Thanksgiving 2006

by Randal Birkey on November 28, 2006

Islands in the ClickstreamBy Richard Thieme

Thanksgiving 2006 Part One

This final Islands in the Clickstream is an attempt to arrive at an expression of thanksgiving (a holiday in America last week) by a most orthogonal route.

First of all, I am keenly aware of gratitude toward people who manage some online lists in which I am allowed to participate. Some of these communities have come to really matter, especially those with a diverse makeup of unorthodox thinkers. Even when we never meet in the flesh, I feel closer to some of these colleagues than to my next-door neighbors.

One recent discussion of cybersecurity elicited this insight from a wise old silverback: “We keep making the same mistakes over and over (and over and over) again. Little disasters or big disasters, it seems to make no difference. We keep perpetuating the same stupidities.

“Some radical thinking is necessary to force long-term thinking and global optimization in Congress (hah!), corporations, and education. I keep writing articles on the subject, and they seem to fall on deaf ears—except among some out-of-the-box thinkers on this list.”

I will pick up on that statement in a minute.


In my work in sixteen years of professional ministry and subsequently as a consultant and speaker with all kinds of organizations, I came to the conclusion that three things were needed for organizations to be effective: mutuality, feedback, and accountability. The absence of any one skews behaviors in predictable directions.

Mutuality means cooperative or mutual endeavors, real teamwork; feedback means loops both inside and to the outside of the system (understanding that both are functions of how boundaries are arbitrarily defined) that are in proportion to the speed of the flow of information into and out of and within the system; accountability requires leadership and systemic attributes sustained and reinforced by that leadership to ensure that action happens, not just chatter.

It also happens that during times of rapid change, people become rigid, isolated, and fearful, and M F and A are antidotes to that condition.

This insight may sound trivial but I have not yet encountered anything in the real world to contradict it. The devil of course is in the details, the execution, how structures of M F and A are created, sustained, refreshed. That’s when insight turns into consulting. A lot depends on the organizational culture and how it inhibits or accelerates effectiveness. It also depends on the willingness of leaders to build the same kinds of structures into their personal and professional lives.

This is relevant to Thanksgiving because it is usually through feedback and accountability mediated by collegial structures that we come to those wonderful moments when our self-importance vanishes and we get, we really get, that what we don’t know is so much bigger than we are, and it is only through a matrix of collegiality, good will, and generosity of spirit that we are sustained in our endeavors and get anywhere at all.

And this, too, is relevant:

I read a diary this week that my father wrote in 1946. He was a metallurgist of some note and one of a small group of civilians who went to Europe shortly after the war to evaluate and make recommendations for the allocation of scrap metal. He traveled with a military escort from the beaches to Berlin. Thousands of displaced persons were everywhere, more thousands of bodies were decaying in the rubble or places like the subways in Berlin that the Russians had flooded, and the reek of death was everywhere. Germany and much of Europe was in ruins.

My father went to Dachau and saw Nazis imprisoned there, gazing into their eyes through bars, and he saw the bloodstained traps where blood drained when Jews and others were shot in groups before cremation. In Hitler’s bunker before it was cleaned up, he saw blood stains and broken furniture, and he was ashen when he toured the crematoriums and the fuller reality of the holocaust began to sink in.

The point of mentioning this is that no one he encountered from industrial leaders to military brass felt confident about the future. Standing in the rubble that was Germany and much of Europe, no one thought that rehabilitation would be easy and few had ideas about how to do it. The leaders he met were nervous because they were being criticized by pundits in America far from the scenes of devastation. They hoped Truman would step up but didn’t know if he would or could.

In Rome, he was warned not to leave the hotel without a military escort because people were being murdered on the streets for their clothing. There was disease everywhere, predatory bands of criminals and those seeking vengeance, and little and big civil wars threatened the continent. Hanging over all, of course, was the Soviet Union which appeared poised to march to the Atlantic. Everywhere he went, there was hunger, desperation, and chaos.

Only in retrospect can we see that we did the right thing, haltingly, and heroically, to recreate European civilization. The effort involved plenty of mutuality, feedback, and accountability, and the difference between Germany today and what my father described only 60 years ago is absolute.

