Richard Thieme's

Islands in the Clickstream

The Next Bend of the River

A younger friend called recently to discuss his perplexity as he moves through what we sometimes call "the age thirty transition." This is a time of coming to terms with the growing awareness that our twenties, which we thought meant adulthood, was really a kind of post-adolescence.

Around thirty, the upward call of taking our place in the world as an adult is felt more keenly. It is often accompanied, as it was in my friend's case, by the dissolution of the model or map of the world he had created in his twenties and thought would be permanent.

In his case, the playing field is the world of "computer security." A brilliant young technophile, he had previously defined his horizons of possibility in the depths of computer networks. Now that "computer security" is morphing into one aspect of security-in-general, its power to seize his imagination is waning.

In short, he is growing, listening to the whispers of other voices in other rooms of his soul, discovering dimensions of himself which arrive with the fresh surprise of a real Tequila sunrise.

In retrospect, I think he will find greater continuity between the larger Self he discovers himself to be and all those "little selves" we invent in the process of adapting to internal as well as external changes. Yet that Self too changes appearance as we grow.

This process is happening in the wider world too. Humankind is not what it thought it was. Our species is having an "identity crisis."

We have options for choosing identities thanks to various technologies that we never had before. In the film "Blade Runner," an android who thought he was human wondered about an android who thought she was human - "how can it not know what it is?"

That question is being asked of us by our cyborg face in the funhouse mirror.

We are transforming ourselves through enhancements to cognition, memory, and our senses, then looking at ourselves through those enhancements. There's a momentary disconnect between what we see and what we used to see, a parallax view of our Selves.

So which is real - the world seen without glasses that we have been taught to call "blurred" or the sharply focused world seen through the "corrective lenses" of our technologies?

If we told someone from the twelfth century about "developmental stages" like adolescence or middle-age, they would find them unthinkable. As we extend longevity toward 150-200 years, our designer progeny will find our developmental stages equally unreal.

During transitions that call our identities into question, we often look to organizational structures to define who we are. We surrender autonomy in exchange for the comforting illusion that an identity derived from a corporation, a nation, a religion, will provide security. But those structures too are in transition, their boundaries dissolving. Religions are dividing, merging and emerging, forming alliances. The conflicting norms, intentions, and agendas of countries, multi-nationals, and NGOs (non-government organizations) make our loyalties uncertain, our social roles ambiguous, our identities confused.

Looking backward toward organizational structures that made sense in the past for self-definition does not solve the real questions of our lives. Yet the new organizational structures that are emerging at a higher level of complexity do not yet have names.

The intentional construction of identity is one of the biggest challenges facing individuals, nations, and our trans-planetary society.

Some will shrink in fear from ambiguity and complexity, falling back on tribal identities defined by dissolving religious, ethnic, or national boundaries. To become aware of the transitory nature of those structures would make them feel lost. They are lost anyway, but refusing to become conscious provides the consolation prize of not knowing they are lost.

Someone in a seminar recently objected that my description of a cyborg future made him feel helpless. "Good!" I said. "When we started, you were just as helpless - you were at Minus Two - but didn't know it. Now you're at minus one: You're helpless and you know it. The next step is Ground Zero: What will you do about it?"

The only thing any of us can really do is move through a zone of annihilation that challenges everything we believed to be true about ourselves and experience the vertigo of freefall as our new identities emerge.

An astronaut on his first spacewalk outside MIR described a feeling of vertigo that never left. He felt the whole time he was clinging to the exterior of the space station that he was falling off a cliff. He had to use considerable mental energy to locate himself in the void in a way that anchored him.

That anchor is the Self we discover and create in freefall.

A field of gravity merely disguises the truth that we are always in freefall. Developmental stages, those nested identities that emerge fractal-like as we grow, create that kind of field, letting us ground ourselves in the void.

New organizational structures will be defined by boundaries big enough to be functional (for now) at the level of complexity appropriate to current social, economic, and political circumstances, just as nation states emerged in the past few centuries to organize commerce and political life at a different level of complexity.

Then Humankind will look into the mirror of its collective consciousness and see a new Self, a Self that is multi-nodal, multi-dimensional, and non-local. Today that Self is still vague and inchoate, a mist on the mirror. But one day that spirit will quicken and become flesh.

Courage is the willingness to look into that mirror and not to forget what we see, then say what we see, thus defining new possibilities for Humankind. The second level of courage is the willingness not to confuse ourSelves for that image ... to persist in freefall, fixed in the void, aware that our flicker of self-consciousness is a wrinkle in spacetime, a firefly like MIR, a fold or flow in a larger fabric.

Islands in the Clickstream is an intermittent column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology and the ultimate concerns of our lives. Comments are welcome.

Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations - the human dimensions of technology and work - and "life on the edge."

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