Richard Thieme on Wed, 29 Oct 1997 12:18:02 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> 21.c and Islands in the Clickstream

Because you received the sad and celebratory notice about 21.C, as I did,
and are a kindred spirit in some ways, you may find the weekly column,
"Islands in the Clickstream," of interest. Islands explores the impact of
computer technology on individuals, organizations, and society, especially
the spiritual dimensions of cyberspace. Two sample columns follows. Please
subscribe (free) if it interests you or check the archives at Thanks.

Islands in the Clickstream:
                    Beyond the Edge 

     There comes a point in our deepest thinking at which the
framework of our thinking itself begins to wrinkle and slide into
the dark. We see the edge of our thinking mind, an edge beyond
which we can see ... something else ... a self-luminous "space"
that constitutes the context of our thinking and our thinking
     As a child I tried to imagine infinity. The best I could do
was nearly empty space, a cold void defined by a few dim stars,
my mind rushing toward them, then past them into the darkness. 
     The same thing happens today when I think about energy and
information and the fact that all organisms and organizations are
systems of energy and information interacting in a single matrix.
     I try to imagine the form or structure of the system, but
the structure itself is a system of energy and information. I try
to imagine the structure of the structure ... and pretty soon the
words or images are rushing into the darkness at warp speed and
my mind is jumping into hyperspace. 
     When we see our thinking from a point outside our thinking,
we see that our ideas and beliefs are mental artifacts, as solid
and as empty as all the things in the physical world -- things,
we are told, that are really patterns of energy and information,
that our fingertips or eyes or brains are structured to perceive
as if they are objects -- out there -- external to ourselves.
     That is an illusion, of course. There is no "there" there.
     Makes a guy a little dizzy.

     At the recent Hacking in Progress Conference near Amsterdam
(HIP97), there was a demonstration of van Eck monitoring. That
means monitoring the radiation that leaks from your PC. Hackers
do not have to break into your system if the system is leaking
energy and information; they just have to capture and
reconstitute it in useful forms. 
     A participant at HIP said, "It was nice to see a real
demonstration of analog van Eck monitoring of a standard PC,
which meets all the normal shielding and emission control
standards, via an aerial, via the power supply and via the
surface waves induced in earthing cables, water pipes, etc. Even
this simple equipment can distinguish individual machines of the
same make and model in a typical office building from 50 to 150
metres or more with extra signal amplification."
     He is saying that the radiation leaked from your PC monitor,
even when it meets all the standards proscribed by law, can be
reconstituted on a screen at a distance greater than the length
of a football field, and everything you are seeing at this moment
can be seen by that fellow in the van down the block as well. 
     And he can get the radiation from the water pipes under your
     We are radiating everywhere and always the information and
energy that constitutes the pattern of what we look at, what we
know ... who and what we are.

     A side trip:
     All of the great spiritual traditions teach practices of
meditation. They teach that those who enter deep states of
meditation soon discover that paranormal experience is the norm
at a particular depth of consciousness. 
     At first this discovery is fascinating. It is like scuba
diving for the first time. The beauty of the underwater world is
so compelling, you can stop at twenty or thirty feet and just
gaze in awe at the beauty of the fish. But if you do, you won't
go deeper. You'll get stuck.
     So we are told simply to note that what is happening is
real, then keep on moving.
     In those deeper states, we observe more and more clearly the
thinking that we often mistake for our real selves. We see that
we are usually "inside" our thinking, living as if our thoughts
are reality itself. We see the edge of our thinking and then ...
something else beyond the edge. 
     We see that the structures of our thinking -- our culture --
are mental artifacts. 
     When we think that, and catch ourselves thinking about the
illusion of thinking, we laugh. 
     That's why laughter peals so often from the walls of
Buddhist monasteries. Enlightenment is a comic moment.
Enlightenment includes the experience of observing our minds in
action and seeing that we are not our minds. Our minds may be as
automatic as machines but we are not machinery. We are the ghosts
in the machine.
     We see that in our essence we are more like stars in a
spiralling galaxy. We are not just radiating energy and
information always, we ARE radiant energy and information, a
single matrix of light that is darkness visible.  

     Back in my days of doing workshops and long weekends, we
used to do an exercise of looking into each other's eyes until we
were lost in a wordless communion. By playing games ("feel a
feeling and communicate it without words, the other receive it
and say what it is") we discovered that what we were feeling was
always transmitted to anyone and everyone around us. All a person
had to do was stop for a moment and pay attention and they would
know who we were. Even when we thought we were providing high-
level descriptions of ourselves that fooled everyone, we were
leaking energy and information. 

     It is dawning on us that privacy as we used to think of it
is over, that the global village is a community in which the data
of our lives is available to anyone who wants to gather or pay
for it. It ought to be dawning on us as well that the ways we
think we mask ourselves are as transparent as the shielding on a
PC monitor. 
     The initial distancing we experience when we first connect
via computers is soon replaced with the realization that our
willingness to be present -- to communicate via symbols like
these -- means that we are transparent in our interaction, that
the global network is a mediating structure through which
information and energy is transmitted literally as well as in
symbolic forms. WE show up in cyberspace, not just
representations of ourselves. WE are here, alone together. 
     The structures of energy and information in the universe are
the universe. 

