Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

But To What Purpose?

A scientist writes that the way we humans evolved as hunter-gatherers is how we are still built. Another writes about the "intelligence of vision," noting that seeing takes up nearly half our brain and generates the structure of the world we take for granted. Another struggles to imagine how alien species might interpret our civilization, discovering as he does some of the presuppositions of our perceptual field.

We bring our built-in apparatus for seeing and perceiving to the world on a computer monitor, where we build a simulation in its image. Because that simulated space is fresh, we can still see the roadwork, but the infrastructure of the digital world is becoming as invisible as the infrastructure of literacy and speech. Chips are disappearing into every aspect of our lives - communication, transportation, physical environments, clothing, and - ultimately - ourselves.

The imaginary gardens on my monitor often seem more real than the trees in my back yard. Most of the time I don't even notice the real trees. We don't yet live in the world constructed by computers that way, but we will. The world created and disclosed by computing is becoming an essential dimension of who we believe ourselves to be. And who, therefore, we are.

Most of us who love online life remember the first time we tumbled into the rabbit hole, falling headlong into a domain as magical as Alice's underground. I remember downloading the first browser around ten o'clock at night. When I next looked up it was four in the morning. That knowledge engine rearranged data into forms that coupled effortlessly with my perceptual apparatus. It was a world of digital symbols filled with projections of my self as it moved among them, thinking it was leaving the room and extending itself "out there." The exploration was really, of course, inside the consensual space we agree to hallucinate together.

What is it about this domain that compels such a response? What seduces us to stay up all night, fooling around for hours as we build communal worlds or play with these symbols, using them as levers to turn gears in the "real" world?

The nexus between nested levels of symbolic reality and the field of human subjectivity, the extensible domain of human consciousness, haunts me. It is the point at which consciousness connects with any or all of those levels, which unfold like a pop-up book or - perhaps - spiral up like a fractal, open-ended, evolving, and free. From sub-atomic particles to machine language to top-level symbolic constructions called "culture," they fold into one another like steps in an Escher stairway, creating a world we half-create, as Wordsworth said, and half-perceive. And then believe.

This week I spoke with Joe McMoneagle, a "remote viewer" for many years in military intelligence programs. Called a "natural" by observers because of the detail of his best "hits," McMoneagle engaged in a disciplined kind of clairvoyance using structured protocols. (Remote viewing is the ability to be present in our consciousness to events or places at which we are not physically present).

McMoneagle discovered that the world is not what he thought it was. He had to reinvent continuously the images he used as maps of reality as his psychic adventures exploded the consensual reality he had been taught to believe.

The images of the world we internalize from life online also become obsolete each time we turn off the computer.

McMoneagle's exploration of the deeper levels of consciousness was like learning to dive. We are unaware of the ocean until we hear about it or see pictures of a reef. Then we go to the coast and look down into the water. Arriving at the land/water interface is crucial: we learn firsthand that oceans are real, find guides to teach us the rules, and practice.

When we dive for the first time, we're astonished. We learn to go deeper, stay longer, deal with real dangers. After a while, we're as comfortable under water as on land, and when we speak of the "world," we mean life under water as well as on land.

Symbols are like face plates on our masks, invisible themselves but enabling us to see. Symbol-making and symbol-using constitutes the technology of consciousness as tool-using constitutes the technology of a culture. Human physiology is a kind of technology too, as invisible as language, defining the way we evolved to gather and hunt.

Online life changes what we mean by "reality." McMoneagle has difficulty talking about "reality" with people who have not experienced what he has. He has to build a modular interface that somehow connects both his experience and the experience of someone who has never gone diving. In the same way, building a computer interface that lets ordinary users couple with the many levels of the digital world is more than "usability." It is participation in a revolutionary act of mutual transformation.

Computer codes are languages, mental artifacts, and modular units of shared perceptual worlds, all at the same time. McMoneagle's description of exploring the deeper waters of consciousness is a template for learning how to move with clear intentionality among the nested levels of symbols that fold into one another in the digital world. Remote viewing is a function of the intentionality of the viewer, not the so-called "physical" world. Nor is a computer network fully defined by chips, switches or code; the network is defined above all by the intentionality of the users.

It is easy to lose ourselves in the act of building simulations that our brains think are real and forget that intentionality animates the network like a ghost in the machine. Inside the domain of human consciousness - and we are always inside - we are bow, arrow and target. We define ourselves as a spectrum of possibilities, choose one, and do it. The symbols we think we use as tools disappear, the nested levels built of those symbols collapse, and we see in that moment our responsibility for what we are building instead of pretending we're merely technicians or just along for the ride.

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

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