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obfuscation

In the academic part of my professional life I spend a lot of time practising to write more clearly and directly. That is, to avoid unnecessary ambiguity or obfuscation. I do this because I am interested in not only who might be reading the things I write (thanks Mum) but also who isn’t reading the writing. That is, when I choose to use particular syntax, structures, or words who might I be inadvertently excluding from the writing?

In this blog I’ve previously (2008) quoted Don Watson discussing the language of groups, and recently I read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style:

Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. Academics in the softer fields dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.1

But then recently I heard the word obfuscation used in a very different context. I like this about language: that one word can have different uses — even different values — depending on context.

In internet privacy, obfuscation has to do with reducing how recognisable one’s digital thumbprint is based on generating more data, and thereby making your thumbprint more common (and more difficult to isolate or pinpoint):

the production of noise modeled on an existing signal in order to make a collection of data more ambiguous, confusing, harder to exploit, more difficult to act on, and therefore less valuable.2

Obfuscation in this sense is a kind of digital camouflage, and one example is the Firefoex browser extension called TrackMeNot which works through noise and obfuscation”.

In both senses of the word obfuscation we are hiding something, but the conditions, values and politics of that hiding are beautifully distinct.


  1. Pinker, Steven. 2014. The Sense of Style. Penguin. (epub, Chapter 3).

  2. http://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/nyu-stories/finn-brunton-and-helen-nissenbaum-on-obfuscation.html

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