Progression to the Obscure


Tom Hemmings

(Winter, 2013)


    This article will address one over-arching concept.  That concept touches upon some concerns I have about the online world.  Keeping in mind considerations for how quickly technology has advanced, especially the concept of exponential technological growth, I would propose a question: What will become of human freedom?  The logic of my thoughts go like this:  if we do not have freedom online and our lives are moving toward being mostly or completely online, then what happens to our freedom?


    In my first article (Illusions of Digital Freedom) for The Journal for Social Era Knowledge, I tried to make one basic point: that the concept of “freedom” in the digital realm is an illusion.  It is an illusion to which I, as a youth (and even into my young adult life), subscribed.  Many factors go into the establishment of this facade for me and, I imagine, for others as well—among those variables would be an our understanding of what I think the founding fathers established as our rights, what we were taught about them, and how we live out those rights.  To me, it is clear that the situation we are facing is one in which what we think ought to be our “digital rights” are, in fact, nowhere close to reality what our “digital rights” actually are.

    We now live in “The Social Era.”  The reins to our society are, in a certain way, very much in the hands of the technology that has introduced this era age to us.  I spent some time discussing in Illusions how the basic yearnings of a human being are what drive technology forward.  In this article, I want to expand some of the thoughts from Illusions with a focus on where we are going—culturally and technologically—and how this transition relates to our governance and why I think we are “progressing into obscurity.” 

    The solution?  In Illusions I wrote, “We need to help our representatives work out how to maintain the spirit of our Republic in this new Social Era in which we live.  If we are not successful, I fear the concept of “digital freedom” will remain an illusion.”  The problem with that?  Well, I couldn’t really tell you what “help our representatives” actually means.  It is a very vague statement that offers no creative insight or profound reasoning, I admit that to you.  Despite this, I would maintain that “digital freedom” will remain a fantasy, an overly idealistic concept that can only be achieved in some sort of fictional utopia.  You can already see the Police State that has risen from the ashes of 9/11. Where it will go from here and what it does to our freedoms, I am apprehensive to see.  


    When I use the word “obscurity” in this article, I am referring to the fact that our rights in the online world are not readily knowable.  We (the people) behave online with the assumption that our rights are one in the same as our rights in the “real world.”  However, is this the case? What our rights actually are in the online world seems to be an enigma to me, without knowing the full extent of the governments snooping.

    I think the current time we find ourselves in will eventually be looked back upon as a great period of transition in human culture.  I believe we are on the cusp of breaking out into an entirely new evolution of technology—and by virtue of that fact, everything about our social order, culture, and life will change as technology continues to advance. For example, our pocket sized devices have capabilities far beyond those of their primitive, room-sized predecessors. Now, why is any of this obscure?

    On the surface, it’s not.  Actually, quite the opposite.  The advances in technology that have steered the progression of our technological culture are quite concrete, scientific and seem to give us much more freedom.  This is not obscure. However, what is vague, conflicting, troubling—and obscure—is how the rights afforded by our democratic republic are under siege by the government’s conduct in light of the technology that has changed its foundations. I think Mike Rogers (R-MI, 8th; Chairman of Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence) sums up the problem that we face with perfect lunacy when he said: “You can’t have your privacy violated if you don’t know your privacy is violated" (Oremus, 2013).

    This statement is how I began to have the idea that we have “progressed into obscurity.”  In simple terms, the progress of technology that has ushered in “The Social Era” has also brought about perhaps the greatest violation and disregard for our rights to privacy in the history of the world—and it’s being committed by the very entity that is supposed to safeguard those rights.  Our beautiful Republic—that which has illuminated the world with universal human rights—may have already been transformed with the technology of our era to something that seems disrespectful of human dignity.  Ultimately, the conflict between what our government bestows upon us as rights, and the practices it engages in that were recently revealed to the people, this is a very obscure thing to me! I do not understand it, nor can I reconcile in my mind my inalienable rights to freedom on the one hand, and some kind of constant spying on my life, on the other!


    It is inevitable—there will be a day in the future where paper will become almost obsolete.  Businesses and the government (admittedly the government will move and adopt at a much slower pace than the private sector) will eventually deal in electronic files only.  The cost will be lower, the idea of “going paperless” is more environmentally friendly (certainly this will be another factor driving us towards a “paperless” society), and it is more efficient.  While I don’t think paper will be completely removed from society, I think that in the future, the whole “paperless thing” will be much bigger than it is now—and it’s already pretty big! 

