I Have a Right to be Unlimited

By Mark T. Mitchell for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Hidden Springs Lane, VA. Sprint is running a new ad pushing the merits of its data plan. While it might be a mistake to make too much of an ad, it seems appropriate to “read” them as representing the current cultural vibe, for if nothing else, advertisers are keen students of what motivates their audiences. So what, then, does this ad tell us about ourselves?

The first words: “The miraculous is everywhere. In our homes. In our minds.” The miraculous is identified with technological advances. This is obviously one way that the word “miraculous” is employed today, but consider the implications: the miraculous is merely the apparently magical work of technicians who deliver devices and applications that most of us don’t fully understand. No longer is the term “miraculous” reserved for God and His works. The miracles all around us—even in our homes and our heads—are the product of human ingenuity. And like old Bartimaeus, our new eyes reveal a world bursting with wonders.

At 2 seconds “Unlimited” flashes on the screen suggesting a theme that stands in conjunction with the miraculous. Could the miracles be unlimited? What a world! This promise is held out to us as a real possibility.

Next: “We can share every second in data dressed in pixels.” In other words, we can reduce the complexity of a human life to digitized bits. Of course, the way we capture and represent reality in fact shapes the way we conceive of reality. To reduce reality to simple, discrete parts tempts us to imagine that reality is comprehended adequately in that form.

“A billion roaming photo-journalists uploading the human experience.” This breathy claim implies that the human experience is uploadable. But is it? Furthermore, is the experience fundamentally changed if a billion humans are busy uploading it? Is the experience of uploading the human experience a part of the human experience? Obviously, it is now. Yet when we think of the human experience as something that can be simply uploaded, we necessarily alter both the experience itself and how we conceive of that experience. The experience is changed when we stop appreciating the experience for what it is and think of it as something we can capture. The sheer wonder of an experience is at least partially altered when we imagine we can upload it and therefore re-experience it repeatedly and share the experience with friends and strangers alike. Does this sense of control reflect our enhanced powers or our diminished sense of humility and perhaps even reverence?

“I need to upload all of me.” For some hearers (and I hope they are many), this is just creepy. But what is being appealed to? What is being assumed? The “need” to upload all of oneself could be either a rather perverse “need” to display oneself to a world of potential viewers—an exhibitionist’s dream. Or it may represent a tacit nod in the direction of immortality—I “need” to upload “all of me” so that none of me will be lost. In both cases, the “need” represents a longing to transcend the given human experience and transform it via the “miracle” of technology.

I need, no, I have the right to be unlimited.” To drive the point home, at 23 seconds the word “unlimited” flashes across the screen. Here both the music and the message reach their climax, and the audience is ready to stand and cheer, or at least switch to Sprint’s data plan.

There are at least three basic assumptions present in this 30 second ad.

First, the visible world constitutes the essence of the human experience. The real is that which can be captured by a video phone. The real is the tangible, visible, potentially pixelized world. By implication, the world of thought and idea, the world of spirit, is assumed to be unreal or at least unimportant, for God and the human soul cannot be reduced to pixels. In a curious twist, the new “miraculous” has rendered the old miraculous unimaginable and therefore unbelievable.

Second, the ubiquitous use of the language of rights in our social and political culture has paved the way for a claim like we see in this ad. When I have a right to something, I have a justified moral or legal claim on it. To be deprived of a right is to experience a serious harm. We have become accustomed to speaking and thinking in terms of rights, yet we have neglected to give much thought about what a rights claim implies. If I have a right to something, others have a duty to, at the very least, refrain from getting in the way of my realizing that right. They may furthermore have the duty to help ensure that I can enjoy the right. But look how quickly the language of sheer desire slides into the language of rights. In the process, the desire appears to gain a level of moral legitimacy that a burst of appetite lacks.

Third, what exactly do I have a right to? “I have the right to be unlimited.” In our cultural moment, the idea of limits is an offense. Limits suggest that my desires can be thwarted or perhaps even that my desires should be thwarted. But who has a right to do that? By what authority—social, natural, or divine—can my desires be hemmed in, circumvented, and directed? If the miraculous can be delivered to us through technological innovation, there is little reason to believe that the miraculous itself is limited or even beyond human control. Indeed, we are the gods of a brave new world wherein miracles are for sale in the form of electronic devices, where appetitive desire is dressed in the language of rights, and where limits present themselves as an affront.

If these three assumptions were not widely held in our society, if rather, we generally held that ideas, the soul, and God gave meaning to the material world; if we naturally spoke in the idiom of duties rather than rights; if we willingly submitted to the fact that limits are an essential element to a good human life, an ad like this would be met with derision. In fact, it could never be made in the first place. That the ad was made says more about us than about the merits of a data plan.

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