Breadcrumbs in the Forest

by rthieme on April 10, 2008

starry-sidebarby Richard Thieme

April 10, 2008

I was recently at Purdue University to teach a graduate seminar at the CERIAS center for information assurance and security – http://www.cerias.purdue.edu/ – hosted by Gene Spafford and Victor Raskin, two lively and hospitable gents. Another professor had recently returned from a meeting at which researchers presented a paper about their company, a television, internet, and media ratings tracker, and she told me that the company monitors not only public web sites related to their work, the ones you would expect them to track, but also sixty million blogs in real time.

Sixty million blogs in real time. They mine the text of sixty million blogs … looking for trends … in real time …

The intelligence community mines text too, in fact, they do it faster, deeper, better. Their intention, we believe, is to protect the nation they serve. But this company mines text for trends to benefit clients. They notice blogs that threaten them, then identify the bloggers that matter, the influencers, the ones to which others link, and offer them a deal. If the blogger agrees to change the tone or alter the data to benefit their client, they will give them in exchange, for example, priority delivery of tidbits of gossip, the kind of new revelations bloggers need to enhance value. That increases revenue from ads and elevates an otherwise obscure portal to a privileged position in podcast nation.

And readers like you and me are swept downstream by the momentum. Do you actually remember the first time you heard of the Drudge Report? No, I didn’t think so. The facts that let us think about things like that disappear in time, as Roy the replicant said, like tears in rain. Like not knowing that Gene Pope worked at psychological ops for the CIA in 1952, the year before he started the National Inquirer, a purveyor of discrediting reportage that did not break even until 1960, but never mind, money continued to find him and fund it, flowing through the hands of friends like Frank Costello …

But I digress. I guess disinformation was simply on my mind.

It’s not news that the data-streams we are fed are manipulated to build pictures that aren’t true. Any interface that attracts numbers of people is fair game for distortion, alteration, manipulation, spin. We follow the bread crumbs of simulated data like children through the darkening woods, making images in our heads by linking them into patterns, we make patterns without even thinking about it and believe them long after they have been disproved.

There are billions and billions of bread crumbs in the digital forest, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, making up paths that seem real because they all lead somewhere. The serendipitous nature of life often convinces us that wherever we find ourselves is where we are meant to be. It’s the same with what we come to believe. We seldom stand back and evaluate the maps in our heads and how well they correlate with what’s real or how they got there in the first place; that requires time, energy, and lots of practice, and when the masters of distraction are always throwing flash-bang grenades into our living rooms, who has that?

Critical thinking is an acquired skill. So is the sophisticated management and manipulation of the digital mind space. It’s big business, the stuff of politics and consumerism, professional intelligence and counter-intelligence, a vast blue sea of propaganda in which we swim until we forget there’s anything else.

When Journalism Schools became Schools of Journalism and Public Relations, the jig was up. They didn’t even pretend anymore. Making up stuff and getting people to believe it was ranked right up there with finding and discerning the truth and disclosing it in a timely way.

The critical thinking skills required for an authentic humanity in the 21st century include, but are not limited to, knowing how to find our way in this forest, knowing how to use skills I was taught long ago in courses on how to use bibliographies and libraries, do research, use index cards, mine text with our minds.

Based on years of teaching and speaking and preaching, I now offer speeches, workshops, and courses on Digital Critical Thinking, suggesting ways to practice that acquired skill, learn how to learn, move oneself from learning for love to a love of learning.

In this edition, I will scatter a few digital crumbs in the form of links to some recent adventures. They are audio and video instead of text.

(1) The first was a presentation on Researching UFOs as Practice for Researching Everything Else

What could be better practice for critical thinking than researching the wild world of UFOlogy? And who better to talk to about it than a couple of thousand hackers at Def Con?

Hacking UFOlogy” was a tentative step toward speaking aloud about something I have explored for thirty years but seldom discussed in public. It took a push – from inside – because I have learned that saying the word “UFO” aloud invites ridicule and disdain. I was even refused entry onto a Board of Directors last year when a board member saw I had written an article about the subject. “They’ll think we’re all loonies,” he said, “if we’re associated with someone who takes the subject seriously.” I was told that if I removed that one article from the hundreds of fiction and non-fiction pieces on my web site, I would sail onto the Board.

