I Have a Right to be Unlimited

by Mark T. Mitchell on March 5, 2013 · 23 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low

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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.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Maureen March 5, 2013 at 10:56 am

The language of right has been replaced by the language of “rights”. I find this troubling because in this language there are no limits, and who can say that they oppose “rights”?
Thank you for your exploration of the connection between constant information sharing and what this reveals about what we believe to be the human experience. As far as I know, only God is unlimited, and we can tap into this by trying to understand Him. Maybe by trying to be still and silent before a sunset instead of trying to “capture” it. I have yet to meet a recording device that can capture the still small voice.

avatar Daniel March 5, 2013 at 11:22 am

Thank you for writing this. I’ve seen that Sprint ad a few times, and it has irritated me since the first time I saw it. It seems to demonstrate the nihilism implicit in the modern quest – even the word “right” no longer refers to an intrinsic quality of human dignity, but to unrestrained self-assertion. Coupling “right” with the word “need” seems to turn it into a masked ethical imperative to be unlimited – my nature obliges me to transcend, nay, cast off my nature. Existence is a limitation. If limits are a problem, then existence is a problem.

avatar Deirdre Folley March 5, 2013 at 1:00 pm

I’m glad to read a critique of this disturbing commercial. In my mind, and because of the choices of network managers, it is coupled with an even more disturbing commercial for the Droid phone (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYIAaBOb5Bo), the tagline of which is “It’s not an upgrade to your phone. It’s an upgrade to yourself.” Where the Sprint commercial is irritating, it at least has a few pleasing visuals. This Droid commercial is beyond creepy.
Both commercials, in any case, are unapologetic evidence of the fact that we are increasingly defined by our phones – and even controlled by them. Phone companies obviously have an interest in perpetuating this condition… But why do the rest of us so willingly play along? These commercials are actually helpful to me in my efforts to resist the domination of the handheld device: they show me just what I don’t want to become.

avatar John Cartee March 5, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Thank you for the article, Dr. Mitchell. I find it fascinating that the language of the miraculous has been brought down to describing things that, while complicated, can be explained through technology. There is no true mystery in technology. If “miraculous” is a description of something that can be understood, what language is left to describe those things that are beyond our understanding? Can we no longer imagine mystery if we are left with no words to describe the mysterious?

avatar Robert Mead March 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm

This is an excellent piece. To nitpick, though, the decimals indicate that all of the text appears in the first 1/4 second of the ad.

avatar Stephen March 5, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Yes, excellent. Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith talks about “secular liturgies” that are every bit as religious as anything encountered in a church. These liturgies are all around us, forming us, and training our hearts to desire a particular vision of the good life. This ad is an especially explicit and disturbing example.

avatar Martin Snigg March 5, 2013 at 4:26 pm

James Chastek: http://thomism.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/atheism-and-spiritual-reformation/#comments

“..]it wants to destroy God as a human rival, and even ‘being other’ makes one a rival. (On this modern account of freedom and human nature, all “others” are rivals, even other selves or the ‘other’ of our own nature. In this sense, atheism is just one part of the larger project that includes technological advance, overcoming biological limitation, the banishment of any unbreakable bonds of union or oath, etc.)”
[..]
“Even Christianity recognizes the human person’s pervasive and deep-seated desire to become God. Seen from this angle, the Christian debate with modern atheism is not about goals but about means.”

avatar bubba March 5, 2013 at 8:08 pm

The right to be unlimited is a subordinate right to the right to be stupid, as recently explained by SOS Kerry.

avatar Damon Linker March 6, 2013 at 9:06 am

Excellent cultural criticism. Profound and troubling.

avatar Kristen March 6, 2013 at 10:01 am

Thank you for commenting on this. I just about hop off the couch with agitation every time this come in. (I also concur with the comment about the Droid commercials.)

