Beyond Borders: America, Immigration, and the Future of Information

From The Marginalia Review of Books inaugural issue -- my vision for freedom and depth in the digital age. 

What defines us is not our leaders or our borders. A President does not make an epoch. Borders are normal. Like doors, they allow access and ensure safety. Always shut, they become prison walls, locking in the people and shutting out the world. Americans are defined not by their borders but by their ideas – above all, the idea of America itself.

The idea of America has often been a utopian fantasy... Continue reading here. 

Science vs. Religion and Other Modern Myths

If god is dead, myth is not. Myths are the stories that tell us who we are, and few stories are more important to our sense of identity than the myth of Science vs. Religion.

In this charming tale, first told in the nineteenth century, Science plays the white knight of Reason, and Religion the dragon of obscurantism, spitting flames of superstition that would, were it not for brave Scientists and their allies, soon consume everything true and noble, plunging us into the smoldering ruins of a new dark ages... Continue reading here.

The Wisdom of Death

My essay on Costica Bradatan's Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers: 

All life ends. The heat of breath chills to ragged wheezing. Finally movement and warmth cease utterly and the inertia of death reigns in cool silence.

In this inevitable terminus of life we find terror and significance. Martyrs embody in their deaths the meaning of their lives. Death becomes a cause, an idea; the burning stake, an implement of revolution or an incandescent revelation. If today we have neatly separated ideas and their stakes – tenure offers security if not immortality – we should remember that it has not always been like this. Death and dying lie at the foundation of Western philosophy.... read on here. 

Many thanks to Wanwei Wu, who has translated it into Chinese here

How to Be Human in a Machine World: On Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated

Humans seem to relish the prospect of their own extinction. Perhaps it’s the imaginative equivalent to standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, knowing the slightest tip forward would end the world as you know it: there’s something thrilling in mortality made tangible. The apocalyptic imagination is a vibrant force in American culture, and has of late filled the pages of financial journalism with images of a machine-run world in which humans are doomed to a new serfdom. These apocalyptic images depend on questionable facts—facts that are not as easily separated from images as one might think, for images combined with story give facts their power. Empirical data take on life when folded seamlessly into a narrative – progress through science! Golden age no more, civilization in decline! – which supplies them with broader cultural significance, a strong sense of drama, and an imaginarium stocked with pictures that capture our desires and fears.

So what has led the normally sober and black-shoed authors of leading financial and policy outlets to dip their toes into the stream of American apocalyptic? The short answer is: Silicon Valley. The longer answer is a horde of facts which eagerly march into any current discussion of technology and economics, although whose side they’re on isn’t always clear. If we take only the leading facts that drive many toward apocalyptic scenarios, the most visible is the growing power of software. Or, as Marc Andreesen put it in his colorful culinary metaphor, the fact that “software is eating the world.” It’s natural to wonder: why is software so hungry?

Software is hungry because computer intermediation is now the most economically prominent fact in the recent history of technology. There is a significant minority of investors and authors who have noted that innovation outside of the computer industry has been stagnant for decades. Peter Thiel expressed this view succinctly: “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters.” The truth of Thiel’s complaint is evident everywhere we go, literally, for one has only to observe how dated and decrepit our physical infrastructure is, particularly in transportation, to see material justification for his concern. In spite of this stagnation in the physical world, the exponential growth of computing power (summarized by Moore’s Law) has led to software’s rise from a niche area of the economy to an empire unto itself, conquering industry after industry. Between almost any business and its clients now exists a sophisticated software platform. Whether it’s the self-checkout line at a grocery store, the imminent prospect of autonomous vehicles, or the fact that there are programs that now write articles and do legal research, computers and their programs increasingly insert themselves between a business and its product, transforming businesses in the process (who thought Google would be a competitor in the automobile industry?). Andreesen was right. Software is eating the world, and it is eyeing hungrily industries whose products and processes have traditionally had nothing to do with computers. So, computers are getting smarter and more ubiquitous at an exponential rate. That’s an important fact, and a scary one, when paired with an obvious truth: there is no Moore’s Law for human intelligence. Cue apocalyptic scenarios.

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American Memory, American Tragedy

We are what we remember. And what we forget.

Racial murder is not tragic. Oedipus is tragic. Willy Loman is tragic. Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel L. Simmon’s Jr., Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson — their deaths are not tragic. They are outrageous. They are victims of murder. They are a reminder that the group of Americans who fought to defend the enslavement and oppression of blacks are not a record of history but a present force in society, and their flag waves still. Click to read more.

Are Evangelicals the New Liberals?

It’s an old story. As the world becomes modern, the forces of modernization destroy the intellectual, institutional, and social bases of religion, which cannot sustain the encounter with modernity because of its pre-scientific worldview. Pews empty. Churches fall into disrepair, are converted into museums (in Nietzsche’s darker vision, mausoleums), or become fancy restaurants or nightclubs. A new world emerges, free of religion and superstition. Welcome to a secular age.

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Enlightened Religion?

Is a truly modern religion possible? Can faith survive in the face of modern science and knowledge? These timely questions are central to a major new work by Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealist Logic of Modern Theology. Answering these questions leads Dorrien back to Immanuel Kant, for it is to Kant and the world he created that we must turn if we want to understand the possibility and challenges of a distinctively modern religion.

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