Richard Thieme's

Islands in the Clickstream:

The Illusion of Control

Microsoft did it again.

Some users of the beta version of Explorer 4.0 were surprised to learn that, after they went to sleep, their computers were dialing Microsoft and telling it secrets, downloading information from Microsoft's web pages and uploading information from the sanctity of their homes.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that Microsoft says such calls only happen when the feature is activated, but admits that users can activate it without understanding the consequences. Said one beta tester who had wandered in search of a midnight snack, "I was completely freaking out. I pulled the phone plug right out of the wall."

Microsoft insists that the system is under the user's control, but many users didn't know that. The users can be forgiven a little skepticism. ("I'm getting more and more cynical all the time," said Jane Wagner, "and I still can't keep up.") Microsoft is widely believed to have a history of gathering data about users secretly, but at the least, the company was indifferent to the concerns of the human user at the end of the connection. They did not allow the user to maintain an illusion of control.

The truth is, our computers are sending and receiving all sorts of information back and forth automatically all the time. As Edward Felten, head of the Secure Internet Programming Laboratory at Princeton University, said, "I think part of the concern here is the feeling that you've lost control of the computer when it's doing stuff in the middle of the night. The feeling is that you've got control of the computer if you're sitting in front of it. The reality is that you only have the illusion of control."

Psychologists tell us that dominance and submissiveness are two traits that we immediately recognize in others. Of course, submissiveness is often a way of dominating others too, so its safe to say that all human beings expend energy on dominating others and avoiding being dominated by them.

The computer isn't a person, but we treat the computer like a person and react to it as if it's a person. The network invites powerful projections, some of them straight out of the Frankenstein legend. We fear the monster we created and can not control. The more we resist domination, the more we hate symbols of the dominator -- Microsoft, in this case, often called "the Borg" and the "Evil Empire," as well as all computers and networks.

When I lived in Hawaii, I "crossed over" sufficiently into the way that blend of Polynesian and Asian cultures sees things that I sometimes could see "haoles" like myself -- the Hawaiian word for ghosts or pale North Americans -- as the Hawaiians saw us.

I recall a recent arrival to the islands holding forth one day at the tennis courts. The local people listened quietly as he explained what needed to be done to improve the islands. He believed their silence was agreement and kept talking until he grew tired. Then the small crowd scattered and he went off to look at the surfers, thinking he had accomplished something.

"Haoles" think talking is doing, that by telling others what we think or intend to do, we have engaged in action. In fact, the crowd was politely waiting for him to finish. They had heard it all before and learned how to absorb the words of well-meaning tourists as the sea absorbs our energy when we swim.

The principles of aikido, both a martial art and a spiritual discipline, underscore that approach. There are no aggressive moves in aikido. Instead one aligns one's energy with the energy of an attacker, enabling them to complete a move with as little damage to oneself as possible.

All spiritual traditions talk about real power as an alignment of our energy with the energy that is already flowing, the "tao" or the movement of the universe. The advice of Jesus to turn the other cheek has been distorted to mean that people being beaten should keep taking abuse, but that isn't what it meant. It's more on the order of "turn to align yourself with the energy coming at you" in order to increase, rather than decrease, your real control of the situation.

In a workshop demonstrating the principles of gestalt psychology, a group of us were asked to join a loose circle and let our arms fall naturally around one another's waists. Then we were told to "make the circle go where you want it to go." Everyone pushed in different directions and we all fell down. It felt fragmented and chaotic. Then we reconstituted the circle and were told to allow the circle to move as it chose to move. We found ourselves engaged in a natural back-and-forth rhythm, and we experienced deep feelings of well-being as we allowed ourselves to be part of something without having to impose our will on it.

In hierarchical structures, we learn to exercise power by dominating and controlling. In webs or networks, we can't do that. Our energy is diffused along the strands of the web.

The way to exercise power in a network is by contributing and participating. That's why leadership in flattened organizations requires people who know how to implement a vision by coaching, rather than giving orders -- like the CEO who called the troops together and told them, "You are all empowered," then returned to his office, thinking as haoles do that he had accomplished something.

Much of what we call power is the illusion of control. Whether connected to a network, sitting in front of a computer that has an antonymous operating system, engaging in a relationship with a person, or trying to make the world move as we want -- it is all an illusion of control. The only thing we can control is the quality of our response to life. We have an innate capacity to respond to whatever life brings with dignity, elasticity, and -- when the chips are down -- genuine heroism.

The way to rule the world, as Lao Tzu said, is by letting things simply take their course.

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. 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.

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1997. All rights reserved.

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