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Salvo 12.23.2021 3 minutes

The Christmas Glitch

Cyber Xmas Motion Glitch interlaced Distorted textured futuristic background

This is the season that the algorithm can’t predict.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole citizenry should be registered. 

–Luke 2:1 

The first Christmas took place under a one-world government. Augustus Caesar did not really rule over the whole globe as we now know it. But by the end of his reign, Rome had extended its dominion into every place that seemed to count. Greece and Italy, Germania and Gaul, Judea and Samaria and Galilee—even the Holy Land reported to legates and governors who ruled under the Divine Augustus. There was no escape from Caesar. 

The Greek of Luke’s Gospel says that Augustus ordered a registry of the entire oikoumenē: in literal terms, he wanted a record of every inhabited place. Probably for the purpose of taxation, Caesar was compiling a database of all his subjects, everywhere. He wanted to know how many they were and where they were from. 

Caesar would have been constantly on high alert for any sign of real competition. But to him it would have been totally unremarkable that in an eastern outpost of his kingdom, Joseph of the house of David was traveling south to his ancestral city of Bethlehem alongside his pregnant fiancée. Right under Caesar’s watchful eye, in direct obedience to his decree, King David’s heir was traveling home. 

It had been a thousand years since David reigned. Seven centuries had passed since Isaiah of Jerusalem predicted that “a maiden shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” God-with-us: the promise of a savior to sit on David’s throne was an obscure one, the cherished hope of a persecuted sect whose glory days had dissolved in civil war and exile. It could not have seemed likely to Caesar that thanks in part to his own ambitions, the prophecies of this subjected desert people might be fulfilled to the letter. 

Now there are new decrees from new Caesars, competing to control and register the world. “In the future, information technology will be everywhere, like electricity,” wrote Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in The New Digital Age (2013). This year the Biden Administration released its “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,” a plan which included “facilitating…consistent use of Federal Government databases” to screen potential domestic terrorists and “to root out the hatreds that can too often drive violence.” From Davos to Silicon Valley to Washington, it is taken for granted that those in power can and should keep digital records of all facts about everyone, everywhere. 

Our rulers hope that this information will enable them to establish a system of prediction and control. They dream of an algorithm that will foretell all possible outcomes and foreclose all undesirable possibilities. Just a little more contact tracing and the risk of respiratory infection will be finally eliminated. Just a little more surveillance and we’ll never face a terrorist threat again. Just a little more data and all goods can be equitably distributed. Let the whole world be registered: then chaos will be over. Then Caesar will rule the world. 

But no closed system is complete. Algorithms and governments alike shore up their power by excluding certain possibilities, by treating certain outcomes as irrelevant or highly unlikely. And the point of Christmas is that those irrelevant, unlikely outcomes are the ones God chooses to shame the princes of the earth. As our leaders are currently discovering, to their dismay, human life is not reducible to a data set or a formula.  

All the public messaging, all the predictive models, all the social media and social engineering is totally inadequate to eradicate or circumscribe the mere fact that you, a human being, are free. Free to choose where you live, how you raise your kids, what medical decisions you make—free to defy every command or incentive designed to condition you. The rising panic and desperation of our despot class shows their dawning realization that there is a fact about the world which their registry cannot mark down and their code cannot account for. That fact is the human soul. 

Christmas is the season of the glitch in the matrix, the unlooked for hope, the breakdown in the system. It is the outcome Caesar couldn’t predict or prevent, the total upheaval in world affairs that he couldn’t even see happening. Nor can our modern Caesars fathom it—why we would hold each other close when they strictly told us not to spread disease. They cannot see why amid all their threats of death, we would choose to live. And because they cannot understand—because they never understand—a child is born to us in Bethlehem. The life he brings with him is the light of the world, and the algorithms comprehend it not. 

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