By Peter Prickett (Thu, 14 Apr 2005 10:57:40 +0100)
As perhaps the first information philosopher, Richard Thieme has become a figurehead among both the cloak and dagger intelligence community and the highly secretive hacker underground. Richard is an institution in the hacker/security conference circuit and his column ‘Islands in the Clickstream’ is syndicated to over 60 countries.
WD> CNN have called you ‘a member of the Cyber avant-garde’, Digital Delirium named you ‘one of the most creative minds of the digital generation’. How do you handle such praise?
You drop a zero.
When I joined the national speakers association, I was overwhelmed by a gale force wind of other speakers telling me how much they worked, how great they were, how highly paid they were. A friend told me, when they tell you their fee, just drop a zero.
Same thing. I take kind or generous statements like that to mean, “your work was meaningful for me” or “I like that” or “you made me think.”
You never believe your own press – good or bad.
WD> How did you initially get involved in technical commentary?
When I left the ordained (Episcopal/Anglican) ministry in 1993 it was to explore the transformational energies swirling around us then as a result of the information revolution. I was asked to write a column about the human side of technology for the Wisconsin Professional Engineers’ monthly magazine. After half a dozen had received a good response I offered them by email which was new then. As E.B. White said, it’s no wonder how complicated things get what with one thing leading to another. The columns became Islands in the Clickstream which are now a book (Syngress Publishing 2004) and I used the nascent world wide web to locate magazines and see if they wanted social or cultural commentary on the phenomenon. Within a few months I was writing for magazines in America, Canada, England, Australia, and South Africa. I wrote every month for South Africa Computer Magazine for three years. Islands now goes to at least sixty countries.
As I said, one thing leading to another.
WD> What has been your sons influence upon your work and your approach to it?
My dialogue with my son, who was 12 when I bought him an Apple 2 and who has never looked back – has been invaluable. It’s the dialogue. I learned to bring to him what I later brought to some of the young technophiles in hacker cons – absolute respect. He was so much brighter than I was about technical matters and saw things so clearly that our dialogue became an important learning space for me. That continues today, and he’ll be 35 this year.
Of course that’s true of ALL of our seven children and step-children! But Aaron, the first born son, is the one with the most geeky gifts in relationship to all this.
WD> How have your ministerial experiences affected your approach to information technology?
Absolutely. And my immersion in, teaching of, and writing literature the decade before that. I learned to relate the context of our encounters and conversations to ultimate values. They may be implicit rather than stated, but that was always the deeper context. Information technology like print text before it is a transformational engine for human identity and activity. We think and behave differently as a result of the ways new technologies of information and communication frame our possibilities. I learned to do that in a world of writing and text. I saw that electronic communication was changing us and in fact already had changed us (the telegraph started all this in 1820, after all) in significant ways.
Ministry was ultimately about using symbols, particularly powerful archetypal symbols, as transformational leverage on behalf of people who were searching for solutions, resolutions, higher states, different spiritual and emotional goal states. Preaching was like doing a Tarot reading, if you think about it, using symbols of deliverance, healing, and transformation. It stands to reason that new kinds of symbol manipulating machines would create a different kind of psychic or spiritual space into which to grow.
WD> You have been described as an information philosopher. What does that phrase mean to you?
Marshall McLuhan said “Nothing is inevitable so long as we are willing to contemplate what is happening.” The phrase, to me, means, thinking about what is happening.
WD> How did you get in touch with intelligence agencies officials? How did you get them to openly speak to you?
You meet lots of people at different conferences and inevitably security conferences have everybody at them, people from all of the many sides of this game. Like any friendship, you find interests in common and go from there. We generally share an interest in the deeper implications of how intelligence is practiced, what technology enables, how it eliminates walls. Naturally no one ever shares anything classified nor do I probe inappropriately. It’s a lot like being a priest, being in intelligence, in some ways, with similar burdens. There’s a lot of shared understanding among my real friends from that domain of the deeper burdens of the commitments of a life lived with secrets. And a live lived with the burden of knowing.
By the way, lots of the people at “hacker cons” are of course from various intelligence agencies or police organizations. That’s been true from the beginning. I mean, why do lions go to the water hole? Because that’s where the antelope go.
WD> How long have you been lecturing at universities? During your last tour what where the burning issues?
I taught English literature and writing in my twenties at the University of Illinois. Next week I will visit the senior seminar at Alverno College in Milwaukee, an all-star liberal arts university that pioneers new educational experiences, because they’ve used my book, Islands in the Clickstream, as a text this year. Then I’ll do a speech at the University of Wisconsin in Waukesha on the future for students. The issues are the ones you’d expect – privacy, intellectual property, war, management of perception, hackers, security.
WD> How has the internet climate changed since you first began commentating?
There is often a movement from myth to metaphor to engineering or science and we’re in the last stage. At first we believed a lot of the myths of cyberspace. Then we saw they were metaphors and began reflecting on them which signifies a major change. When you believe a myth, you don’t know it’s a myth. Now we analyse it and it is part of the known universe. It’s ubiquitous now. Like radio. Television. Automobiles.
That was fast, wasn’t it?
WD> Why did you feel the need to release ‘Islands In The Clickstream?’ Do you feel your writings gain credibility as a physically bound volume as opposed to being free floating selections in cyber space?