     How can we speak of what we see beyond the edge of our
collective selves? It seems to be a ground or matrix, a glowing
self-luminous system of ... nothing ... there is no "there" there
... and we rush through the darkness toward the few stars
defining the limits of our thought then past them. 

Islands in the Clickstream:
               The Illusion of Control

Microsoft did it again. 

Some users of the beta version of Explorer 4.0 were surprised to
learn that, after they went to sleep, their computers were
dialing Microsoft and telling it secrets, downloading information
from Microsoft's web pages and uploading information from the
sanctity of their homes. 

The San Jose Mercury News reports that Microsoft says such calls
only happen when the feature is activated, but admits that users
can activate it without understanding the consequences. Said one
beta tester who had wandered in search of a midnight snack,  "I
was completely freaking out. I pulled the phone plug right out of
the wall."

Microsoft insists that the system is under the user's control,
but many users didn't know that. The users can be forgiven a
little skepticism. ("I'm getting more and more cynical all the
time," said Jane Wagner, "and I still can't keep up.") Microsoft
is widely believed to have a history of gathering data about
users secretly, but at the least, the company was indifferent to
the concerns of the human user at the end of the connection. They
did not allow the user to maintain an illusion of control. 

The truth is, our computers are sending and receiving all sorts
of information back and forth automatically all the time. As
Edward Felten, head of the Secure Internet Programming Laboratory
at Princeton University, said, "I think part of the concern here
is the feeling that you've lost control of the computer when it's
doing stuff in the middle of the night. The feeling is that
you've got control of the computer if you're sitting in front of
it. The reality is that you only have the illusion of control."

Psychologists tell us that dominance and submissiveness are two
traits that we immediately recognize in others. Of course,
submissiveness is often a way of dominating others too, so its
safe to say that all human beings expend energy on dominating
others and avoiding being dominated by them. 

The computer isn't a person, but we treat the computer like a
person and react to it as if it's a person. The network invites
powerful projections, some of them straight out of the
Frankenstein legend. We fear the monster we created and can not
control. The more we resist domination, the more we hate symbols
of the dominator -- Microsoft, in this case, often called "the
Borg" and the "Evil Empire," as well as all computers and

When I lived in Hawaii, I "crossed over" sufficiently into the
way that blend of Polynesian and Asian cultures sees things that
I sometimes could see "haoles" like myself -- the Hawaiian word
for ghosts or pale North Americans -- as the Hawaiians saw us.

I recall a recent arrival to the islands holding forth one day at
the tennis courts. The local people listened quietly as he
explained what needed to be done to improve the islands. He
believed their silence was agreement and kept talking until he
grew tired. Then the small crowd scattered and he went off to
look at the surfers, thinking he had accomplished something.

"Haoles" think talking is doing, that by telling others what we
think or intend to do, we have engaged in action. In fact, the
crowd was politely waiting for him to finish. They had heard it
all before and learned how to absorb the words of well-meaning
tourists as the sea absorbs our energy when we swim.

The principles of aikido, both a martial art and a spiritual
discipline, underscore that approach. There are no aggressive
moves in aikido. Instead one aligns one's energy with the energy
of an attacker, enabling them to complete a move with as little
damage to oneself as possible. 

All spiritual traditions talk about real power as an alignment of
our energy with the energy that is already flowing, the "tao" or
the movement of the universe. The advice of Jesus to turn the
other cheek has been distorted to mean that people being beaten
should keep taking abuse, but that isn't what it meant. It's more
on the order of "turn to align yourself with the energy coming at
you" in order to increase, rather than decrease, your real
control of the situation. 

In a workshop demonstrating the principles of gestalt psychology,
a group of us were asked to join a loose circle and let our arms
fall naturally around one another's waists. Then we were told to
"make the circle go where you want it to go." Everyone pushed in
different directions and we all fell down. It felt fragmented and
chaotic. Then we reconstituted the circle and were told to allow
the circle to move as it chose to move. We found ourselves
engaged in a natural back-and-forth rhythm, and we experienced
deep feelings of well-being as we allowed ourselves to be part of
something without having to impose our will on it.

In hierarchical structures, we learn to exercise power by
dominating and controlling. In webs or networks, we can't do
that. Our energy is diffused along the strands of the web. 

The way to exercise power in a network is by contributing and
participating. That's why leadership in flattened organizations
requires people who know how to implement a vision by coaching,
rather than giving orders -- like the CEO who called the troops
together and told them, "You are all empowered," then returned to
his office, thinking as haoles do that he had accomplished

Much of what we call power is the illusion of control. Whether
connected to a network, sitting in front of a computer that has
an antonymous operating system, engaging in a relationship with a
person, or trying to make the world move as we want -- it is all
an illusion of control. The only thing we can control is the
quality of our response to life. We have an innate capacity to
respond to whatever life brings with dignity, elasticity, and --
when the chips are down -- genuine heroism.  

The way to rule the world, as Lao Tzu said, is by letting things
simply take their course. 

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by
Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions 
of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

Feel free to pass along columns for personal use, retaining this
signature file. If interested in (1) publishing columns
online or in print, (2) giving a free subscription as a gift, or 
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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer
focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1997. All rights reserved.

ThiemeWorks on the Web:

ThiemeWorks  P. O. Box 17737  Milwaukee WI 53217-0737  414.351.2321
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