Richard Thieme's

Islands in the Clickstream:


Steven Hawking noted in a netcast from the White House that the next generation of humans will live inside a common sense world of quantum physics the way we have lived inside a Newtonian landscape. "Common sense" is simply what we're taught to see, he said, which is why new truths always appear at the edges of our thinking.

Or, as George Bernard Shaw put it, " All great truth begins as blasphemy."

Is it any wonder we are all beset by "cognitive dissonance" and see our reality-frames flickering the way clairvoyants (excuse me, "remote viewers") see images of distant sites? One moment we are living happily inside Newtonian space, walking down a straight sidewalk toward a right-angled corner when poof! with a puff of smoke, we experience ourselves bent along a trajectory like light pulled by an immense gravitational tug. Then we remember that how light bends IS gravity and what we thought was a "pull" is simply the topography of energy wrinkling and sliding into whorls of various densities.

In a museum the other day I watched a marble spiraling down a funnel of smooth wood, circling toward the vortex. I thought of light travelling along the curves and bumps of space-time ("the universe is shaped like a potato," Einstein said, "finite but unbounded.") I thought of gravitational lenses, created when galaxies that are closer to us magnify and distort more distant galaxies.

Einstein predicted sixty years ago that a massive object would bend and intensify light, generating multiple images or stretching an image into an arc. When everything lines up just right, the distortion becomes a perfect circle, like the galaxy pictured last week in Science News (Vol. 153, No. 114).

That's the long view. Turn the telescope around to see what's happening right here in our own digital neighborhood.

Web sites are best characterized not by size but by density. A map of cyberspace would look like millions of galaxies and a map of the traffic between sites would look like a photo of electromagnetic energy across the entire spectrum.

A browser is a knowledge engine that organizes information in flux so it appears momentarily frozen. A site such as Yahoo that links links is a kind of gravitational lens that boosts distant clusters into the foreground. If we could see ourselves interacting in cyberspace, we too would look like energy pouring through our monitors and moving at the speed of light toward densities around which our interests coalesce. Our monitors like worm holes let us bypass the long way around.

Organizational structures, including web sites, are dissipative structures like whirlpools that retain their shape while exchanging energy and information. Humans too are modular structures of energy and information that interface over the Internet. That map of the energies of cyberspace is really a map of our Mind.

Not quite common sense yet, is it? Words slip, slide, decay with imprecision, T. S. Eliot said of his efforts to fix in poetic form the world he discerned. In the world of printed text, the illusion that words and meanings are fixed is magnified. The same words in pixels are obviously transitory. Our media too function like gravitational lenses, magnifying meanings intrinsic to their nature. The digital world builds a "common sense reality" congruent with the quantum world, communicating by its very nature that words, meanings, and all things slip, slide away.

We build this island for ourselves in the always sea and comfort ourselves with the illusion that we are on dry land.

The trajectories of the energies of our lives - how they are organized, aimed, and spent- are determined by our deepest intentionality. How we intend to live our lives is how we wind up living them.

Cyberspace is a training ground for learning to live and move at the speed of our minds, the speed of light, to inhabit a landscape that morphs or changes shape according to our will, intention, and ultimate purpose.

The "sites" in our minds grow denser when our intentions coalesce like millions of marbles rolling simultaneously toward a single vortex. Space, time and causality may be woven into the very fabric of our minds, as Kant said, but in a quantum landscape, causality is a very different animal. An effect can precede its own cause.

Which is exactly how our minds operate.

Consciousness is always consciousness for or toward some end, always an arrow aimed toward a potentiality or possibility. As a mental construct, the image comes first. The effect precedes the cause and causes the effect to come into being. That's why some think consciousness is the origin as well as the goal of evolution.

A recent reflection on maps, filters, and belief systems ("Imaginary Gardens - Filters. Filters of Filters.") brought from a reader an account of the moment he realized how much the Mercator projection exaggerated the size of the European community. He recalled the first time he looked at Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map that looks at the world from the North Pole rather than the equator. From that point of view, the world is seen as a single unified landmass. The world has never looked the same to him since.

Consciousness manifests itself in a visible medium like the Internet so we can see it. We can never see the thing itself, because there is no thing there. Nothing. But we can see some of the infinite ways it manifests itself. Working and playing on the Internet is one way to practice handling ourselves in a quantum world that is fluid, modular, and interactive, a trans-planetary world, a trans-galactic world emerging on the edge of the grid in which we have been living. That grid contained reality in nice neat boxes. But the grid is flexing, morphing like an animation even as we look at it, turning into another of its many possibilities. Seen, of course - it's only common sense, isn't it?- from just one of its infinitely many points of view.

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, 1998. All rights reserved.

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