Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

Beyond Belief

In the human potential movement, we often hear words like, "As you believe, so you can achieve," that imply that everything in our lives is a function of belief. Of course, anyone who has had a flower pot fall on their head from a window ledge knows there's more to it than that. Our lives are bound by real constraints that have nothing to do with what we believe.

Those constraints exist in a domain of "objective reality" beyond our control. Sometimes we try to manipulate that domain through ritual, prayer or incantation, and who can blame us? Our little lives look like fireflies in the vast eye of night and thinking we can make the universe heel can be tempting. That's why the best-selling spiritualities in the religious marketplace pretend to give us control over what we can't control. They reference the ego rather than the Self as the locus of our identity. When we move with the deeper currents of the Self, we surrender control to the flow rather than seize it and discover our real Selves in the process.

Still ... when I look back at the significant breakthroughs in my life, they have often involved stepping out of a belief system that had limited what I thought possible. Beliefs define parameters of possibility and when we break through limiting beliefs, we see options we never knew we had. It really can feel miraculous when that happens. The distance to the horizon is not exactly limitless, but compared to how it had looked, it can seem like it. Obstacles seem to vanish. Perhaps we can be forgiven a little excess when we say, "As we believe, so we can achieve."

Inside the realm of human subjectivity - the domain defined by language and culture - our beliefs do determine the scope and scale of our lives. How we imagine ourselves living is the outer limit of how we can live. When the questions we are capable of asking are pre-determined by our beliefs, the answers are already part of the script.

Computer programmers who work in only one language, like people who speak only one language, really speak no language, as Goethe said. A language shapes our framework of perception in ways we can't see. Inside the skin of a single language or culture, we're like people wearing glasses who are running around looking for their glasses. When we learn a second language, we see other ways of framing reality. Then we can make choices.

No distinctions, no choices.

We live inside perceptual frameworks like ants inside a balloon. But now the balloon is expanding and the stars on its skin are defining a different horizon.

In a civilization that thinks in and through its computer network, programming languages frame what is possible to think. The network extends the subjective domain in which belief and intention determine what's real. Because computers are symbol-manipulating machines, the symbols and syntax that determines how we construct reality literally define what is humanly possible.

To the degree that computer programmers are conscious of the implicit assumptions of all the levels of their languages, they really are masters of the Universe, aware of recursive levels of nested symbolic constructions of reality from the code to the top of our minds. The hardware behaves as the software says, which is why the number of computer applications seems limitless. The Network seems to extend our field of subjectivity beyond any known horizon.

Of course, it's messier than that. The "gray areas" where the field of human subjectivity intersects with the "objective world" is also expanding. When atoms were imagined as billiard balls rolling around in an "objective reality," the boundaries between humans and the Universe were clearer. When atoms are states of probability in a quantum Universe, human intentions have greater power to transform the energy and information that define the universe. Then "objective reality" does become more subject to what we believe. As this process of transformation evolves, consciousness might become synonymous with "objective reality" itself which it will wear as a jellyfish wears its cilia, gathering the raw data of itself. The window and the world through the window just one thing.

We are currently in a process of transformation into a trans-planetary cyborg-humanity, our genetic heritage enhanced and our hive mind augmented by sensory extensions. We are the ghost in that living machine.

But let's drop back inside a familiar landscape.

When our belief system is negative - which is a form of hunkering down into control mode - then unanticipated events that are genuinely wonderful can be a challenge. We can minimize or deny them or we can risk opening ourselves to the fact that the Universe in its better moments is capable of astonishing surprises. Then we must make a choice: will we remain huddled in our winter burrow or be cajoled upward by the heavenly scent of a spring breeze?

Neither humans nor the universe will ever write bug-free code. All code is buggy. Evolution moves through accidents toward surprising configurations that disclose new structures, enabling life to experience itself in new ways. Maybe bugs are feedback loops compelling us to remain present to the project of our lives. Maybe breakdowns are opportunities to sharpen the only tools we have, that is, ourselves, and calibrate our behaviors with our best intentions so what we achieve is what we believe in those moments of astonishment. By definition, surprises are unpredictable, even if they seem somehow connected to our deepest beliefs. Maybe beliefs and breakdowns alike can take the shape of portals through which we pass on the way to discovering new ways of being ourselves.

Listening to the sweet-talk of that spring breeze.

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.

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 (3) distributing Islands to employees or over a network, email for details.

To subscribe to Islands in the Clickstream, send email to with the words "subscribe islands" in the body of the message. To unsubscribe, email with "unsubscribe islands" in the body of the message.

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."

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 2000. All rights reserved.

ThiemeWorks on the Web: and

ThiemeWorks P. O. Box 170737 Milwaukee WI 53217-8061 414.351.2321