On the point about these technologies changing our experience: Sprint also had another creepy ad a while back (I can’t find it now, so they must have changed their mind about its effectiveness) that depicted a family of four walking through a museum. The suggestion was that they were sharing their experience with others, however throughout the entire commercial I don’t think that any of them actually looked at an exhibit, even if they were facing it. They all had their faces buried in their phones.

avatar David Smith March 6, 2013 at 11:59 am

Another way to look at this is to ask the question, What is it to be human? Further, how does this activity, this technology, this – fill in the blank – help me in being more human, more myself?

avatar Rob G March 6, 2013 at 12:29 pm

I don’t watch TV much so I haven’t seen this, but there is a radio ad that annoys the crap out of me. It’s for one of the phone/cable services — a female voice is asking the mother of a toddler isn’t it great to be able to plop her kid down in front of the screen to “watch the movie about the fish for the 300th time” so that she can sit and enjoy her coffee while reading the paper?

It implies that motherhood is a chore, that Disney’s a great babysitter, and that phone/cable service is all about ME!!!! Appalling.

avatar Mark March 6, 2013 at 1:01 pm

The sad part of equating technology like this with the miraculous is when you consider the slowing rate of technological advances the past fifty years. Technology has been miniaturized and democratized, but the rate of actual new technology achievements has slowed tremendously

avatar Gene Callahan March 6, 2013 at 1:29 pm

“Technology has been miniaturized and democratized, but the rate of actual new technology achievements has slowed tremendously”

You say this based on what evidence? The fact that I can hold in one hand a computer more powerful than any that existed in the world 50 years ago, even though those took up an entire room, would suggest that this is pretty obviously false.

avatar CJ Wolfe March 7, 2013 at 10:31 pm

It really is the most disgusting, selfish commercial I’ve ever seen. It’s also utter nonesense.

avatar Christina March 8, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Thank you so much for writing this article. I, too, have seen this commercial many times and each time I always think to myself, “What pompus, self-asbored jerk came up with this ad????” I have found this ad to be the epitome of annoying, and cringe each time I see it come on. My husband and I are getting ready to get rid of television, thankfully, and then I shall be spared listeing to such puffed up, nonsense.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 8, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Unceasing Want….the gift that keeps on taking. The surprising thing is how long it is taking the populace to recognize that advertising doggerel is not a culture.

It would seem that

WE ARE WHAT WE WATCH

avatar Chris Travers March 9, 2013 at 2:36 am

@Gene Calahan:

You just gave an example of him being right. This is a question of miniaturization and wider access. However the components of this are miniature versions of technology from the 1940′s.

avatar Rob G March 9, 2013 at 11:12 am

WE ARE WHAT WE WATCH

Indeed. G.I.G.O.

avatar Derek March 10, 2013 at 6:51 pm

I’d love to see what happens when we head into the Sprint store, slam our fists on the counter and demand our right to be unlimited. Should be have to pay for our rights? Hell, no!

Next comes Google Glass….

From Kundera’s Immortality:

“The concept of human rights goes back some two hundred years, but it reached it’s greatest glory in the second half of the 1970s. Alexander Solzhenitsyn had just been exiled from his country and his striking figure, adorned with a beard and handcuffs, hypnotized Western intellectuals sick with a longing for the great destiny that had been denied them. It was only thanks to him that they started to believe, after a fifty-year delay, that in communist Russia there were concentration camps; even progressive people were now ready to admit that imprisoning someone for his opinions was not just. And they found an excellent justification for their new attitude: Russian communists violated human rights, in spite of the fact that these human rights had been gloriously proclaimed by the French Revolution itself! And so, thanks to Solzhenitsyn, human rights once again found their place in the vocabulary of our times; I don’t know a single politician who doesn’t mention ten times a day ‘the fight for human rights’ or ‘violations of human rights.’ But because people in the West are not violated by concentration camps and are free to say and write what they want, the more the fight for human rights gains in popularity the more it loses concrete content, becoming a kind of universal stance of everyone towards everything, a kind of energy that turns all human desires into rights. The world has become man’s right and everything in it has become a right: the desire for love the right to love, the desire for rest the right to rest, the desire for friendship the right to friendship, the desire to exceed the speedlimit the right to exceed the speedlimit, the desire for happiness the right to happiness, the desire to publish a book the right to publish a book, the desire to shout in the street in the middle of the night the right to shout in the street….”

