20 Aug Islands in the Clickstream: A Vision of Possibilities
Editor’s note: Richard Thieme’s new book, “Islands in the Clickstream” is a collection of over 150 reflections on the digital world. WTN will be reprinting excerpts from selected chapters of “Islands in the Clickstream” until the end of the month.This week features an excerpt from chapter six, “Mostly True Predictions.” We hope you will enjoy these samples of Thieme’s writings.
“A Vision of Possibilities”
By Richard Thieme
It is one thing (some would say the only thing) to apprehend that clear focus inside our own field of subjectivity that enables us to aim our lives with greater precision and another thing to begin building a different construction of reality based on the modular building blocks provided by our society. But that construction—ultimately defining a very different universe—will still be animated by our intentionality. The ghost in the machine will still be a ghost.
Three domains that currently converge in a way that radically redefines our possibilities are
The transformation of our perceptual field by virtue of our interaction with technologies of information and communication;
The redefinition of what it means to inhabit a “human space” as we begin to genetically engineer our field of subjectivity, affective states, and modalities of being; and
The evolution of a trans-planetary civilization including our designed descendents and other intelligent species in our galactic neighborhood.
Those of us old enough to straddle the icebergs of rapidly diverging paradigms know that sooner or later we have to jump and live inside a relatively consistent model of reality. The digital model, the model enabled by digital interaction, is becoming dominant. We internalize a view of the landscape by internalizing first the forms of the media that convey images of that landscape to our brains. The medium is the message, as McLuhan said. Both the eye and our extensions of the eye define our field of view. We can see this because we still live near the terminator on the moon, where the contrast between light and darkness throws mountains and rills into sharp relief. When the moon is full, its features dissolve, and when it’s all darkness, there’s nothing to see. Liminal vision is razor-sharp.
The digital landscape is interactive, modular, and fluid. So how we construct reality is too.
This is noticeable when people complain about the loss of security that they once felt. A friend said last night with some resentment, “Organizations used to be loyal to employees and employees to organizations. Not any more.” What he meant, I believe, was that the construction of reality he used to share with others in an unexamined consensus sustained the illusion that cultural artifacts, including organizational structures, were more permanent. Our organizational structures—including nations, world religions, and “the earth” as a point of reference for our thinking—are top-level consensual constructions fused with the media that filter the data of our lives. The media create the infrastructure of our collective thinking in their image.
But so do our genes. We are discovering that thinking and feeling are expressions of our genetic code.
A consumer society in which we swap simulations like children trading baseball cards has long conditioned us to accept the “manufacture of consent” in every domain of our lives. A generation before Chomsky wrote “Manufacturing Consent,” Edward Bernays, the “father of spin,” wrote “Engineering Consent.” Bernays understood that creating a particular context always generates a particular content. (He assisted book publishers whose sales were declining, for example, by soliciting testimonials on the importance of reading, then took the affidavits to architects who agreed to build houses with built-in bookshelves. New homeowners, not even noticing, stocked those shelves with books).
The use of images to collect individuals in groups, then move those groups, is an ancient practice. But now we will engineer the kinds of human beings available for binding and bonding in the first place.
The practice of genetic engineering will dovetail with refined practices of social engineering. Most of it will go unnoticed. Subcultures that pride themselves on independent thinking, for example, are a good gill net in which such people can be collected, observed, or manipulated. That’s much more effective for social control than repression of such tendencies and their social expressions. We may find it desirable to build larger percentages of people amenable to such manipulation.
That practice would simply extend what we call “education” onto the practical level of biomechanics. Fractal levels of self-control by the body politic will manifest in whatever media are available. Ethicists will object, but the cries of ethicists always follow the emergence of the practice they decry.
Last but not least, our identity as “citizens of the earth”—which intensified as a point of reference when the first photograph of the earth seen from the moon became part of our collective awareness—will be, in the not too distant future, a historical memory, much like biblical tribes in the memories of Jews, Christians, and Moslems. Whether we persist as a distinct identity, like Jews, or vanish in the gene pool, like Jebusites and Perizzites, is impossible to predict.
Our constructions of reality will change when we couple our current modular thinking with the modules of beings who have different genetic structures and reference a different cosmology. The challenging process of negotiating realities as we engage with the perspective of other species will reveal what it means to be human-on-earth. If a “human” point of reference persists, it will be profoundly altered by that encounter.
My experience in Hawaii taught me that the Hawaiian construction of reality shattered when Captain Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay. Nearly two hundred years later, in the nineteen sixties, when consciousness-raising activities became pervasive in the dominant culture, their descendents reconstructed Hawaiian culture, but as it was seen through the prism of the dominant culture. Hawaiian culture today is a reflection in the eye of the assimilating culture, a simulation built to the blueprints of archeologists and imagineers.
The moment we see ourselves as we are perceived by another, we become someone else, neither who we were nor who they think we are.
How we design the reality factories of our genetic structures and link them in digital simulations in a trans-planetary context so much more vast than the thinking life of our little planet has imagined—well, at the least, life in the next century will not be devoid of interest.
Richard Thieme wrote this piece Oct. 24, 1998. Reprinted by permission of Syngress Publishing. Thieme can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.