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July 14, 2022
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July 28, 2022

Obscurity, Anonymity, and Privacy

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

Bob Dylan said in an interview in March 1978 for Playboy Magazine:

“People have one great blessing—obscurity—and not many people are thankful for it. Everybody is taught to be thankful for their food and clothes, and things like that, but not to be thankful for their obscurity. Schools don’t teach that; they teach people to be rebels and lawyers.”

I read this passage and stopped reading for several minutes to consider what he’d said. His words shocked me. They made me aware of how much attitudes have changed over the last forty-four years—how far we’ve come, how much we’ve gained, and how much we’ve lost.

When I was growing up years ago, obscurity really was an unacknowledged blessing. It meant that as a young person, I could move through the world with no fuss, leaving no digital footprint, and with little or no permission required. Those who grew up in that time did so in anonymity. There was no pressure to publicize one’s successes. One’s errors too were not so much overlooked as passed over, unnoticed, and unnoted. Granted, many people of that time did stand out, but as part of particular movements, rather than as individuals.

Today we say, “Obscurity? Who wants obscurity?” Instead, we say we want privacy. Not anonymity—privacy. What does that mean?

Obscurity is the state of being unknown, inconspicuous, or unimportant. To be anonymous is to be nameless. Privacy, on the other hand, is the state of being free from public attention and undisturbed by other people.

Obscurity, anonymity, and privacy are not the same.

When we have obscurity, we can be left in peace to do what we wish. When we are anonymous, we can’t be found or marked. When we have privacy, we surround ourselves with walls. We want to turn the world’s attention off, to not be disturbed.

Please note the subtlety of the differences and the shift of emphasis.

With obscurity and anonymity there is freedom of movement. With privacy, we wall ourselves in. We bar the door like living in a fortress, or going to the bathroom.

Who would have believed forty years ago that we would live like that? Certainly, not me.

Dylan said back then: “For the times, they are a-changin’.” He never said how. No one did.

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