Richard Thieme's

Islands in the Clickstream

The Power Grid

There's an apocryphal story about an American officer who fought in the Viet Nam War. His troops, it is said, often saw him standing in the smoke of battle with his eyes closed, looking as focussed as Yoda discerning a disturbance in the Force.

This is what he said he was doing.

He was sorting aspects of the battle into a grid. In his mind's eye he saw four quadrants: what was going right? what was going wrong? what was not going right? what was not going wrong?

Then he looked intently at the matrix for a point of leverage through which he could act, surveying the space to see what was missing, what might be enhanced.

That's our story too. It's as if we're inside that old movie Tron, the one about a computer programmer inserted into his own game. It was made when computer graphics meant luminous 3-D grids flexing on the screen. We're inside the game, spectators no more, looking for a point of leverage.

But we're also looking for moorings so we can make sense of what's gone and what's here. The past seems like a dream, our former points of reference seem like mist. But we don't want to backslide into denial. We need to recreate ourselves on the fly in a zone of annihilation in which everything we believed to be true is called into question. We need to stay focussed on what is real.

At first it felt like everything was coming apart. Our psyches backscattered in the sudden impact of the crash. We recoiled from "the shocks and changes that keep us sane," as Robert Frost called them. But then gravity came into play. Our psyches came together again, integrated at a different level of organization into a much less innocent self.

We're recognizably the same .... but different.

The points of reference for determining right thinking and right action have shifted. Insights that have been arriving for a long time hover in our minds like computer-generated entities in the space of a 3-D cybergame. We are trying to connect them to the lines of the flexing grid that define the new battlespace.

So what are some of the things that are changing?

We still talk about individuality, but the needs of the larger community have become paramount. The needs of the individual are being defined, in fact, as the needs of the community. Everything from "privacy" to "rights" will be recontextualized in this light.

No nation state will ever again act as if independent. A deeper awareness of interdependence is percolating through our thinking, but we are not yet fully aware of all the implications. We don't yet speak a language in which mutual dependence is implicit. We are struggling to articulate this new understanding the way fish that walked on stubby fins might have spoken of life in the air.

The nation state as we knew it is on its way out. In addition to the intensity with which most Americans felt connected in the aftershock of the attack, we also saw clearly that the dissolution of boundaries had resulted in new self-organizing structures for which we do not yet have names. The names we previously invented for trans-global entities - meta-national corporations, NGOs, mafias, cartels, terrorist networks - don't really define these new organizational structures. They coexist uneasily with "nation states" in something like but more than alliances. They interpenetrate one another in indeterminate ways. We don't know what to call them yet. And we don't know who is loyal to what.

World War III is not only about "America," it's about the character of a planetary society, in fact, a trans-planetary society. The current battlespace might be characterized as McDonald's versus jihad, but it's bigger than that. We are choosing the kind of civilization we want to build in the 21st century.

Modernity, the "modern world," is open, evolving, free. It sparkles with the light of the free exchange of ideas and information, looking as the earth looks at night from space. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, are always totalitarian, regardless of religion. Whether Jews, Christians, or Moslems, fundamentalists have more in common with one another than with moderates in their own religions. Their world is binary, black or white. Their inordinate need for control comes from a deep unyielding fear that makes them rigid and brittle as sticks.

The totalitarian mind is never capable of understanding the mind of a free people. As Churchill said on the floor of Congress after Pearl Harbor, "What kind of a people do they think we are?" Do they think that the calculus of evil really will solve their problems?

The trivia with which many were preoccupied was blown away in a raw moment. In such moments, we feel what matters most. That sentiment, that feeling, is more than patriotic impulse or angry resolve. It is the engine of awareness, intention and action fused in the moment of knowing, the realization that civilization is a choice and that free people must fight to retain the freedom they love.

The dark side of globalization casts a long shadow. Time and space have been erased by new technologies, and there are no outsiders anymore in the world. Everyone is inside, which means that surveillance will increase until the global village is more than a metaphor. The world needs a neighborhood watch in a different context, one in which self-interest edges toward mutuality that balances the multiple needs of our planet in precarious tension.

This is not about America but about the kind of order possible in a world shot through with evil deeds. The degree of our freedom must be equal to the hatred of the hollow men and their hollow selves, their false selves. Only the power of self-transcendence can see evil in deeds and not in beings, then choose through tears of rage not only to destroy but to build in the midst of destruction.

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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