Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:


When we come to a new place or enter a new environment, the landscape looks all of a piece, and we have to learn how to see it in depth and detail. Our interaction with new cultures teach us over time how to understand them.

When I moved to Maui in the eighties, I lived about thirty feet from the ocean. From the sea wall, when I looked out at the channel that defined the "pond" among our islands, all I could see was water. Nothing but water. Of course I could see the other islands and waves breaking over the reef, but the ocean itself looked like nothing but undifferentiated water.

Last week I returned to Hawaii to speak about spirituality and technology. During the week, two canoe builders from the Marshall Islands made a public presentation and shared some of their lore, long believed to be lost. "Some of our navigators are trained to detect six different swells by the feel of the canoe," one said. Others specialized in navigating by the stars or weather. Despite the repression of their culture (and the explosion of dozens of nuclear bombs on their islands), they had somehow kept alive the knowledge of their ancestors.

They used tangled knots to map the night skies and learned to discern the subtle interacting patterns of the swells by crouching in canoes on what looked to a "mainland haole" like a perfectly calm sea. When they looked out at the ocean, they saw a lot more than just water.

After a few years on the island, I could see at a glance the direction of the wind and the complex pattern of the currents. That told me what I was likely to encounter when I went diving or spear fishing. I knew where the fish would be feeding, how to co-exist with morays and reef sharks, how to use the surge of the sea to slide without effort toward prey. The angle of the sun under the water, the length of the seaweed, the Kona wind, all correlated with the feeding habits of the fish on the reef. The sea resolved itself into a complex, richly detailed environment.

What I learned was child's play compared to the intimacy with which islanders know the ocean. Someone who lives on the mainland might look at the water and see only a barrier, whereas islanders see an open invitation, a whole world waiting to be explored, both highway and home.

The journey into ourselves and the journey into the symbolic landscape that defines our culture - of which the Internet is an emblem - are the same journey.

When we first turn inward, the landscape may seem opaque, but as we explore through meditation, prayer, and other disciplines, we too discover both a highway and a home.

It's as if someone who spent his or her entire life on land hears for the first time about the ocean. The word calls forth an image and a desire, and that is the beginning of the journey. We make our way to the water's edge and look out at the singular immensity of it. Some plunge in; others take scuba lessons, letting others coach them. When we first snorkel or dive on a tropical reef, we are amazed at the beauty and variety of living forms. That beauty can be a trap. If we're not careful, we stay at that depth instead of learning to go deeper. If we do go deeper, new worlds are disclosed, new possibilities for communion with ourselves, others, and the universe of which we could not have dreamed.

Over time, we become as comfortable under water as on land, and our framework expands to include the sea and what is under the sea as well as the narrower life lived in the air. We move back and forth between them easily. Air and water become dimensions of a single reality.

The first explosive photos taken by the Hubble telescope showed the richness and complexity of space, a technology disclosing new possibilities for action. As those possibilities percolate into our consciousness, what it means to be a human being is transformed.

That's how it felt too when I downloaded my first browser and tumbled like Alice into cyberspace, emerging from underground eight hours later, oblivious to the passage of time.

The Internet is a vast sea of possibilities, a symbolic representation of our collective consciousness and our collective unconscious. When we explore the Net, we are exploring ourselves. The Net is a swirl of invisible currents. We learn to surf swells of meaning that surge back and forth like the sea. We learn to follow currents of information, feeling the swells interact in subtle and complex ways. We become voyagers in the sea of information in which we are immersed, plunging through high seas in outrigger canoes. We make our own tangled starmaps that represent and remember for us how to find our way home.

There is ultimately only ourselves to know. When we try to understand everything, we do not understand anything at all, observed Shunryu Suzuki. But when we understand ourselves, we understand everything.

The Internet is not so much a set of skills as it is a culture. Guided by mentors, learning like wolves to hunt together, we learn how to hang in the medium. The images on our monitors are icons, windows disclosing possibilities far beyond our home planet. Inner and outer space alike are explored by tele-robotic sensory extensions, revealing the medium in which we have always been swimming. Consciousness is the sea, and the sea is all around us. The secrets that we think are lost are simply waiting to be found: Supra-rational modes of knowing. Connection and community of such depth and complexity that we grow giddy with delight. A network in which we are both nurtured and fulfilled, each node of the web a reflecting facet like one of Indra's jewels, reflecting each of the others and the totality of the whole.

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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