method gradually unleashed unheard-of levels of scientific and humanistic creativity, and also improved our material well-being.

But this flourishing of human potential, which arguably has been most centered in recent years in Silicon Valley, did not come solely from confidence in Creation’s rationality. It also rests on recognition of the dignity of the human person from birth to natural death.

There are certainly many events of Western history that do not demonstrate great success in respecting human dignity, but that is the standard the Church itself chose – or was given – for judging its own performance and that of others. In essence, the Christian understanding of human beings is that we have incalculable value because God created us with immortal souls, destined for eternal happiness or unhappiness as a result of our own free choices.

That understanding has great consequences for the pursuit of knowledge and the public good, the recognition of human rights, and an understanding of the basic equality of every person, all of which play into the past century or so of technological progress – and will necessarily play into possible future successes as well.

You may be surprised to learn that the flourishing of human potential so spectacularly evidenced by Silicon Valley is also related to the Ten Commandments. These Commandments, to which we are to conform our lives, sprang from tablets not produced by Silicon Valley but rather communicated from God through Moses to Israel and then to Christianity down to our own time.

                                                                                                                                              Illustration by Otto for Fortune

This natural moral law, though we are free to obey or disobey it (unlike the rock that has no choice about obeying gravity) complements the scientific laws of nature. It shows us how to live and flourish in this world and how to help others flourish. As such the Ten Commandments are to be a global standard for all human behavior – and that’s why they need to penetrate further even into Silicon Valley.

At this point you may be thinking, “Okay, that’s tracing a very long pedigree over thousands of years from the Ten Commandments and over many centuries even from the time of great Christian thinkers and synthesizers like Aquinas and Newton to the PC and the Smartphone and the Tablet. What has Christianity and Western Civilization done for us lately? Where is a more direct connection between that civilization and Silicon Valley which might suggest where we are and where we should be going?

So let me fast-forward to maybe an unlikely seeming Christian influence from an era that may seem long ago to the young people who will chart the future of Silicon Valley. Marshall McLuhan was a seer of future changes in communication in the early to middle 1960s and into the future we are now contemplating. In the 1960s and 1970s his ideas on the effect of new technology and specifically new media like television exploded on the public mind.

You are no doubt familiar with some of the many arresting expressions he coined to explain how technology was changing the way we think and receive information and conceive of the world, such as “the medium is the message,”  “the global village,” and his predicting the World Wide Web almost thirty years before its time.

McLuhan found inspiration in a book entitled What’s Wrong with the World by the great early twentieth-century English author G.K. Chesterton, a convert to Catholicism who is currently the second most quoted author in the English Language (after Shakespeare). McLuhan himself converted to Catholicism, which makes sense even in the natural sphere, apart from the action of grace, because of the global reach of this religion based on the life, teaching, and testified Resurrection of its Founder.

Ultimately, then, Silicon Valley is about the uses of creativity by human beings who have the God-given power to create wonders from “crystals of sand,” as George Gilder has put it. The past generation of technological innovators has been able to use scientific discovery to create immense wealth for themselves and the rest of the world; however, the ultimate purpose of this kind of power, like every other kind, is to promote the good of humanity – materially, yes, but also and more importantly (for ourselves and for others) for the spiritual good of mankind.

That is manifested by perhaps the most frequently used phrase by the soon to be saint” John Paul II from the second Vatican Council: We all are called to make the “gift of self to those who surround us.” And that goes for the Valley too.

A wonderful recent example of this gift of self for the good of others is Pope Francis, who has dedicated himself to using every form of media to spread his gospel of love for all and particularly for the poor. And here he includes those who are not only poor in economic terms but also poor in spirit – even if they live and work in Silicon Valley.

A useful reading assignment might be the last book of the Space Trilogy of the distinguished twentieth-century Christian Apologist C.S. Lewis. Entitled That Hideous Strength. It shows the results of technology when it is not grounded in faith and the ethical values of the Beatitudes and the commandments, instead measuring performance solely according to profit and innovation.

Money is the least of it – after all, the more you give away, the happier you will be (who wants to leave money for the IRS?). To achieve the kind of true success I am talking about, you might consider acquiring a spiritual coach to help you find fulfillment in this life and (for those of you who are believers) happiness in the next. In any case I remember from my days on Wall Street in the 1970s the saying: “No man on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”

None of us knows the day or the hour of our death. Let us make our contribution to this world now, and – whether or not you look forward to an eternal reward – let’s leave this world a much better place.

Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.