Maybe there’s a lesson in this for us, too. On those lists where I find edification and all over the world, we’re talking about big issues in a complicated and often chaotic world. We’re struggling to arrive at sane policies and ways to execute them. So many on those lists express feelings of powerlessness as my colleague did above. But others might look at who some of those people are – esteemed veterans of the intelligence community with track records any sane human would envy, celebrated pioneers in computer security, intellectuals with long lists of significant achievements – and think that they of all people have their hands on some of the throttles of power. Yet all of us some of the time and some of us all of the time feel helpless to make much of a difference.

Maybe the difference we wish we could make is impossible to make. But maybe the little differences that we do and can make feed streams that in turn feed a bigger river.

I feel more powerless than any of them, but for good reason—I am. I filter and sift these streams of information from online conversations, diverse sources, friends, and documents by the thousands, reading and scanning and writing and thinking and speaking … and when someone out there remarks, as one did the other day, that I look like “an influencer,” I roar with laughter. I can’t influence my toast into darkening, is how it feels, most of the time. The only way to control the world, I do know deeply, is to allow things simply to take their course.

My father clearly felt that he was influencing policy on that trip, and he did. But he also dropped dead the year after he wrote that book, when I was 2 years old. The rest of the family, who might have shared anecdotes about him, died long ago too. That diary is all I have. I read his words sixty years later and boy, I wish I could talk to him!—about what he wrote. About all this.

His words reveal a difficult, brilliant man and I salute my genetic heritage like a good soldier. He was a Protestant German who became a Jew to marry my mother and bequeathed to me an unbridgeable gap between those two halves of himself. His death removed from my life a context which he would have embodied in the flesh, a model of one way to make sense of seeming contradictions. The reconciliation of opposites in our lives is always imperfect, but that very imperfection is a gift, leading us to accept our humanity—and the humanity of others. There are few answers but there is genuine relief in not having to puzzle it all out for ourselves. Community in and of itself is redemptive.

All of this is a way to say, I am grateful for online communities, grateful for flesh-time communities too, and grateful that others including my father wrote or said anything. Those words, for a few moments, before the paper on which they are printed or the storage medium holding their digital form, disintegrates, are sustaining. We are all suspended in space, building together the next section of a bridge across the chasm it is our destiny to traverse out of planks taken from behind. Images of the recent past, torn up and assembled in new configurations, offer good enough images of possibility and promise to keep us moving. Our shared words, the matrix of our mutuality, build a platform on which we somehow bootstrap ourselves against all odds, creating possibilities out of thin air.

Happy Thanksgiving, all. Thank you for providing mutuality and feedback and for keeping me accountable to what I have written in these Islands for a decade. Happy Thanksgiving above all to my buddy K who seems to feel powerless in proportion to the good works that he does, including maintaining some of those lists. He has learned, perhaps, that nothing is more thankless than creating a context in which others swim like fish, unaware of the water. No one gets an Oscar for remaining invisible and creating space, do they? But then, that’s what some think God has done with all of this, the universe, that is, with everything.

Thanksgiving 2006 Part Two

This two-part piece is the final issue of Islands in the Clickstream.

When the column began, in response to an invitation from a professional engineering association, the internet was known to a small group and “the digital revolution,” while in motion, was unfamiliar to most people.

Now the Internet and digital media have become commonplace and much of the transformation I explored in these columns has happened. The next wave of hackers, I suspect, will hack nano- and bio-technology and impact human identity even more profoundly than systems of information and communication.

So it is time to put Islands in the Clickstream to bed and move on to a second edition—tentatively titled, appropriately enough, The Second Edition. If you have a better suggestion for a name, please send it along.

I will continue to write occasional insight pieces on the social or psychological or spiritual or political aspects of our lives, particularly in relation to technology, religion, and science. I am particularly interested in how our colonization of the solar system and beyond will alter our physical, psychological, and social selves. I am eager to explore how encounters with other intelligent species will move from official ridicule and tabloid silliness to profoundly affect our understanding of our place in the universe. My liminal explorations might move even further off the page as I incorporate insights and observations from conversations and confessions more explicitly in my speculations.

