Why We Need to Look Back — and Ahead

There are two different articles in today’s New York Times that I would consider must reading for anyone interested in better understanding who we are, who we have been, and who we may become.

The first, “Obama and the Debt,” outlines Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz’s interpretations of the current crisis, and of its Constitutional underpinnings. Regardless of whether you love the Fourteenth Amendment (as I do), and regardless of whether you agree with Wilentz’s advice to President Obama (go hard or go home), I would offer this Op-Ed as very tangible evidence of why we need historians, and why there is great value in looking back to better understand that path that has led us to this particular moment.

The other article is in the Arts section, and it’s a review of David Cage’s new video game for the PlayStation 3, “Beyond Two Souls.” The game itself features star turns from two well-known Hollywood actors, Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. And the article struck me because it hints at the Brave New World we are entering, one in which a creator like Cage excitedly imagines the development of a “Scorcese algorithm” that would imitate the filmmaker’s iconic camera style and recreate it on demand, and one in which he describes his game as “an interface that will allow you to play life.”

I understand our infatuation with unadulterated self-direction, and I worry sometimes that it’s eroding our commitment to understand, on a broad, shared level, where we have been and what we have decided. And I share the disorientation so many of us feel when we hear of an algorithm that can codify the creative genius of Martin Scorcese in order to improve the narrative flow of a video game — and I can see why such a development could be very, very cool.

Both trends bear watching, and remembering, and questioning, by all of us.


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