Raymond Kurzweil, a scientist and futurist, predicts a new epoch he calls the “Singularity.” This is the point along the evolutionary path where the line between human beings and technology is crossed, where quasi-human/quasi-machine beings possess far more brainpower and longevity than mere mortals. As Kurzweil puts it:

One can make a strong case that [the Singularity is] actually the cutting edge of the evolution of intelligence in general, because there’s no indication that it’s occurred anywhere else. To me that is what human civilization is all about. It is part of our destiny and part of the destiny of evolution to continue to progress ever faster, and to grow the power of intelligence exponentially.To contemplate stopping that — to think human beings are fine the way they are — is a misplaced fond remembrance of what human beings used to be. What human beings are is a species that has undergone a cultural and technological evolution, and it’s the nature of evolution that it accelerates, and that its powers grow exponentially, and that’s what we’re talking about. The next stage of this will be to amplify our own intellectual powers with the results of our technology.

In matters of immigration, the Singularity is approaching more quickly than we lowly humans can comfortably tolerate and outpacing the capability of lawyers and policy wonks to understand and harness it for good rather than ill. I can cite many examples — the Labor Department’s new iCert portal and Homeland Security’s E-Verify database, to name just two — both portending an ominous new era of secret data mining and invasions of privacy. As scary as these technologies are, they are noisome gnats in comparison to the threats posed by the State Department’s new electronic nonimmigrant visa application required for use at several consular posts — the DS-160.

To hear State tell the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in its Supporting Statement, the DS-160 is a marvel of efficiency and simplicity, and a boon to visa applicants worldwide:

The Department has developed an application process that will allow respondents [visa applicants] to electronically submit their applications to the Department. . . .The applicant will be asked to provide answers to a series of standardized questions. Depending on the applicant’s answers to these standard questions, the applicant will be asked specific questions concerning their application. For example, all applicants are asked “What is the purpose of your trip to the United States?” If the applicant answers, “fiancé” the applicant will then be directed to answer questions specific to nonimmigrants that are coming to the United States to marry U.S. citizens. Or, if the applicant answers “student”, the applicant will be asked questions pertaining to his or her education plans. Once the application is completed and the applicant has verified the answers provided, the applicant will electronically sign and submit the application to the Department in electronic form. The applicant may print a copy of the application for record keeping purposes, but no paper copy of the application is submitted to the Department. The applicant will present to the Department in paper an application confirmation page which will contain a record locater in the form of a 2-D bar code. The consular officer will scan the bar code to electronically retrieve the application from the computer database. The electronic form will ensure that consular officers have all the necessary information to process the application and will significantly reduce the need for additional paperwork during the applicant’s interview. The electronic submission of the application to the Department will allow for the information to be reviewed before the time of an interview.

The problem with the DS-160, however, is that the visa applicant (and his/her lawyer, family member or sponsoring employer) cannot see the questions to be answered in advance or even print out a copy of all or part of the form before sitting down to provide answers, given under penalty of perjury, that will determine whether the applicant’s personal version of the American Dream will ever be realized.

In my view, State snookered OMB in approving the release of the DS-160 under the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) without providing the public with access to a complete copy of the form and all the questions posed. The purpose of the PRA is to reduce the burden of completing government forms; it is not to allow government agencies to force visa applicants and their stakeholders to play “whack a mole” or “peek a boo” as different answers pop up unexpectedly.

Before the Singularity, Hamlet’s exclamation eloquently celebrated humankind’s evolution:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals . . .

After the atrocity of the DS-160, however, as State tramples on legal rights and human sensibilities, the rest of Hamlet’s phrase is particularly apt, for this electronic Singular Sensation turns humans into the “quintessence of dust.”