Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:


"We all know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it." -- Woody Allen

A couple of weeks ago, it was reported by Reuters News Agency that hackers had taken control of a British military satellite and demonstrated control of the "bird" by changing its orbit. The report said the hackers were blackmailing the British government, and unless they received a ransom, they would take action. The demonstration was frightening for those who were just waiting for a blatant act of cyber-terror.

A few days later, the Hacker News Network (, an underground alternative to CNN, reported that the hijacking was bogus.

The Hacker News Network got it right while Reuters got it wrong.

Just as business managers increasingly supervise IT workers who know more about networks than they do, traditional news sources often cover subjects they don't understand, and they often get it wrong.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for Forbes Digital ( on the unique culture of the professional Services Division of Secure Computing, where a number of former hackers help government agencies and large financial institutions secure their networks. Many articles have appeared recently about former hackers who have swapped underground lives for stock options, but that wasn't what my article was about. It was about the mindset that hackers bring to their work, a map or model of reality that is becoming the norm in a borderless world, where intelligence operatives are migrating into competitive intelligence in growing numbers. It's a mindset characterized, said one, by "paranoia appropriate to the real risks of open networks and a global economy."

Businesses used to decide on a course of action, then inform IT people so they could implement the plan. Now our thinking must move through the network that shapes it, not around it. The network itself - how it enables us to think, how it defines the questions that can be asked - determines the forms of possible strategies. So those who implement strategy must participate in setting strategy, not be added on after the fact, just as information security must be intrinsic to the architecture of an organizational structure, not added on as an afterthought.

The mind that designs the network designs the possibilities for human thinking and therefore for action.

Every single node in a network is a center from which both attack and defense can originate. The gray world in which hackers live has spilled over the edges which used to look more black and white. The skies of the digital world grow grayer day by day.

In that world, we are real birds fluttering about in digital cages. Images - icons, text, sound - define the "space" in which we move. If the cages are large enough, we have the illusion we are free and flying, when in fact we are moved in groups by the cages.

Example: to prevent insurrection during times of extreme civil unrest, government agencies created groups whose members were potentially dangerous, building a database of people they intended to collect if things fell apart. These days, many digital communities serve this purpose.

Example: Last week an FDIC spokesperson provided data on the readiness of American banks for Y2K. Tom Brokaw of NBC had recently announced, he said, that 33% of the banks weren't ready, but in fact, 96% of the banks are on schedule, 3 % are lagging a little, and only 1% are seriously behind. The biggest threat to the monetary system is a stampeding herd, spooked by the digital image of a talking head giving bogus information.

The digital world is a hall of mirrors, and the social construction of reality is big business, fueled by the explosion of the Internet, a marketplace where the buyer of ideas - as well as items at auction - had better beware.

This is not just about the distortion of facts by mainstream (or alternative) news media, nor the exploitation of fear because we know that fear sells. More and more, we are seeking and finding alternative sources of information from sources we believe we can trust. Believable truth must be linked to believable sources, or else we will make it up, pasting fears and hopes onto a blank screen or onto images built like bookshelves to receive our projections. Because we like to live on islands of agreement, receiving information that supports our current thinking, we live in thought worlds threaded on digital information that isolates and divides us. But the network is also the means of a larger communion and the discovery of a more unified, more comprehensive truth.

We live on the edge of a digital blade, and the blade cuts both ways.

"We all know the same truth," said Woody Allen. "Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it."

Except Woody Allen didn't say it. Rather, he said it through the mouth of a character in "Deconstructing Harry" named Harry Block. Except Harry Block didn't say it either. He said it through the mouth of a character he created in the movie.

Hacking is a kind of deconstruction of the combinations and permutations available in a network. Deconstruction is essential in a digital world. The skills of critical thinking, the ability to integrate fragments and know how to build a Big Picture are more important than ever. Those skills are critical to hacking and securing networks and critical to understanding who is really who in a world in which people are not always what they seem.

Plato feared the emerging world of writing because anybody could say anything without accountability, but he did not foresee the emergence of tools to document and evaluate what was written. Our world may seem for the moment to be a-historical, fragmentary, multi-modal in relationship to the world of printed text, but something new is evolving - a matrix of understanding, a set of skills, a mindset that lets us sift through disinformation and use the same technology that lulls us to sleep to wake ourselves up.

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, 1999. All rights reserved.

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