Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

Not a Book

The way things are when we are very young becomes the standard against which all of our subsequent experience is measured. Our parents are the measure of all men and women. Our city is the measure of all cities. And the process by which we receive information is the model of what "feels real."

I grew up in the world of printed text. Television soon intruded, but not at the very beginning of my time. So television has always been secondary to the world of print. Every significant shift in how I understood the world came through books. My undergraduate education, with its focus on literature and philosophy, was internalized as a complex matrix of cross- referenced meanings into which everything after somehow had to fit.

That experience was reinforced during graduate work in preparation for sixteen years of Episcopal priesthood. Although there was plenty of experiential learning during that intense time, the formal part included the application of literary analysis to religious texts. That illuminated in a deeper way how ultimate meanings are mediated symbolically in and through the text, how literary genres embody meaning even before the text is examined. A short story or written letter, for example, can not mean the same thing as a history or mean it in the same way.

Then came a kind of epiphany, Playing interactive text games with my oldest son on an Apple II+ in the early eighties, I realized that interactive fiction mediated meaning differently than books. But more than that, I realized that the experience of interacting with software on a computer changed me too. And the genre of the application or program embodied meaning even before the program ran.

Our way of thinking about ourselves and reality, how we hold or structure ourselves and reality as possibilities for action, is recreated in the form of the information technologies with which we interact. Networking with networked computers morphs print- text-people into digital people.

And print-text cultures into digital cultures. In addition to the transformation of our social, economic and political structures, the computer revolution is transforming religious structures as well. Images of ultimate possibility that had once been spoken, then written, then printed, are becoming digital, and so are we, inside. Everything is connected to everything else. Everything goes through the looking-glass together.

So a new generation is rising in a digital world, or more precisely, inside its internalized representations. Spacetime and causality inhabit that world in a different way. We are riding that wave at the edge of the curl, where emergent realities, like Michaelangelo's unfinished marble sculptures, are struggling to free themselves from the medium which is both their liberation and necessary constraint.

Someone asked recently, was I writing a book about all this? which is also a way of saying, yes, you may be communicating through email lists on-line, but will it be published in print?

We don't have the language yet with which to describe what we're doing here. It's as if we are learning to scuba dive and move in several dimensions at once. But we still talk like walkers.

Compare it with speaking. for example. A speaker is aware of the energy ebbing and flowing between themselves and the audience. They ride the intensity, or cognitive dissonance, or laughter home to its source in the heart of the collective created by their speaking. The transaction transcends the individuals involved, making a momentary community. Speech is alive as long as speech endures; a tape of the presentation is a fading memory in a dead medium.

Writing before electronics used to be aimed at an audience too but the audience was an anticipatory echo in the writer's head. The best writers created an audience by naming realities just as they emerged so the writer's words became the normative thoughts of a person or culture. Then middle-ground writers rode the hump of the bell-curve, telling an audience what it already knew, reinforcing the consensus reality of the crowd. Then tail-end writers described what had already passed or was passing to a grieving audience clinging to a corpse.

"Writing" in this medium, however, is speaking as much as writing. These words glow only when the monitor is on, a window against which both noses are pressed. We can print the digital text onto paper, but that doesn't turn these words into "print." That is more like taping a speech than book-publishing of old.

We can feel but not see one another out there. The thoughtful nuanced responses of "readers" -- almost in real time -- co- creates bonds of real community. Our words are reciprocal, echoing in one another's minds. The residue of real conversation.

I flash back to those biblical studies. Jesus disdained writing. A man of an oral culture, he wrote only once in the scriptures, mocking the scribes and their new-fangled ways. Yet Christianity happened because he was turned into his own image in textual form. The horizons of possibility that can be disclosed only in writing happened not only for Christians but for Buddhists, Taoists, and all the others connected to beings who emerged in human history during that narrowest band of time that coincided with the emergence of writing itself. But the representations in writing would not have felt real to the real Jesus. For people in an oral culture, writing felt artificial, once removed, the way voices sounded on the telephone when it was first invented.

Electronic interactivity is real, as real as speaking or writing books. But it may not feel real for a while. A generation is rising that will experience this way of framing reality as foundational. Speech won't disappear, nor will writing. The Internet will not "replace" books. Interactive electronic media redefine the relationship of symbolic content to itself and to the human symbol-user and redefine how we use other media.

And we, songbirds in our digital cage, will be both liberated and imprisoned by our pixellated glyphs.

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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