Obfuscation

I dig words. Words are like paint, you can paint a beautiful picture, or you can paint over a beautiful picture.

What you paint on top of the beautiful picture might be beautiful as well, or it might be a clever and artistic camouflage of the original. It might be a solid color, or it might be a facsimile of feces. What it will never be is the original picture.

I found the word “obfuscation” interesting when I first heard it, because I like the sound of it, and because not knowing what it meant I had to look it up. It is the concept of concealing the meaning of a communication by making it more confusing and harder to interpret by adding extraneous information. Talking more in order to say less. This is why I can appreciate politicians (whose job requirements include mastering obfuscation) even when I do not agree with them. An artist is an artist, whether or not you like the subject of the painting.

Obfuscation may have noble purposes, as when used in medical writing. In a 1976 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Michael Crichton said medical writing is “actually a highly skilled, calculated attempt to confuse the reader.” and B.F Skinner had called medical notation a form of multiple audience control, which allows the doctor to communicate to the pharmacist things which might be opposed by the patient if they could understand it. Information Technology uses obfuscation in an attempt to conceal information, making the work appear more complicated than it is. The cable that connects your computer to a network jack (assuming you connect by cable) has about five different names. Do you know which to buy? The technician knows they all refer to the same cable. The acronym TWAIN has been deciphered to mean “Technology Without An Interesting Name,” because “scan interpreter” was just too pedestrian.

Just as there are masters in the world of art, there are also craft stores in which anyone can purchase a brush and pigments. Owning a paintbrush makes you a painter, not an artist. Good obfuscation can be entertaining, poor obfuscation can be frustrating. The use of alternate words to avoid reality can be transparent, causing the reader (or listener) to realize not only what is being hidden but also that a clumsy attempt to hide it is being made. An example is Gweneth Paltrow’s divorce, which she described as “conscious uncoupling”. It still says “divorce” on the paperwork, and the choice of words brought more attention, not less. The motives of people who survive on a diet of publicity are always a mystery, but this feels like an obfuscation failure.

Appreciating good obfuscation removes some of the stress of being lied to. So I should be a very happy guy, right? The “Affordable Care Act” does not provide any care, nor does it make care affordable. This is where obfuscation works best. If what you say sounds like what your audience wants to hear, you own them.

The problem is, when people get used to lying, they don’t know when to stop, and when people realize they have been lied to, they stop trusting you. Obfuscation is like anything else, acceptable in moderation, lethal in excess.

 

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