    If you ask me, I would think if you took the idea of what the government is doing right now—collecting, tracking, recording everything that everyone does—and applied that behavior to society in the pre-internet days of old, the reactions of the people would have been overwhelmingly against this, perhaps violently so.  How would people have reacted to the idea that every single letter they sent—whether it be a love letter, business letter, letter to a friend, whatever it may be—was opened up in the Post Office, read, recorded, and logged in a nice and neat personal file.  Would the people of generations past have been OK with this?  I do not think so, because the behavior would have been a massive violation of privacy.  Now, in “The Social Era,” this appears to be the new norm, the status quo.  It is this way by default because of the technology we have.

    This conundrum we face—the fact that as society becomes more and more “paperless,” life becomes less and less private—relates to “the concept of obscurity.” Without specific laws allowing or forbidding the government’s behavior in this arena, we are stuck with uncertainty.  The technology we have simultaneously unlocks the human spirit (as was discussed in Illusions) to realize our yearnings for connection and meaning like nothing we’ve ever had before, while at the very same time, this technology shatters the idea of privacy into nonexistence.  

    What is it people say about privacy and using the Internet?  

    “Always assume there is no such thing as privacy on the Internet.  Hackers can get anything from you, at any time.” 

    “You shouldn’t go online if you don’t want your information to be stolen.”

    “Anyone who thinks the Internet is a private place is wrong.”

    “Don’t put stuff up in public Internet space that you don’t want public.”  

    These are all probably true, based on nothing other than common sense.  The issue is not the fact that the Internet is or is not a private place (it is not (obviously)).  The problem here is the fact that the government—the entity which derives its power to govern from us, the people—is trampling on the rights it extends to us, by virtue of the fact that it appears to be spying on everyone.  In the name of security (both cyber and physical), our 4th Amendment rights are sacrificed. The danger, or so we were taught, was about online identity theft and getting hacked. So, to protect us, “they” become the hackers?  Just look at what they did to Google… without Google knowing.  


    In this version of the story, going slow and steady does not prevail.  I know this will be an odd metaphor, but I offer it nevertheless: the tortoise relates to legislation as the hare relates to technology.  Technology will not slow down—nor will it get cocky or distracted and stop running the race.  Legislation governing technology, on the other hand—and for that matter, Congress in general—moves at a slow, slumbering, sloth-like speed.  New innovations, technological capabilities, and devices will vastly outpace the rate at which Congress could even debate legislation that could potentially keep the government “in check” as to how “they” go about using the new tech.  What does this mean?  The problem of “obscurity” will only become more complex and difficult to solve.  


    The American Republic was founded on principles and ideas.  That is, the “self evident truths” discussed in the Declaration of Independence.  Behind this creed—or, in other words, the foundation for my once beautiful country—is the sentiment that no government ought to resign its people to a life that violates the rights we are afforded.  The great Americans of the past shed their blood, fought for, and died in the pursuit of establishing independence.  Their efforts were motivated by the principles and ideas the Founding Fathers declared to the world.  Infectious as they were, the words chosen to articulate the principles and ideas our ancestors fought and died for spread to distant shores and foreign places.  Make no mistake, the proliferation of the ideas that spawned from the “American Experiment” made the world a much better place.  

    So, how does this relate to title of this section?  The “American Experiment” is an idea—it is a principle—that has established universal human rights as an ideal standard that humans ought to live by.  In the world we live in—in the midst of “The Social Era”—there are things that happen that are both good and bad.  Further, there are things that happen on the internet that, on one hand, “unlock” the human spirit, as discussed; on the opposite side of the spectrum, things happen on the internet that are some of the most abhorrent, deplorable things possible—what comes to mind for me here are things like human trafficking, child pornography, and “cyber-terror.”  So in response to these things—at least, this is what I think is the motivation—the NSA steps in and decides the best way to prevent these horrible things from happening on the internet is to go ahead and violate the privacy of our people, our allies, our businesses… everything.  

    Is there no other way?  I understand that the belief is all this “SpyCraft” is for the “greater good” and “protection of the people.”  That is technically what a government is designed to do—protect its people and be self-sustaining.  But the manner in which this mission is accomplished is done under the mentality that “the ends justify the means.”  I was fortunate to have parents who taught me many important lessons in life.  One of those lessons is that the ends do not justify the means.  A person who lived with this mentality became susceptible to corruption because he or she would justify doing horrible things to achieve what they thought was a “good” goal.  Sooner or later, this person would be consumed in hypocrisy, regularly finding themselves in bad situations, under false premises, in pursuit of utter delusion.  Does the same not apply to governments?  

