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I don't recall when I first started reading Richard Thieme's e-mail missives entitled "Islands In the Clickstream", but it probably dates back to the early days of his writings. Thieme sends out a regular e-mail (for a long time it was weekly, but has tapered off into a less regular schedule in recent times) with his thoughts, ideas and comments on the virtual life. These pieces were always a joy to read and provided much food for thought. Now, a number of his articles have been collected in this book, which includes a selection of texts from as far back as November 1995, before the Internet was the Internet.
Thieme, a former Episcopal priest, was first asked to write a monthly column about the Internet. It grew into a mailing list and web site, and the pieces grew in depth and breadth. The form of these texts is, as Thieme says, "ambiguous"; they are sometimes "columns, essays, articles, opinion pieces, prose poems, sermons". At times they recall the writing of another lapsed member of the clergy, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Rather than grouping the pieces chronologically, they are organized in this book by broad themes: Digital Spirituality, Political Implications, The Psychology of Digital Life, and others. When I first opened this book, I wondered how well these pieces would work on paper. When reading on screen, we read differently; the photoluminescence of our monitors doesn't allow our eyes to connect with our brains in the same way, and we can only digest shorter texts; characters printed on paper incite a different approach, one that is more languid, more introspective. But Thieme's articles are so compact, so devoid of verbal excess that they actually read better in this book.
Thieme's writing is at its best when he waxes poetic or when he philosophizes. He has a knack for finding depth in some of the simplest things. Take this piece, "A Dry Run", written in November, 1998, as he and his wife experience a power outage that lasts several days:
"The degree to which we lived in a simulated world, plugged into interfaces feeding us with images, sounds and illusions was revealed by contrast with the silence of the night.
"The simple truth is, we drifted into an altered state. We were more than quiet. The night was more than dark, the candles more than adequate, because they enabled us to see just enough. [...] but once the lights were on, despite the fact that we lighted candles the next night, the mere possibility of turning on lights was a barrier between ourselves and the stillness we had touched."
There are hints of Thoreau in this passage, in this subtle yet rich writing that makes you stop and really think about what the author is saying. Thieme has a way of writing austerely, yet he draws you into his thoughts, almost without you realizing it. While he is connected with the quiet breaths of life, as in the previous example, he is also connected with the broader world. "Writers, for example," he says, " have discovered that we work in the world instead of one country. A few decades ago, our readers were defined by our coasts or cultures. Engaging with electronic networks revealed the entire world as our playground."
After September 11, however, Thieme's insights became darker. "The middle is hard to define. Once we find it, the middle is even harder to hold," he writes in a piece entitled "Lest We Forget". "But the middle must be our plumb line, lest we forget ourselves in the passion of battle." And in Flesh, he writes, "Words read in a vague disconnected way from a teleprompter, words about meeting terror with terror... those words are a means of numbing the moral sense."
Thieme challenges the reader, asking, "How conscious do we dare to become?" in "Between Transitions", written in November, 1999. "Perhaps being in transition is what we do best," he suggests. "Perhaps humankind is a process rather than a finished product."
Often refreshing, sometimes enticing, always challenging, these essays help connect us with the new and uncharted lands of cyberspace. This book contains some 130 nuggets of thought, idea and speculation, and is the ideal reading for those who ask questions about how technology and society relate to each other. As Thieme says, "The Internet is a funhouse mirror of distortion as well a potential source of redemption." This book provides a much-needed dose of redemption to counter the funhouse mirror that we see every day.
You can find out more about Richard Thieme at his web site: http://www.thiemeworks.com.