Edward Snowden has become a household name as the famous or infamous National Security Agency (NSA) document leaker and whistleblower. He notoriously outed the mass surveillance of ordinary American citizens and people around the world by the United States and allied governments, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies. When Snowden revealed these mass surveillance programs to the public, it led to a major debate on privacy vs. security in the computer age—a debate that continues to rage right up to the present.
To avoid arrest and almost certain conviction on espionage charges that would likely mean decades in jail, Snowden is now in self-imposed exile in Russia.
But that hasn’t stopped him from appearing for lectures, debates, panel discussions, and committee meetings in New York, Princeton, and at many other locations around the United States and the world.
How does Snowden do it? For his appearances in the New York area, he uses a 5’2” robot called a “BeamPro.” It has two wheels, two legs, a flat screen monitor, a camera, and microphones, all of which Snowden controls from his computer keyboard at an undisclosed location in Russia. It was quickly dubbed the “Snowbot.”
For appearances farther afield from the Manhattan offices of the American Civil Liberties Union, where the Snowbot resides, Snowden speaks from screens and monitors on location through encrypted video teleconferencing.
For the full story, see “I, Snowbot,” by Andrew Rice, at nymag.com.
All of this modern robotic and communications technology gives Snowden a great deal of freedom, not to mention a decent income from speaking fees, despite his confinement in Russia. Although his body is confined to an apartment and neighborhood in Russia, he can go virtually anywhere he wants, meet new people, and engage in an active public life.
It’s a brave new world!
And yet, to long-time readers of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), it all sounds strangely familiar.
In the spiritual world, distance does not matter
Way back in 1749, decades before the development of the first technologically-based long-distance telegraphy systems, and centuries before the development of modern computerized telecommunications and robotics technology, Swedenborg wrote this about how people get together in the spiritual world:
The spirits we are thinking about—people we knew in some way during bodily life, for instance—show up instantly, when the Lord allows it. They are so close that they stand at our ear, in arm’s reach, or at a little distance. Although they may have been several thousand miles away, or even up among the stars, it is no obstacle, because the distance of a place does not matter at all in the other life. (Secrets of Heaven #1274)
A little later in the same book, he went into more detail—and he was well aware that it would sound strange and even unbelievable to his readers:
I have learned, both by talking with angels and by personal experience, that spirits as spirits are not in the place they appear to be, so far as the [spiritual] organic substances composing the [spiritual] bodies they have are concerned. They can be very far off and still appear in that place. I realize that people who allow illusions to fool them will not believe this, but it is still the fact of the matter. (Secrets of Heaven #1378)
He goes on to provide examples of how here on earth, we would have no idea that sights and sounds were not right in our eye and ear if we had not learned from infancy to determine their distance by various means. And he concludes the discussion by saying:
When spirits walk or move around or go from one place to another—a frequent sight—it is nothing but a change of state. That is, it appears in the world of spirits as a change of location but in heaven as a change of state. (Secrets of Heaven #1379)
By “state” here Swedenborg means the state of our mind and heart. In other words, the way we think and feel about things determines our “location” in the spiritual world. So people who think and feel similarly about life are close to each other, while those who think and feel very differently dwell at a distance from one another proportional to their differences. In other words, in the spiritual world, “birds of a feather flock together.”
Two more “marvels of the next life” from Secrets of Heaven #1274:
Communities of spirits and angels seem to occupy different positions, even though locations and distances in the other world are simply differences in state. . . .
No spirit or angel is too far away to be seen, and yet no more of them come into sight than the Lord allows.
In line with that second statement, elsewhere Swedenborg describes how angels and spirits can see and talk to one another over vast spiritual distances as if they were right next to one another.
The physical world is catching up with the spiritual world
All of this sounded very strange—even outlandish and irrational—to Swedenborg’s readers when he first published it in the mid-18th century, when such things were impossible here in the material world.
And yet today, in the 21st century, we do these things every day.
Through the use of technology, we can not only speak to loved ones and business associates around the world in real time, but we can see their faces onscreen as we talk to them, and even look around at their surroundings. And advancements in the field of holography promise to make full 3D projections of ourselves across vast distances a reality before long.
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden’s “Snowbot” is one of the newer technological means of achieving long-distance presence among people of similar minds. And once the people at the other end have gotten used to the technological delivery vehicle, it almost vanishes. It feels as if the person is actually present. Here is an excerpt from the nymag.com article linked above:
Needless to say, it is initially disorienting to hear messages of usurpation emitted, with a touch of Daft Punk–ish reverb, from a $14,000 piece of electronic equipment. Upon meeting the Snowbot, people tend to become flustered—there he is, that face you know, looking at you. That feeling, familiar to anyone who’s spotted a celebrity in a coffee shop, is all the more strange when the celebrity is supposed to be banished to the other end of the Earth. And yet he is here, occupying the same physical space. The technology of “telepresence” feels different from talking to a computer screen; somehow, the fact that Snowden is standing in front of you, looking straight into your eyes, renders the experience less like enhanced telephoning and more like primitive teleporting. Snowden sometimes tries to put people at ease by joking about his limitations, saying humans have nothing to fear from robots so long as we have stairs and Wi-Fi dead zones in elevators. Still, he is quite good at maneuvering on level ground, controlling the robot’s movements with his keyboard like a gamer playing Minecraft. The eye contact, however, is an illusion—Snowden has learned to look straight into his computer’s camera instead of focusing on the faces on his screen.
Here’s the really odd thing, though: After a while, you stop noticing that he is a robot, just as you have learned to forget that the disembodied voice at your ear is a phone. Snowden sees this all the time, whether he is talking to audiences in auditoriums or holding meetings via videoconference. “There’s always that initial friction, that moment where everybody’s like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’ but then it melts away,” Snowden told me, and after that, “regardless of the fact that the FBI has a field office in New York, I can be hanging out in New York museums.” The technology feels irresistible, inevitable. He’s the first robot I ever met; I doubt he’ll be the last.
Yes, here in the physical world, through amazing advances in technology, we are finally achieving the sort of long-distance human interaction that Swedenborg described over two and a half centuries ago as a matter of common experience in the spiritual world.
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