Islands in the Clickstream: Reflections on Life in a Digital World – Richard Thieme, 2004

It took me a long time to digest this book, which is jam-packed with quoteable insights, new perspectives on familiar ideas, and inspiring thoughts. Reading this collection of essays, which were written as periodic email columns over a span of seven years, felt like trying to eat a rich, dense dessert in one sitting. This is a book that should be savored slowly–by everyone who has any connection to technology. It’s an amazing work.

I can’t think of any book that’s quite like Islands in the Clickstream–it doesn’t fit into any established categories. Syngress Press, the publishers, describe themselves as providing “Career Advancement Through Skill Enhancement,” and say it should be shelved in “Computers/General.” But what this book actually contains is a collection of secular sermons. They fill the niche of an idealized homily–a short talk that reconnects its listeners to a larger context for their daily lives, inspires them to be better people, and makes them think about deeper issues than the everyday grind–but without any religious context, and addressing technology specifically. Thieme says

…these are sermons…in the sense that sermons form and inform a community that chooses to gather to hear them.

It’s not too surprising, then, that Thieme tells us he was an Episcopalian priest for sixteen years.

These essays do have a few flaws I associate with a genre like sermons, ie basically ephemeral and not designed to be read en masse–sometimes there’s a palpable stretch for the inevitable clever final sentence, and we get some repetition of favorite concepts and quotes like “sanity is contextual.” There’s also a hint of bombast, not exactly pretentiousness, but a weakness for over-stated metaphors and over-heated symbolism. Thieme’s got a liberal hand with buzzwords: nexus, fractal, cyborg, panoptic, granular, convergence, paradigm, morphing, etc. I also think he’s barking up the wrong tree in one or two essays where he talks about UFOs and remote sensing, but he’s not credulous by any means.

These are minor quibbles. To give an idea of how much this book impressed me: I typically collect a quote or two from a book I read. A great book will yield four to six. I copied down about FIFTY quotes from Islands in the Clickstream–new ideas, brilliant encapsulations of thoughts that have vaguely crossed my mind, inspirational statements. Here’s just a small sampling:

“The edge is the new center. The center of a web is wherever we are.”

“When things are going well, accountability diminishes. Then when things don’t go well, there’s chaos.” (written in 1997, with a prescient reference to the financial tech bubble)

“‘Out of the box’ thinking is just a name for climbing out of one box into a little bit bigger box.”

“Good tools work regardless of why we say they work. Technical tools and spiritual tools alike.”

“That’s the problem with oracular truth: the opposite is nearly always just as true. Oracular truth is more like a mobius strip than a yes/no binary system.”

If you’re someone who’s been involved with computers long enough that “hacker” doesn’t sound like a dirty word, you’ll feel like Thieme is speaking directly to you. If you ever wonder about the effect of technology on how we think and communicate, you’ll find a lot of food for thought here. If you’re professionally involved with the Internet in any way (as a techie or in business), you ought to read this book. If you’re looking for inspiration to be a better person, without being expected to believe in a personal god, check this out.

I would love to hear Thieme speak. He seems like a truly amazing person. Thieme’s website can be found at