It reminded me of the time I was asked about speaking for Aramco in Saudi Arabia. All I had to do, they said, was get a second passport and remove all references to Israel (I had just done keynotes for Microsoft’s Tech Ed in Eilat for two years) from my resume.

Needless to say, I am not on that Board and did not speak in Saudi Arabia.

Ridicule and disdain are powerful tools for dismembering someone’s pubic persona. A specialist in deception said, illusion, misdirection, and ridicule, these three – but the greatest of these is ridicule. And that’s how UFOlogy, a crazy quilt of real machines observed by real people and unreal stories about almost everything else, has been managed for fifty or sixty years. But serious investigation, the kind that filters as best it can all the cover stories, clever disinformation, ravings and howling at the moon, charlatans and con men and fraudsters scrambling for a living in the cottage industry, outright liars and nutcases – once that has all been filtered, as I say, as best one can, one is left with the solid research of a dozen or so researchers still doing real work in the field – and then you discover that there is as there always has been since the days of airships, foo fighters, and the events of 1947 … something to it. Something real. But some THING, indeed.

Because hackers insist on getting their hands on the engines of technology, refusing to accept the presentation that the machinery itself has been designed to make, seeing through the story that purports to define how the machine ought to be used, preferring to discover instead what the thing can be made to do with unconventional thinking and a little creative juice – Def Con in Las Vegas, the granddaddy of hacker cons, was a good place to suggest that we ought to look for ourselves … not at the cable programs or outlandish amazing tales but at the historical data, the record, the exchanges that have been documented to have taken place. (I offered the audience dozens of pages of notes and will send them to anyone who wants them).

That one hour talk – “Hacking UFOlogy: Thirty Years in the Wilderness of Mirrors” – is here, along with talks by Johnny Long (author of Google Hacking) and infosec gadfly Bruce Schneier:

http://hardflame.blogspot.com/2007/10/must-see-defcon-talks.html

(2)) Happy Birthday Albert Einstein!

I recently presented a keynote address for a Relativity Week conference in Philadelphia, sponsored by InterNetwork Defense, the dojo for Cyber Kung Fu. I was asked to use the concepts of relativity theory to illuminate emergent geopolitical structures. I don’t know if I did that, but here is the late-night presentation – which Larry Greenblatt, sensei of Cyber Kung Fu, titled “Relativity and the Art of War.”

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7974899741310825107

There are other good talks at the google link, too, and Larry is at www.internetworkdefense.com.

(3) Quiet American at http://www.quietamerican.org/ is a good place to take a break from all that mind-shifting. It’s a wonderful repository of sound art and found sound by Aaron Ximm, a technology entrepreneur from S P Controls, http://www.spcontrols.com/.

Quiet American hosts discography, field recordings, and one minute vacations. It wins lots of recognition and people from all over the world come to find magical, mysterious, immersive sites of sound, precisely layered in unexpected wondrous ways.

(Disclaimer: Sound artist and tech guru Aaron Ximm is an offspring.)

(4) Hexen is more than a game – it’s an exploration by London artist Suzanne Treister of military technologies for psychological warfare. In 1995 she created a fictional alter ego, Rosalind Brodsky, a delusional time traveler who believes herself to be working at the Institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality (IMATI) in the twenty-first century.

Now Treister is updating HEXEN2039 and charting more of Brodsky’s scientific research towards the development of new mind control technologies for the British Military. This work uncovers or constructs links between conspiracy theories, occult groups, Chernobyl, witchcraft, the US film industry, British Intelligence agencies, Soviet brainwashing, behavior control experiments of the US Army and recent practices of its Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (PSYOP), in light of alarming new research in contemporary neuroscience.

