Richard Thieme's

Islands in the Clickstream

Looking Through the One-Way Mirror

Narcissism is endless, and deadly.

When narcissists look around, like God on the seventh day of creation, they love what they see because everything looks good. But all they see is themselves.

Think of relationships you have had with narcissists. After a while, it feels like weíre on the outside of a one-way mirror looking in at a person who looks as if theyíre looking at us but who in fact never sees anything but themselves.

Itís similar when you live inside a culture. Itís difficult to see anyone outside.

A recent trip to a village in England where I lived thirty years ago provided a benchmark for the narcissism intrinsic to globalism. Thirty years ago we shopped on the High Street by visiting small shops that sold dairy products, vegetables and fruits, bread, and meat. We rented a television that received three channels. There were no home computers, video recorders, or internet. We found a house to rent only when we visited the village because shared real estate listings did not exist.

To be there meant to be in a place with boundaries. Look up and down the High Street and your gaze is stopped by a church or curve in the road. Towns in America are more often built along highways and railroads. Look left or right and you see a straight road to the horizon. The town is a place to pass through on a trip to somewhere else.

When I walked up the High Street in the village last year, the sense of a bounded place had shifted. Of all the small shops, only a butcher shop remained, now called A Taste of Yesterday. The others were consolidated in two huge supermarkets anchored by a Starbucks. McDonaldís, Burger King, KFC, and Pizza Hut were prominent. Everyone had cable television tuned to global media, neighbors surfed the internet through broadband connections, and Blockbusters took up space next to a multiplex cinema showing Die Another Day.

Street-level storefronts were obviously forms of media just as much as video, cable, and the Internet. They surrounded me with mirror images of my culture, myself. I had not left home because home like a moebius strip confronted me with images of myself in all directions.

Thatís not news, really, but it was a striking benchmark for how much of the world has become a one-way mirror surrounding us all with images of a larger global self. Those images and symbols function as social controls providing feedback in classic cybernetic fashion. In mass media, they thread our lives with anxiety and fear, then reassure us with images of comfort.

Religious and patriotic symbols shed the meanings they once had and become peas in a shell game. The hands of perception managers move faster than the eye.

The war in Iraq clarified the nature of the American presence in the Middle East and the world as it was intended to do. The war itself was theater intended to communicate a larger truth that can then be used as leverage. The images fed to us 24/7 by competitive networks told little of the real story. Depth was once again sacrificed to images that were skin-deep, clarifying the totality of the victory, not only of American arms, but of that wrap-around mirror feeding our narcissistic self with reinforcing images.

Now the real war begins or, rather, continues. Dissidents who oversimplify the war as a quest for oil or the personal crusade of an American president play into the hands of the masters of deception. If we agree to accept simplistic interpretations and media images as our currency of discourse, then we lose. Victory consists of determining the language by which events are interpreted, not the conclusions to which people subsequently come.

Whereas in the past poets created the dialect of the tribe, today itís surround-sound talking heads. Information warfare is the entire fractal-like linkage between symbols and meanings and how they are managed. Information moves not just mountains but masses of frightened people. Those scenes of looting which could have been prevented were as effective a threat of impending chaos as images of rioting after the assassinations in the sixties. As crowd control, they are better than tear gas or mace.

An immense war machine operating from a network centric brain achieved its dual objectives of creating fear in those who oppose us and helplessness in dissidents at home. Opposition here as abroad was dismissed as irrelevant to the task at hand. Americans no less than Middle Easterners got the message.

Meanwhile terrorists in Lackawanna New York entered guilty pleas, reportedly induced by threats of removing them from the criminal justice system and designating them "enemy combatants" who could be held indefinitely without charge or access to lawyers.

Once we sanction a way to remove people from the criminal justice system, the system no longer exists. Once we send people to countries to be interrogated by harsh methods because we donít do that sort of thing, we become people who do that sort of thing.

Asked what he thought the world learned from the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel said, the world learned that you can get away with it.

People with power do what they can. Because they can. Period.

A great many-tentacled hydra-headed monster is crawling through the desert. We try to make out its form through the blinding sand but canít. All we see are arms whipping in the dust and a sky obscured by buckle and warp.

Donít be concerned. Just change channels. Anyway, the war has become boring. The economy needs our support. Shop, buy tickets, invest in corporations that profit from war and its aftermath. Take trips to Disneyland in airplanes with tired pilots tripling their hours in the air. Listen to news punctuated with applause, sitcoms interrupted by laugh tracks, watch political theater threaded through with encouragement and reassurance.

Enjoy the circus in the funhouse mirror, the images of flags waving, images of POWS (ours) greeting emotional families. Cry when they cry, laugh when they laugh. Celebrate images of warriors, victorious. Wince at an image of an armless Iraqi boy, now a poster child not of brutality but of our compassion as we send medical care as we send Bechtel to rebuild everything we have smashed. Laugh, wince, celebrate, cry. The mirror spins around us, images blurring. Calliope pipes play shrill notes. Clear the rubble, bury the dead, dump truth down the memory hole, and letís get on with whatever is next.

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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