There is nothing to lose, after all, by trusting our intuition, is there? by taking detours and being willing to poke our noses into dark holes?

I will transfer the Islands in the Clickstream email list to The Second Edition (and of course remove any who choose not to participate) and will probably work primarily through a blog. When 90% of our email is spam, it’s untenable to rely on mass-emailing. Direct publication will be intermittent.

Meanwhile … Christmas, Hanukah, Yule, and Kwanzaa are coming. The book, Islands in the Clickstream, is available signed by the author (i.e. me). If you would like to give the collection as a gift, email me with the name and address of the recipient and use Paypal to make a $20 payment to [email protected] I will sign the book to your designated recipient. $20 includes postage to anywhere in the United States. If you want it sent to another country, add the cost of the flat rate to that country. Corporate discounts for larger orders are available.

As to speaking … because I have reinvented myself several times, I was asked to speak at Def Con last summer about How to Reinvent Ourselves, and if you’re interested in that or other speeches, my motto still is: Have Mouth, Will Travel. I recently spoke in the Netherlands for European security and intelligence professionals on Identity as Destiny, exploring the impact of transformational technologies on the practice of intelligence, and can adapt those insights for any audience interested in how the core context of our lives is changing. Other speeches explore the edges of spirituality, religious identity, diversity, and security in all its forms and guises. Three extended speaking trips to Australia this year have nurtured a love of that great country and three speaking trips are planned for New Zealand and Australia in 2007. I can’t wait to return.

I have been writing short fiction lately, publishing twenty stories recently in literary and science fiction magazines. There are now enough stories for a collection, so if you happen to be connected with an interested publisher, please let me know.

Recent fiction added to the web site at includes

“More Than a Dream,” an exploration of the encounter with the Other disguised as a “contact scenario,” published in Nth Degree. It can also be read at I love this story which is a revision of one called “The Bridge” which I sent to John Updike many years ago when I was thinking of writing again. I asked if he thought it was worth it. He said it was, that I ought to keep writing. I still treasure that letter of encouragement which he took the time to write at a critical time.

“My Summer Vacation,” a story about coming of age in Chicago and coming to understand the “way things work” – something coming of age in Chicago is good at teaching – published in the Timber Creek Review.

“ZeroDay: Roswell,” a story told by a counter intelligence agent on his death bed, will be published soon in Porcupine and then posted to the site. This story is layered with ironic revelations and my guess is that readers will mistake what I know to be true for fiction and vice versa. Porcupine is a fine literary magazine which also published “Road Warrior.” Find it at

“SETI Triumphant,” a scenario any writer who has been rejected millions of times will recognize, was published in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction. It was co-authored by my son “Aaron Ximm” and will be posted as soon as permission is granted.

A non-fiction essay, “The Changing Context of Intelligence and Ethics: Enabling Technologies as Transformational Engines,” will be published in a special edition of the Defense Intelligence Journal on ethics in January 2007. Copies of the journal will be distributed at the Ethics and Intelligence Conference in Springfield VA as well as sent to subscribers to the journal. I am helping to organize that conference which will be on January 26-27 2007. For more information, see the web site of the International Intelligence Ethics Association at

This is the last issue of Islands in the Clickstream, an intermittent column written by Richard Thieme since 1996 exploring social and cultural dimensions of technology and the ultimate concerns of our lives.

Richard Thieme continues to speak professionally around the world addressing the issues that define us. His speeches illuminate the context of our lives, particularly how that context is altered by technological change. The content,
therefore, changes with the audience, but consistent themes are security, intelligence, leadership, diversity, life on the edges, what’s coming next, and the need to reinvent ourselves throughout our lives. His motto, Have Mouth, Will Travel, pretty much sums it up.

To subscribe to The Second Edition, the successor to Islands in the Clickstream, or to unsubscribe, email [email protected] and say which it is you want to do.

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1996-2006. All rights reserved.

ThiemeWorks on the Web:
ThiemeWorks P. O. Box 170737 Milwaukee WI 53217-8061 414.351.2321

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