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The Age of Obfuscation

The usual criticism of the new media in our culture is that the media is making us less able to write well (not true), less inclined to read texts longer than a paragraph (not true), less social (an absurd claim) or unable to concentrate (could be true), but these critiques understate the danger of the new media and of information technology. A far greater danger is obfuscation.

Obfuscation is an obscuring of something, fogging it over, making it hard to see or understand: Legal disclaimers that seem to contain dozens of self-contradictory phrases, for example, or a statement from the Internal Revenue Service that leaves you wondering if you’ve done something wrong. Professions--medicine, law, or teaching--seem to need a measure of obfuscation, at least to lay-peoples’ eyes, to do their business. Unintentional obfuscation is rampant in instruction manuals, including online help.

Marketing is dependent on obfuscation: Advertising copy, whether in print or spoken, often obscures reality, as in BP’s marketing campaign before the Gulf disaster, making it seem that BP was environmentally conscientious.

Obfuscation is not new and most people have dealt with everyday obfuscation all of their lives. But, sometimes obfuscation has caused serious problems, as when the true condition of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis was unreported, the danger of collapse unknown, and therefore the bridge collapsed into the river because of the extra weight of construction equipment and supplies on the bridge at the time.

What we have lived with for all of human history--obfuscation--however, has now assumed a new form that is sinister and nearly invisible. Humanity now has the ability to spin vast systems that leave people confused and overwhelmed. Mortgage instruments sold in the first decade of this century were so complicated that not only did the buyers fail to have a glimmer of what they were getting into, but most of the people selling the instruments probably had no idea what they were selling. The financial sector nearly collapsed in the fall of 2008, one commentator said, because the people who had created the financial instruments du jour simply forgot what they had put in motion: The system they built grew beyond anyone’s comprehension so almost no one was aware of how precarious their whole system had become.

Even in our daily lives, we bump against scaled-up obfuscation created through using information technology: those famous calls to your cell-phone network help systems. Which button do you choose? Does it take you down a blind alley? Do you hear more music and commercials? How much time are you willing to waste on the unlikely chance that you’ll get a useful answer? What kind of trick do you need to use to get to a live person? In my own case, I find it quicker to drive to the cell phone store than to call. The obfuscation wall the company has built to reduce its personnel costs may in the end lose enough customers that revenue drop exceeds their putative savings.

From the world financial meltdown to the short-sightedness of companies building obfuscation walls, we can see hints of the danger of giving humans, who have always practiced both essential and nefarious obfuscation to survive, new ways to extend obfuscation beyond imagination.

Does anyone really understand the health care system in the U.S.? Based on the debates of the past year, a future historian could perhaps say, “Here we find strong evidence of the beginning of the Great Obfuscation when humanity lost control not of its machines, but of the systems the machines created.”

Since the beginning of this millennium, humanity has taken a leap of faith that is almost unfathomable. In this country and in many others, and certainly this is true of the world in general, we have completely and irretrievably become dependent on information technology to help us manage all vital systems. Microchips are everywhere, in cars, toasters, watches, cameras, telephones, airplanes, trains, power plants--almost anything that runs by electricity and that can be improved by cyber-control. Leaving behind the analog world in which we fully lived until the last few decades means we have no way back. We have become that much more vulnerable as a species since our foundation is now based on the guarantee that there will always be electricity.

In education, digital-based obfuscation was unintentionally built into some monolithic learning management tools. It was thought that the competition was all about how many features you could build into one software package. No one seemed to know that the people using these packages only wanted a simple interface and a few, really few, key functionalities. Simply because we have the ability to create vast systems with our ingenious programming languages and architectural schemas does not mean those systems are good. Academics and students alike are voting with their feet and moving away from overly-complex learning systems sold to educational institutions, and on to Web 2.0 applications that do just what they say they do and get you going in minutes, not weeks or months.

Information technology has a dark side and a light side: It helps us manage the systems we need because of the size of our population, but this management aspect can, darkly, grow out of control beyond our understanding. The light side is our using technology to make the complex simple, to bring the world back to human scale, and to reconnect with living people. It is this control versus democratizing Janus aspect of technology that is perhaps a key defining tension of our age. It is obfuscation versus transparency.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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