Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

A Digital Innocent

When I was a kid, we used to watch "Superman" on black-and-white television. We were the last family in our apartment building to own a black-and-white set and - because we won one in a raffle - the first on the block with a color TV.

The immense cabinet contained a huge tube and a miniscule screen. Few programs were in color, and when one was scheduled, we invited the neighborhood kids to come over and watch. I turned dials for "hue" and "tint" until the faces on the screen turned bright pink, and everybody clapped.

"Superman" was a ritual on Saturday morning. Like all rituals, it began with the same words, a comforting repetition that made us receptive to the message. The voiceover said Superman was "disguised as Clark Kent, a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, [who] fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way."

That's the stuff of a child's dreams. As we grow older, we're supposed to put away childish things, but the older I become, the more deeply I believe that without the passion for truth and justice evoked by a myth like Superman, the world is a nightmare from which we will never awake.

When I left organized religion six years ago for the life of a speaker and writer, one of the people in my parish took me aside. "I need to know," she said, "if you still believe in God."

Now, when you work as a priest, minister or rabbi, you learn that managing projections is a large part of your role. Because you're a symbol, people automatically project onto you too much good and too much evil. You discover that what they think of you reveals their best attributes or hidden guilt. You learn to give back their projections because the ability to integrate into our selves what we unconsciously project onto others is one source of spiritual growth. Because that woman used my faith to leverage her own, my answer mattered. I wanted to tell her the truth, but the whole truth, not some simplistic bumper-sticker slogan that glazed over the real evil that crushes people for no good reason.

"In my heart," I said, "yes, I believe that God exists ... but! that doesn't mean things aren't as bad as they look."

Our lives are infinity loops between those two polarities like a planet oscillating between binary stars. Without openness to the possibilities of the future - without faith - we sink into a kind of living death. But if we refuse to acknowledge the realities of life, "faith" becomes denial or rationalization, a defensive reaction that does not set us free so much as imprison us in our fear of the truth.

I spoke recently with Gary Webb, the author of "Dark Alliance," an exploration of the connections between the Contras, the CIA, and the cocaine epidemics of the eighties. Webb's credibility was assaulted when he wrote that series for the San Jose Mercury News. His editors backed off, and he felt compelled to resign from the dead-end job to which they assigned him. He pursued the investigation, and as it turns out, Webb was right. The tangled chain of lies and deception was more complex than anyone imagined.

I asked Webb if what he endured - the attacks on his credibility, the impact on his family, loss of his career - were worth it.

"Sometimes we only have one opportunity," he said, "to do the right thing. If we don't do it, we surrender. Then they win."

It is ironic that his pursuit of justice and truth took place in Silicon Valley, where the passion for amassing money often eclipses the passion for justice or truth.

"Here in Silicon Valley," a colleague wrote, "the only time we hear about truth and justice is when Jesse Jackson comes to town or when janitors go on strike. They seem to be irrelevant to people's lives."

We old timers remember when an entire culture was appropriately outraged when the leaders who asked for our trust attempted to hijack the intelligence establishment and the Department of Justice to subvert the constitution and destroy lives. These days the reporters who illuminated their crimes would be called "conspiracy theorists." They would be "disappeared" by being suffocated in lies and irrelevancies, false stories planted in mainstream media, discredited or ignored. Other media events would be created to distract us - the saga of little Elian, professional sports, or gladiator-like spectacles - and we would stampede toward those manufactured images of manufactured events like cattle.

Has an entire generation been hijacked by a love of technology devoid of passion for using technology to do the right thing? Mention spirituality in Silicon Valley and you're likely to be spoon-fed a blend of material success and the kind of self-indulgence that pretends we can become authentically ourselves without meaningful sacrifice or rigorous discipline.

No spiritual ground is conquered without the self-knowledge that makes us aware of our complicity and collusion, without the compassion that shatters barriers erected by self-righteousness, without a passion for justice outraged at the arrogance of complacency and greed.

Superman was a comic-book hero translated into a televised image. New superheroes are showing up in the digital world, but the criteria for a superhero seems to be the value of their stock options rather than their character.

The dangers of ubiquitous electronic connectivity are not the dangers that play well on the news, but the danger that those who manufacture and manipulate the news into false images of "history" will turn even our outrage at injustice into another revenue stream distorted into a media event.

Manufactured images and manufactured events are designed to keep us asleep. The Internet is a funhouse mirror of distortion as well as a potential source of redemption. But for a portal of truth and transformation to work, we must move through it with a child's heart, believing in spite of the evidence, while at the same time we connect warily with the images that constitute bars of a digital cage.

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.

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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.

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