Be Alert

Be Alert

by Richard Thieme
© 2001 by Richard Thieme

From Islands in the Clickstream. Be Alert. September 27 2001. Used with Richard Thieme's permission.

Be alert! the President of the United States told its citizens. Then he added, go back to your normal lives.

Between those two suggestions, however, is a great gulf, and our task now is to build the multi-dimensional stairways of an Escher etching from our "normal lives" (as we once innocently called them) to the awareness necessary to live in the new battlespace called "everyday life."

In the context of the attack, what does it mean to "be alert?" How is it different from the level of awareness that we had before?

Wisdom and insanity are contextual. When the earth shifts on its axis or the ground shifts under our feet, what once seemed insane may now be appropriate. What was once wise may no longer make sense.

To become alert in a context of heightened vigilance is one thing, to remain alert is another. In the immediate shock of attack, adrenaline rushes through our bodies, fuel-injecting awareness. Our senses process information at an accelerated rate. But after we calm down, our scanning apparatus returns to its default position. We filter out those thousands of impressions that seem irrelevant to daily survival.

Now survival requires a different level of awareness.

To be alert at a higher level requires training. We have to be willing to learn new habits. We need credible structures to do that training effectively. We need the will and the discipline to remain committed to the long run. We need to be accountable to mutually-agreed-upon goals. Above all, we need a vision articulated clearly and forcefully as a plumb line for keeping ourselves aligned.

A commitment to stay the course at the highest level of intentionality doesn't mean that we don't get discouraged. It means that when we do, we know how to get ourselves encouraged again. This will not just happen. We don't just say to ourselves one evening, be alert! and find ourselves alert in the morning.

I recall a CEO who heard about empowerment and called his employees together to announce, "You're empowered!" then went back to his office. Of course, in the absence of structures to generate, train, and sustain empowered employees, nothing happened.

We are talking about at least a couple of things when we talk about being alert. One is anomaly detection. The other is the kind of multi-valent sensory awareness we see in spiritual masters and martial artists. Some are born to be good at one or the other, but we can all be trained in both.

In the world of computer security, firewalls and intrusion detection systems have strengthened the perimeters of networks. But thickening the walls weakened the hidden abscesses where networks were most vulnerable. Four fifths of all disruptions to networks are caused by insiders. As a result, anomaly detection inside the system is critical. In its broadest sense, anomaly detection is the detection of behaviors contrary to normal patterns. In both virtual and physical networks, that means surveillance and access controls that permit or inhibit movement. That in turn means watching closely the nodes of a network - the "hubs, gatekeepers and pulsetakers" as Harvard professor Karen Stephenson calls them - through which power flows.

"So we're all to become little spies?" a friend said.

Not exactly. It's more like a global neighborhood watch in which the commitment to collective security outweighs indifference to what's happening next door. Terrorists often live in areas with a high turnover rate, where no one notices and no one cares. We are now called both to notice and to care.

"The phrase 'anomaly detection' has been the cornerstone of intelligence operations through the ages" said a veteran intelligence officer, "from the bird that brought a branch to Noah to today's massive changing patterns in all walks of life."

That officer endeavored to teach law enforcement personnel how to bring things that we notice on the edges - but not really - into the light. Then we can see what is right in front of our eyes.

We can all be trained to notice indicators and warnings, the telltale behaviors that signal that something is not quite right. Those skills shade inevitably into the consciousness training techniques that are aspects of martial arts. They are also the "spiritual tools" handed down by the world's religions.

When spiritual seekers discipline themselves to pursue deeper reaches of awareness, they are always astonished to learn how much they have been missing. It's like going scuba diving for the first time and discovering that the three fourths of the earth under water contains living things that are wondrous and strange. After a while one lives as comfortably under water as on land.

One training technique used by martial artists is to blindfold a subject so they can practice becoming attuned to what is happening all around them. Intelligence agents are trained to become conscious in this and other ways. When one's life is at stake, one sniffs the wind with a different nose. One grows more sensitive to "a disturbance in the Force."

For individuals and for societies, becoming more alert begins with a shift in intention. It's like deciding to become more physically fit. One minute you're sedentary, the next you're building structures - hiring a trainer, reading about nutrition, gathering support - toward the goal of a lifestyle change. It's the difference between sprinting and long-distance running.

And who is the enemy? When we look at how the word "enemy" changed over the course of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, we learn that it once meant "others." But as consciousness evolved, it came to mean that in ourselves which resists transformation. Evil was no longer located outside ourselves but inside. The focus of the struggle shifted.

My experience is that both are true. The enemy is both those who would destroy us and our own capacity for evil. A parallax view, seeing now one and now the other, is essential as we learn to draw the boundary that includes "us" around more and more "others."

Islands in the Clickstream is an intermittent column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology and the ultimate concerns of our lives. Comments are welcome.

Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations - the human dimensions of technology and work - and "life on the edge."

Feel free to pass along columns for personal use, retaining this signature file. If interested in publishing columns online or in print or employing Richard as a professional speaker, retreat leader or consultant, email for details.

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