avatar Chris Travers March 10, 2013 at 11:51 pm

@Derek

The problem of human rights is an epistemological one and I see the quote you gave as reaching for but falling short of what the actual very dark problem with a rights-centric dialog is.that defining rights are problematic if they are defined in a way that are supposed to have universal applicability. Is private property to land a right? Then are hunter-gatherers necessarily in violation by not recognizing such a right? What of different cultures organized differently? Does human rights have to be a right to Western Culture?

If we assert universality to human rights, then the only two approaches we can possibly take lead in very different directions. Either a human right must be applicable to every culture and be shown to be universally needed, in which case the only right that one can say exists is a right to culture, or else we sit on our butts and think “wouldn’t it be nice” and construct human rights definitions which are essentially ways to deny people their own culture.

But on the other side, Nazi Germany and Communist Russia are exactly what happens when we purge the language of rights from civil dialog.

There is a middle way which would see individuals and social units as possessing rights and liberties by virtue of social context. Subsidiarity, for example, is premised on the idea that there is a right to one’s own individual or collective accomplishments and therefore micromanagement constitutes a theft of such accomplishments and a violation of that right. While this right is seen as universal, it is also contextual.

But if there is a right to culture and a right to one’s own accomplishments, then there is also a right to *limits.*

avatar Bedarz Iliaci March 12, 2013 at 12:58 am

Chris Travers,
“Is private property to land a right?”

Rights are conclusions to a series of arguments. A right to property ultimately goes to the moral premise that a man must eat by his sweat.

Now, a state is defined by the kinds of arguments that arise in that state. A hunter-gatherer polity does not give occasion for an argument for individual right to land to arise.

But that does not mean that the hunter-gatherer polity has no claims over its territory. Notice the word “territory”.
A territory is not a property i,e. it is not a right. A territory is held by brute force, same for the territory of USA. While properties are held and secured by Arguments, the kind of arguments people make in a court of law.

Thus property rights exist within a State and are meaningless without it.
This holds very nicely with the Aristotlean conception of three irreducibles: the State, the Family and the Individual.

avatar John March 26, 2013 at 1:39 pm

I stumbled onto your post the same way some of the other commenters did: by googling the VO text from this rotten commercial. It is a relief to know I am not alone in finding the conceits implicit to these commercials dubious and foreboding. Does anyone else on here feel the same way about those TED lectures? Google commercials? Apple commercials? Someone in the comments has already mentioned the Droid commercial where we watch a man get “injected” with “robot particles” and transform into a cyborg or something. I saw a horror movie with the same premise about a decade ago!

I really love science, and I can marvel at technology just like anyone else, but the scary thing to me is that no critical counterpoint to this agenda of techno-capitalism is given place anywhere in our conversation. Indeed, before discovering your post today, I did not know of one other person besides myself who thought it was anything even worth talking about. In your post you rightly point out the quasi-mystical overtones, a “mysticism” without the Divine. Already we are seeing the old gods and their followers being laughed at from all sides, already we are seeing anyone who doesn’t buy the “spirituality” of technological consumerism condemned in advance as a stupid reactionary. And so the last men will say, “we have invented happiness.”

There is really no way to share this without sounding silly, but I suspect this is how things are going to unfold: when the first machine/platform, Google for example, passes the so-called Turing Test, it will be taken as a sign and a wonder, people will be keen to do whatever it tells them to because, after all, it is a “super intelligence,” an intelligence “vastly superior to their own,” so why shouldn’t they? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to interact with a machine like that, the thing is, I think what allot of people are already telling us is that they can’t wait to bend the knee before it, to “fuse” with it, to do nearly anything it would command so long as they might “live forever” with it. Again, I know that hyperbole sounds ridiculous, and I don’t mean any of it literally, but still, that /is/ the gesture, isn’t it? To bend the knee before technology?

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