Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

The Simple Truth

"We're losing ourselves to technology," they say. As if "technology" is not as old as flint knives and bone tools.

The simple truth is, technology has defined cultures and shaped behaviors forever. The technologies that evolved out of organic molecules we call "nature." Those that we made we call "culture." Both kinds are melting into a gray area we don't know how to define.

The technology that extends our senses is increasingly difficult to distinguish from the technology that creates our senses. Theology dissolves into biomechanics.

Speech - the evolution of lips, tongues, throats and a brain that enables them to speak in the air of our home planet - is a kind of technology too. Had the primates-who-became-us had the capacity as they/we evolved, they might have mourned the loss of a simpler communion, when gestures and grunts were enough to unite the tribe. Once "humanity" became definably human and started speaking, those lemurs-leaving-lemurhood might have said with a sigh, "We're losing ourselves to technology, disappearing into this speaking machine called humanity."

Whatever we were before we became who we are is a memory living on in molecules that encode the experience of our species. But "species" like our "selves" like "humanity" is an abstraction, a dotted line like a country's boundary on a map that exists in our minds. Yet we live as if our maps, simulated worlds invented by human and cybernetic brains, are real. Increasingly the maps are made by the human/cybernetic brain extending itself throughout the solar system.

Our brains are filters, built to perceive whatever is "out there" as foregrounds and backgrounds. Our real Selves like the important things in our lives are always in the background, invisible and forgotten as we cruise down the highways of life, like clean windshields through which we see ... until a truck passes from the blind spot and splashes mud on the windshield. SPLAT. We hit the brakes, paradoxically discovering that which enabled us to see in the first place. In moments of discontinuity, context becomes content, and we see who we really are.

My wife was diagnosed this week with breast cancer.

The windshield of our conjoined lives was spattered with fear grief the pain of love the threat of loss and helplessness. The foreground - the chatter about the things we thought we would do tomorrow - moved into the background, and the background - our selves, the singular way we create a loving context for each other - moved into the foreground.

All the small or silly stuff vanished - poof! - into thin air. We saw our lives with ferocious clarity, aided by news that abraded our hearts, rendering them vulnerable and open.

The simple truth is, we belong to another only when we have surrendered the safe distance that would let us hedge our bets. Love is only love when it is played out with real money on the table.

But what does that have to do with computers?

There has been an acceleration of the tidal wave of greed, centered on the quaking that is Silicon Valley. The pursuit of wealth without earning it, the hunger of grunting pigs hunting truffles, has driven more and more people to sacrifice their real lives in order to possess symbols of life. We race down what we think are highways into cul-de-sacs of lonely desperation. We burn to possess that which will vanish if we try to grasp it. Donkeys trotting in circles after imaginary carrots.

When a truck comes suddenly out of our blind spot and splatters mud on the windshield, then we pay attention. This is the ambivalent gift of "the shocks and changes that keep us sane."

My wife and I are hopeful, of course, that the train that seems to go faster and faster will stop and we will have another picnic, and another. But we know too that even the picnics are a kind of splendid illusion, that the train roars onward nevertheless, closer and closer to its destination.

How will you spend today?

"The source of all of our problems," said my youngest son, quoting a Buddhist monk, "is that we think that today we won't die."

How would we live if we knew that today we would die? If we remembered that we are all dead men, as Borges said, talking to other dead men?

What we love is passed or passing. What is real is sweet beyond description, transitory and fragile. Grace is the courage to live toward what we know is true in our best moments. Forbearance, love, compassion - these matter. Not the words but the reality. That which blossoms in the desert after the hidden water has percolated through the bedrock of our fear and pain into the depths of our hearts.

Islands in the Clickstream is an intermittent 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