The Gray Area with Sean Illing

The Gray Area with Sean Illing

The Gray Area with host Sean Illing is a philosophical take on culture, politics, and everything in between. We don’t pretend to have the answers, but we do offer a space for real dialogue. Resist certainty, embrace ambiguity, and get some cool takes on a very hot world. Formerly the Vox Conversations podcast. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.


January 26, 2023 53 min

Sean Illing talks with Glory Liu, the author of Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher became an Icon of American Capitalism. Smith is most well-known for being the “father of capitalism,” but as Liu points out in her book, his legacy has been misappropriated — especially in America. They discuss his original intentions and what we can take away from his work today.

Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area


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Guest host Sigal Samuel talks with Holden Karnofsky about effective altruism, a movement flung into public scrutiny with the collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried and his crypto exchange, FTX. They discuss EA’s approach to charitable giving, the relationship between effective altruism and the moral philosophy of utilitarianism, and what reforms might be needed for the future of the movement.

Note: In August 2022, Bankman-Fried’s philanthrop...

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January 19, 2023 53 min

Sean Illing talks with writer and reporter Jerusalem Demsas about the causes of homelessness in America. They discuss our ideas of home ownership, and how our country’s cultural expectations and policies are working against us. 

Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area

Guest: Jerusalem Demsas (@JerusalemDemsas) staff writer, The Atlantic


  • “The Homeownership Society Was a Mistake” by Jerusalem Demsas (Th...
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    January 12, 2023 46 min

    Sean Illing talks with author Thomas Chatterton Williams about race and identity in America. Thomas has analyzed racial identity through the lens of his own upbringing, and the performativity and pressures he experienced. In conversation with Sean, Thomas speaks about how he sees these identities as restrictive connections to the racial oppressions of the past, whether it's possible to achieve liberation without sacrificing sol...

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    January 9, 2023 47 min

    Sean Illing talks with Timnit Gebru, the founder of the Distributed AI Research Institute. She studies the ethics of artificial intelligence and is an outspoken critic of companies developing new AI systems. Sean and Timnit discuss the power dynamics in the world of AI, the discriminatory outcomes that these technologies can cause, and the need for accountability and transparency in the field.

    Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), ho...

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    January 5, 2023 48 min

    Guest host Sigal Samuel talks with philosopher and author Martha Nussbaum about her new book, Justice for Animals. Martha discusses several different ethical, legal, and metaphysical theories for how we humans should treat other non-human animals, and offers her own distinct new approach.

    Host: Sigal Samuel (@SigalSamuel), Senior Reporter, Vox

    Guest: Martha Nussbaum, author; Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Philoso...

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    Sean Illing talks with Cornel West about the American philosophical tradition known as pragmatism. They talk about what makes pragmatism so distinctly American, how pragmatists understand the connection between knowledge and action, and how the pragmatist mindset can invigorate our understanding of democratic life and communal action today. Cornel West also talks about the ways in which pragmatism has influenced his work and life, ...

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    Sean Illing talks with Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan about his new book The Paradox of Democracy, which he co-authored with media studies professor Zac Gershberg. Sean and Margaret discuss the relationship between free expression and democratic society, talk about whether or not the January 6th hearings are doing anything at all politically, and discuss some potential ways to bolster democratic values in the med...

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    December 15, 2022 57 min

    Guest host Alissa Wilkinson talks with Katelyn Beaty, author of the new book Celebrities for Jesus, about how the dynamics of fame, influence, and new media are changing our experience of religious faith. They discuss how celebrities like Billy Graham set the tone for a lionization of celebrity in the Evangelical Church, why faith leaders cultivate distance from their congregations and build influencer-style social media presences,...

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    Sean Illing talks with author, researcher, and Brookings Institution senior fellow Richard V. Reeves about his new book Of Boys and Men, which documents the ways that males all over the industrialized world are struggling — and what to do about it. Sean and Richard talk about how this crisis among men has its roots in the progress societies have made toward gender equality, about what has been exposed as the playing field has becom...

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    Sean Illing talks with Michael Sacasas, an author and teacher exploring the relationship between technology and society in his newsletter, The Convivial Society. This conversation is all about attention: what it exactly is, what its purpose is, and how it is under threat by the technology of modern society and its ubiquitous distractions. Michael calls upon venerated philosophers (like Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch) as well as conte...

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    Sean Illing talks with James Fallows, veteran reporter and editor at The Atlantic, about the state of political journalism in America. Fallows has been covering the relationship between media and democracy since the mid-nineties, when his book Breaking the News presciently documented the roots of a growing mistrust in news media. Sean and James talk about the dangers facing the political press today, why national political news is ...

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    December 1, 2022 50 min

    Sean Illing talks with technology writer and philosopher Ian Bogost about the state of social media — especially in the wake of Elon Musk's recent acquisition of Twitter. They discuss the recent but surprising history of the platforms that have come to dominate the lives of so many, and note a crucial shift that made social media what is today. Sean and Ian also talk about how Silicon Valley views "scale," whether Twitt...

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    Sean Illing talks with Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician, speaker, and bestselling author who has written on subjects like addiction, stress, and attention deficit disorder. In Maté's new book, The Myth of Normal, he argues that the Western paradigm of health is fundamentally flawed in its attempt to separate inner, emotional well-being from bodily health. Sean and Dr. Maté discuss how our society and culture can contribute to illnes...

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    November 21, 2022 57 min

    Sean Illing talks with economic historian Brad DeLong about his new book Slouching Towards Utopia. In it, DeLong claims that the "long twentieth century" was the most consequential period in human history, during which the institutions of rapid technological growth and globalization were created, setting humanity on a path towards improving life, defeating scarcity, and enabling real freedom. But... this ran into some probl...

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    November 17, 2022 45 min

    Sean Illing talks with neuroscientist Gregory Berns, author of The Self Delusion. Berns claims that the idea of a unified, persistent self is a kind of illusion, and that we are better understood as multiple selves at different moments in time, tied together by a story — which is what we call our identity. Sean and Greg also talk about whether the brain is a computer, how perception works, the limits of thinking too much about thin...

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    November 14, 2022 49 min

    Sean Illing talks with veteran political strategist James Carville about the U.S. midterm elections — and the surprising success for Democrats that was a far cry from the "red wave" of Republican victories widely predicted by pundits. They talk about why the results differed so vastly from these expectations, what lessons both parties should be drawing from the outcomes, and whether or not the Democratic party, despite thei...

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    Sean Illing talks with technologist, media theorist, and author Douglas Rushkoff, whose new book Survival of the Richest explains how the ultra-wealthy are obsessed with preparing for the end of the world — and the troubling mindset that leads many rich and powerful people down this road. They discuss the blend of tech utopianism and fatalism behind this doomsday prepping, how Silicon Valley and "tech bro" culture have ince...

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    Sean Illing talks with Nicole Hemmer, history professor and author of the new book Partisans. In it, she gives a reinterpretation of the Reagan presidency and what followed, and shows how the conservative political movement entangled with media figures and became what it is in the 1990s. They discuss the doomed but influential presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan, the rise to dominance of conservative talk radio, and the enduring...

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    Sean Illing talks with Yuval Noah Harari, historian and bestselling author, about how humanity came to be the dominant species on earth, and what our future might hold. Sean and Yuval discuss mankind's imaginative "superpower," the threats to democracy across the globe, the future of artificial intelligence — and plenty more.

    Yuval's new book Unstoppable Us adapts many of his macro-historical insights from Sapiens fo...

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