    It does not matter why we care the NSA is doing this, or what our opinions about it are.  It is a fact that must be dealt with.  It does not matter what people—or you, in the privacy of your own home—are specifically doing on the internet.  What matters is that the spirit with which our country was forged must be preserved, or it will die.  Yes, people who use the internet to commit crime ought to be stopped.  Yes, they ought to face justice.  Yes, they ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent.  The fact is: humans are humans.  It is in our nature for some people to do horrendous, terrible things.  Life is “nasty, brutish, and short”—this is why we have government to begin with, to pull us out of the natural state.  Just because some people use the internet to do horrible things does not mean the government should turn around and establish a program to spy on every single citizen.  It’s just as if a person would say “OK… that priest sexually abused an altar boy; all priests are bad.”  


    Let’s return for a moment to the idea of how digital technology has exponentially grown since its inception.  Every single day, we are moving closer—as Americans, as a people, as citizens of the Earth—to a society that is overwhelmingly based in the digital realm.  It is not possible to deny this.  It is not possible to argue with validity that technology will regress and our society will return to the ways of the pre-internet world, unless some natural catastrophe makes it so.  Say, a solar flare unlike we’ve seen in entire history of Earth that knocks out all electronic systems in one foul swoop.  Regardless—no one knows exactly what the future will look like (although, I think Ray Kurzweil might give us a good idea) but the undeniable fact is that the internet will continue to play a major role in it.  

    Just a random thought, but I want to get a little creative here.  Say, far off in the future—if we (the human race) manage to survive for more time than we’ve already been here—there are well established, detailed, real virtual worlds where you walk around in a digital environment just as if you were walking around on earth.  You spend most of your time there.  It is literally a second world that has been developed for people to interact, socialize, and “go out” because going outside is a very dangerous and often fatal thing.  Humans have adapted by developing an internet so complex, people “log their minds” into a server and can then go about living in the online world.  Will there be legislation to ensure freedom and rights are maintained in this new, digital world?

    I digress.  The point is, we, as a people, have a choice to make.  We can sit back, be idle, and let lobbyists, corporations, military, and our political leaders craft legislation to address the problem of “obscurity.”  There is already an intense tug-of-war going on now, as both sides to this issue are politically competing to get their solution passed.  Where is our voice in our debate?  What do we want?  What is best for the country and our people?  What is best for the world?  These are conversations that we don’t have because our lives get in the way of them.  So we leave them to the powers that be, then complain and gripe about the results. 

    Now, I must ask the obvious… at least, I hope it’s obvious by now.  If we live in a society where “freedom” in the digital realm is an illusion—and that society is rapidly moving towards a place in which it is based mostly in the digital arena—then what becomes of freedom?  I believe this is relevant to “The Social Era” because the technology that damns us so is the same thing that is our only means to make sure this does not happen.  Our task is to define the “obscure” or settle for the definitions that are handed to us by various… interests.  As I said in Illusions: which way this all turns out, is up to us.


Oremus, Will.  (October 31, 2013).  House Intelligence Chair.  Slate.  

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Writer info:

Tom Hemmings is a pseudonym.  The writer is youngish.  

About the Artist:

     José Toledo Ordoñez is a Guatemalan sculptor, painter, movie producer, and art and literature promoter. This multifaceted profile has allowed him to expose his sculptures in 22 individual exhibitions, in places as prestigious as the José Luis Cuevas’s Museum and Diego Rivera’s Museum, both in Mexico, the Art Gallery of the International Development Bank in Washington, D.C., and now at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. He has also unveiled 10 urban sculptures in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.

     In his Geneva exhibition, the Ambassador of Guatemala, Carla Rodríguez Mancia, stated: “No better place could have been chosen for this première than the city of Geneva which is internationally known for its commitment to peace, security, and development, seat of the Office of the United Nations, a global message for a global city and a global word. Many have also approached me for an explanation on the title of the exhibition: Dangerous Sculptures. I can really assure you tha
t the only danger that you might face while admiring these sculptures is the danger of changing your mind and your attitudes in a way that will surely contribute to a better world for all.”
    Finally, the artist quoted: “My message goes against the destruction of nature and the degradation of human relations in all senses: violence, war, injustice, and of course, the destruction of art itself associated with truth and human values. Hence the name of this expo: Dangerous Sculptures, because truth hurts and the search of freedom threatens human race oppressors”.

The sculpture that introduces this article is entitled, "Ichthyosaurus.