Richard Thieme's
Islands in the Clickstream

Who Cares?

"Because they have so little," observed Eleanor Roosevelt, "children rely on imagination rather than experience."

Which is why childhood is such a magical time, during which - even among the worst deprivations - children can weave a luminous web around their daily lives, filling the landscape with lively fantastic shapes.

Just like adults.

This week an extraordinary event gave the digital world its seal of approval. Lively fantastic shapes humped and bumped their way across our monitors, a magic lantern show for the wickedly leering.

Those of us who remember Watergate recall a judicial process that proceeded at a deliberate pace. Congressional hearings spelled out how the President of the United States had undermined the law by directing criminal activities from the Oval Office. The intelligence community was widely used to destroy enemies, distort the truth, subvert the constitution.

A generation later, the independent prosecutor's report of the Clinton affair is shot-gunned onto the Net so debate can slosh back and forth across the body politic and members of congress, fingers to the wind, can sail toward impeachment, or not.

We all frame the world according to our experience. As the Viet Nam War and Watergate unfolded, it became clear that our leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, were lying through their teeth. Our denial eroded, and the voice of the people grew until it was amplified by those hearings, saving the constitution for another generation.

Where is that "voice of the people" now, crying out for the deeper truth? Is it locked in the closet with our comic books, faded tales of Superman, an idealized father who couldn't protect us? Whose heroic belief in "truth and justice" made us feel better when we were children afraid of the night, as Auden said, lost in a haunted wood?

The digital world, with its altered or manufactured images, is a haunted wood, a prison of the imagination. But when we use digital images to tell as much truth as can be told, the prison walls become transparent and we see real trees in the digital forest.

We need to see more than the rubble and dust of falling-down public lives. There is so much more going on out there than presidential peccadilloes. We need a transcendent vision that begins with the simple truth but moves toward larger possibilities.

A former computer hacker who occupies a sensitive position in corporate America and works frequently with the intelligence establishment described a chilling moment. He found himself involved with something so much bigger, deeper, more evil than he had imagined that he felt that chill running down his spine that tells us our world view has shifted forever. My friend had stumbled into the heart of darkness.

Once we know, we can't not know what we know.

Hackers are often portrayed as criminals, but - like many hackers - my friend was really an innocent. The hacker ethic of integrity, a passion for truth and knowledge, an obsessive desire to put together the Big Picture - that's closer to the superhero credo of "truth, justice, and the American way" than a criminal code.

The History Channel just ran a series on the Kennedy assassination. The series raised legitimate questions - again - about a conspiracy. All we can know now about the assassination is filtered through text, the television screen, the digital interface--and sometimes, the words of a friend. A prominent local physician remembers when his mentor at Medical School was called away to examine Kennedy's body. When he returned, he tried to work as if nothing had changed, but he kept looking away and muttering to himself, "It's the damndest thing."

Then he said: "One day - one day it'll all come out."

Just another "conspiracy theory." Like Gary Webb's.

This month's Esquire has a story about Webb. He wrote articles for the San Jose Mercury News about the connections between cocaine distribution, the CIA, and the Contras. His story was well-documented but it didn't take long for the guardians of consensus reality to whack him. The truth is, he described the tip of the iceberg, but that's all he had to do to find himself surrounded, isolated, neutralized. The deep involvement of members of our government in narcotic trafficking is well documented, but when Webb tried to tell the truth, it was as if he had screamed himself awake from a nightmare and rushed to the window, only to find it nailed shut and people on the walk below who would not look up.

Besides--- guns, Contras, cocaine--who really cares?

I have explored the fun-house mirrors of the world of UFOs for years. When you brush away the cobwebs of disinformation, snake oil, mistakes, and reports of remarkable flying machines that we make ourselves, we are left with credible people telling us what they saw. Fighter pilots, intelligence agents, commercial airline pilots have told me what they or their friends encountered, that the hardware is real and flew rings around them, leaving them in the dust.

We're a small planet on the edge of a vast spiral of stars, the center of nothing but our own perspective. All we have is our small voice. Digital media can amplify that voice or drown it out.

"The movie "Conspiracy Theory," said my hacker friend, "doesn't even come close."

As Jane Wagner said, I get more and more cynical all the time and still can't keep up. Yet we humans are meant for a deeper truth, more truth than a thousand pages of a president lying to keep a sexual affair secret. Perspective, as Alan Kay said, is worth fifty points of IQ. Sex on the Net is a sideshow, keeping our eyes on the dancing bears.

So step right up! The circus is just beginning! Elephants are on parade, clowns pour out of a tiny auto, a calliope pipes and - in the distance - we think we can hear a voice, a contrarian voice, a still small voice-- but it's only our imaginations. Isn't it?

Anyway-- who cares?

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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