Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

Straight Talk

A reader wrote that recent columns emphasize sentiment, rather than technological issues, and he's right. So I found myself asking, what ARE the issues occasioned by technology as we experience them fired at us every morning at point blank range from the barrel of a gun?

The real issues, alas, ARE human issues. Due to rapid changes in technology, the possibilities of our lives fan out like the paths of sub-atomic particles. The ones that become real are those we choose to make real. But in the meantime, the number of options confronting every task from choosing a new television to resolving complex issues of work, parenting, or being in relationship cause much of the underlying stress so many feel.

We are realizing that reinventing ourselves is not a one-time event, but an ongoing affair. The task of asking who we are and how we will work and live is serious business that requires time and energy - the last thing we feel we have to give.

The digital world, like the print world before it, is assimilating us into its radical and powerful way of manipulating symbols, and since we are symbol-using creatures, every dimension of our lives is in transition. The digital world is interactive, modular, and fluid, which means that aspects of our lives that previously carried an illusion of fixity are becoming interactive, modular and fluid to a greater degree. So what we once experienced as optional - the need to step back and see the Big Picture, taking "time out" to journey into the deep places of our hearts by journaling, engaging in intentional conversations with trusted others, or just having the courage to pay attention to the disruptive events in our everyday lives - is no longer an option. Some kind of personal or corporate retreat is as essential to intentional living as strategic planning is to business.

Nevertheless, because we often don't know how to build in the time or do the task, that "space" in our lives is something more often talked about than created and used effectively. We hire personal trainers to build up our bodies but hesitate to employ coaches to assist us in clarifying values or refining our personal vision and examining how our behaviors do or do not align with them. Yet those deeper realities affect our day-to-day lives more than the incidents and accidents to which we pay attention.

You know what? We can not have it all. We have to make hard choices and that often means real and painful sacrifice. So many popular modalities of spirituality and personal growth are popular precisely because they promise growth and fulfillment at little or no cost. But life is not like that. Life is not an endless cocktail party with gracious servants replenishing trays so we can eat whatever we want throughout the night.

Choices about technology begin with choices about people. Technology is about technology only in the abstract. It is in fact always about people - people who are changed by it, people to whom it discloses new ways of being human. Yet it is precisely the human dimension that is often ignored as we distribute workers into simulated nodal space in cubicle cities, where they sink into the quiet desperation of interfacing only with simulated digital humans over telephones and networks.

At a recent meeting of representatives from organizations working on Y2K issues at which I spoke, the moderator (a COBOL programmer) said:

"I have been working on Y2K for three years, but until I saw today's topic, 'the human dimension of Y2K,' it never occurred to me that there WAS a human dimension of Y2K." The programmer surfed the Internet and was astonished to discover a cottage industry spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) in order to increase their short term profits.

Think of it ... three years working on code without ever thinking of how those lines of code would combine into massive structures of behavior-changing modules that would constitute a distinct culture and demand of human users significant changes in thinking, feeling and behaving.

Implementing enterprise software like SAP restructures a human culture as radically as a merger between different businesses, yet the culture of the software - often implicit in the assumptions it brings to the humans who will use it - always wins. It is easier to dismiss employees who can't adapt to new software than adapt software to the humans who use it.

Take computer security, an area where it's easy to see how widespread our unacknowledged commitment to "invincible ignorance" has become. Computer security is a contradiction in terms. Those who work in the dark heart of the global network manifest an "appropriate paranoia" because they know, they really know. Yet again and again, real security is the last item on corporate priority lists. Quick fixes like firewalls or intrusion detection systems will cover the buns of anyone called to justify procedures after a theft or major act of espionage. But those in the know know that firewalls and intrusion detection systems in and of themselves do not do squat for real security because the weakest link in a network is the human user, how humans think about security, how humans love to outwit the electronic network.

Most users operate out of an obsolete trust model that is not congruent with how intelligence and counter-intelligence, disinformation, espionage and sabotage is done in the digital world. It is the difference between showing an ID to board a plane in the United States and showing up in Israel hours early to be interrogated. Israel knows what shadows lurk in the hearts of women and men and acts accordingly.

As the digital world assimilates us more and more into its looking-glass ways, we ignore the human dimension to our peril. We human beings, digitized and distributed, are not who we used to be, nor is human civilization. The real issues of computing are issues of identity and self, and that's where planning and strategy, personal and professional, should begin.

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, 1999. All rights reserved.

ThiemeWorks on the Web:

ThiemeWorks P. O. Box 17737 Milwaukee WI 53217-0737 414.351.2321