The Science Museum of London sent Treister and art critic Richard Grayson to Milwaukee to videotape interviews with me on those subjects. She thought my book review of Jonathan Moreno’s “Mind War” indicated a kindred spirit. And it did. She uses the interviews to anchor her project in the (more or less) present day.

See www.hexen2039.net and http://ensemble.va.com.au/tableau/suzy/TT_ResearchProjects/index.html)

for more about Hexen

see http://www.kunstverein-langenhagen.de/treister/index.html – to see a gallery opening of some of Treister’s work in Germany that includes a fourteen minute video loop from our interviews.

(5) The Room is an episodic novel I am writing. The first five episodes have been published at Combat, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones, an online labor of necessity and love by a man committed to exploring the psychological impact of warfare. (http://www.combat.ws/)

The names of the stories, found by a search of the Combat site, are:

Outside the Door – Cliché – BRB – A Second Opinion – The Big O

The chapters are now being logged onto this web site at “The Room.”  The sixth chapter is On the Fast Track to Sainthood.

They begin an exploration of the impact of torture on the people in a society that condones the practice. A single instance in “the room” in the war zone leads to other rooms until we arrive by a very circuitous route at “the room” where torture was authorized in the first place.

Fiction seems to be the right place to explore issues that once found their way into Islands in the Clickstream. I have published thirty stories in the past few years. Coming up next are: “The Man Who Hadn’t Disappeared” in Karamu, a literary magazine published at Eastern Illinois University (http://www.eiu.edu/~english/karamu/index.html), and “Silent Emergent, Doubly Dark,” in an anthology published in November 2008 in London, Subtle Edens: The Elastic Book of Slipstream. http://www.elasticpress.com/

Allen Ashley, the editor of Subtle Edens, wrote: “The story is gripping and fascinating. Your narrator’s three off-world trips raise questions of science, philosophy, religion, consciousness, reality and much more.”

And did that ever delight me! Why? Because he got it! He knew what I was doing! What more can any writer want?

and then it received this review:

“Silent Emergent, Doubly Dark” by *Richard Thieme* opens with a quote from *James Joyce*, a primogenitor of slipstream. Thieme, fortunately, doesn’t try to match Joyce for wordplay and instead gives us a calm, flat look into the psyche of alien beings. Thieme
explores various levels of reality through his protagonist, moving farther and farther away from the seen into unglimpsed realms. The story itself can be a bit hard, much like Joyce is hard, but Thieme’s beautiful descriptions and intriguing concepts keep things interesting. This piece truly deserves the slipstream label.

An edgy story about identity, levels of awareness in the universe, and a professional intelligence agent hollowed out over the years by his work called “Less Than the Sum of the Movable Parts” was just published at The Future Fire online at http://futurefire.net/.

And “Break, Memory” was republished by Bewildering Stories and chosen for a quarterly anthology of the best of. And “The Indian and the Fortune Teller,” a chapter in a second raucous novel-in-progress tentatively titled Multiple Connected Spaces, was just accepted by Zahir, my third story in that sci-fi magazine…. it will appear in June 2009.

Well … what else could a writer want? A writer might want to find a publisher interested in a collection of published short fiction called Mind Games (many of which can be found at www.thiemeworks.com), or a writer might want to find a publisher interested in looking at The Room. If you happen to be one, married to one, live next door to one, or know one, let me know … publishing in the digital age is a little tricky. We are all trying to figure out how best to get our writing, music, films, and other digital creations into the world. The old models are breaking down and the new ones are not yet clear. Maybe they’re slouching into outer space to be born. And more people seem to be writing these days than reading. The Indiana Review noted, “We receive more than 10,000 submissions a year, yet our subscriber list is less than 500.” Only subsidies keep them alive. The rest of us are heading to the Web.

So many bread crumbs! Nothing but bread crumbs, in fact, precious data that needs to be protected before it is distorted, re-linked, and presented as fact. Bread crumbs scattered in the darkening forest as the twilight deepens, leaves are woven into an opaque mass, and the urgency of the wind in the trees means hurry hurry. Get a move on. Find that one true light that will bring us home.

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