Good question. I like books! I loved seeing my prose poems or secular sermons or whatever they are bound by a publisher in a well-designed book. Some people take books more seriously. Now I’m an author. Before I was a guy who put stuff up on the web. Of course the intrinsic value of the columns or whatever you want to call them is the same. But the form seems to matter to people. Some people love to listen to them in audio streams from my web site. Same words, different media. They will always be available free on the internet. The publisher agreed to that.
But of course, people do actually pay for the book. As Hemingway said, there is the problem of sustenance, you know. My writing generally serves as a platform for my professional speaking and sometime consulting which pays the bills.
WD> If you had to put a definition into Webster’s for the word ‘hacker’, what would it be?
That effort is all through my writings. Hackers pursue unconventional structures which they create out of what’s at hand whereas non-hackers see only what they’re told something is. They take it at face value and mistake its one function for its essence. Hackers ask what something can be made to do. Non-hackers or “nackers” ask, what is it? as if the answer exhausts the possibilities of the thing. Hackers like all good scientists are characterized by passion, obsessiveness, and daring. They see the skull beneath the grin except its a machine skull and the grin is the explicit function of an appliance or object. They refuse to be taken in by the smile.
WD> In your opinion is true hacking about systems knowledge or, knowledge of the wet-wear that is using the system?
WD> Do you think it is true to say that if it is possible to breach security without getting caught, someone will always try simply because they can?
WD> You describe hacking as one of the means in which free people can retain freedom. What other, less controversial methodologies would you also consider as effective?
In a world of managed perception and sophisticated subtle propaganda that makes Brave New World look like a child’s book, which it is, freedom requires a refusal to accept stated realities at face value. It’s necessary to track back to the sources of statements and ask who profits from the way the statement has been framed. That applies to big and small statements, media events and macro events as well as simple utterances. Maybe journalism can do that too – who else has the time and expertise? – but not journalism as it usually practiced today. Most journalism today is part of the problem, not the solution. It would have to be journalism squared or “Jedi journalism.”
WD> What effect does hacking have on personal morality?
Properly understood and executed, hacking takes one into the heart of darkness where boundaries dissolve and simple verities and bumper-sticker kinds of morality go liquid. One discovers – well, pick your metaphor – “the horror, the horror” as Conrad put it in The Heart of Darkness. Or “Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown” as Jake Gittes learned in the magnificent movie of the same name. Hacking properly understood, not just mucking about with wires and chips, but applied to structures of information at all levels and fundamental questions of identity (individual, organizational, global) takes you “beyond good and evil” in the Niezschean sense of the term. It takes you into a domain of supra-morality. It compels you to ask questions in the face of a deeper knowledge of things.
Obviously I’m not talking about breaking into things as if that’s the end of hacking. I’m talking about taking things apart and seeing the different and often arbitrary ways they can be put back together.
If you have not gone there, then what I am saying sounds like nonsense or it sounds threatening or immoral or iconoclastic. If you have gone there, you know what I mean.
WD> What do you think of the currant climate of world internet security?
Too big a question. There are fences and gates. Which ones? What’s behind them? How important is it to get through or in? Once you get there, what’s the point? What can you do now? What is the value of what you know or have?
Those questions contextualize your question and require a sharper focus.
WD> In previous interviews and articles you have talked about ‘unconventional thinkers working across boundaries of fixed discipline’. Your past as a minister suggests a realm dominated by conventional thinking and fixed disciplines. How do those two worlds interact?
Some ministerial realms are fixed and rigid but as you might guess, mine wasn’t. That’s not how I understood the transformative process and the great deep spiritual adventures of my life. The institutional life, yes, became suffocating for me, and if I had accepted the jobs on the table at the end, I would have died, I think, I would have shrivelled up. Many bishops do, after all, they gain fifty pounds or hit the bottle the first year, when the reality of it hits them. But I am the same person as the one who led parishes pretty fearlessly in Utah, Hawaii, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I created a 12-hour intensive event called New Life, for example, they took people through the six segments of the church year in a powerful existential way and showed them that those symbols are real, they point toward a powerful transformation, the most we can ask of ourselves in our most authentic moments. Teaching, preaching, counselling, to me those activities took you to the liminal domains of people’s lives. It was very much, to me, as I describe hacking, an adventure on the edges of boundaries where everyday reality is constantly called into question and the bumper-sticker answers to profound questions dissolved. That’s the demand of ministry – in the middle of the night at the side of parents whose child died suddenly or in the midst of a wedding celebration. You’re in a batting cage, existentially speaking, and better learn to hit every kind of pitch, including ones that come out of nowhere. Authentic ministry was a constant challenge.
So don’t confuse the most rigid, least life-giving, most life-denying structures of a creaking hidebound institutional Christendom with the power of the spirit when it leaps into flame. In the same way, most security practitioners are not real hackers, real experts, are they? They want to check the boxes marked compliance or risk management. That’s true of all domains, isn’t it? The bell curve distribution? The best CEOs are like astronauts and the worst are like corrupt dictators.
WD> If you could impart one piece of advice to everyone, what would it be?
Accept nothing at face value, live boldly, passionately, spend the gift of life as if this is it. Churn through your life like an earthworm devouring all the dirt in the garden. Most of it may be dirt but only by eating it all will you get the goodies. In other words … live, live, live, live, live.