Richard Thieme Speaking
As a professional presenter, I speak to:
- challenges posed by new technologies and the future, including information technology, biohacking, and a burgeoning trans-planetary society. I focus on “the human in the machine,” the impact of transformational technologies as they come home to our humanity.
- the need to reinvent ourselves (as individuals or organizations) to meet these challenges
- creativity and leadership in times of radical change – a practical approach – how to tend creativity, make it more likely to happen, how to capture it when it does
- how these changes impact identity, including spirituality and religious identity
Clients say that, above all else, I make people think. One wrote, “Your ability to move everyone out of their comfort zone is a remarkable talent to have.”
The Difference It Makes Being Different
Richard is now an #actuallymature white CIS male who has lived in six different cultures, not five. His unique experience enables him to illuminate these critical dynamics and some optimal ways to deal with them. This presentation spells out practical strategies for engaging with the facts of diversity effectively.
Computers, Breaking the Rules, and Huckleberry Finn
And how do experts in ethics manifest their expertise? Why do they often seem to break so many rules?
The director of a SOC at the Pentagon and Huckleberry Finn puffing on his pipe after a sleepless night have more in common than one might think. Both had an ability to leap into a domain of meta-rules intuitively where binary rules followed by beginners do not hold. Those rules are like training wheels when we learn to ride a bicycle. Once we know how to balance, the training wheels can go.
Richard Thieme brings the experience of sixteen years as an Episcopal clergyman and twenty-seven years as an author and speaker to this cross-disciplinary presentation. He shows why rules are useful but can be constraining and he shows how experts really make decisions – and how they can serve as examples for all of us.
Now More Than Ever: The Hacker Revolution Meets the Post-Pandemic Post-Insurrection World
Two new challenges–the pandemic and the widespread acceptance of insurrection as suitable political action–are creating another complex paradigm change which demands that we apply real hacker methodologies to the consequences of these new realities. Hackers have the tools to identify separate pieces of a complex system–think, society–and use them to create new structures–think, new institutions. Hackers can lead an insurrection of a different kind entirely–think, new ways of thinking about thinking itself.
Hackers have internalized procedures, assumptions, and working models to see, separate, and reintegrate parts of complex systems built to attain specific ends to attain other ends, to break down to breakthrough.
Hackers model thought leadership during a time of radical change. This talk illuminates how the “hacker ethos” translates into a practical approach to deal with 21st-century realities–which, as Philip K. Dick said, “won’t go away just because we refuse to believe in it.” At Def Con 4 in 1996, I told the young technocrats they would be thought leaders in the twenty-first century. Many of them have become just that. This presentation redirects my aim at a future few saw coming and ports the strategies and methodologies of real hacking to face those serious challenges. The tools must be sharpened and wielded with the precision and skill of a Jedi master.
Real Birds in Digital Cages: The Chickens Come Home to Roost
Identity is by social agreement. Social agreement is manufactured, managed, and manipulated on the internet these days. We all know that now, but knowing something and acting on it are two different things.
We live in the confines of prior technologies as if they define our lives–think “horseless carriages” before “automobiles.” Think “automobiles” before “driverless cars.” Think “astronauts” before “space tourists.” Even as the frames of the 20th century dissolve, we live in them as if they persist.
To have a clue as to what’s real these days, we need to do counter intelligence, and most don’t have the time or the skills. The critical thinking with which CI begins is a lost art for many. So we live in digital cages large enough to let us flap our wings and have the illusion of freedom and flight, but the cage keeps turning and takes us with it.
Richard Thieme invented the phrase, “real birds in digital cages,” a quarter of a century ago. He has worked with colleagues to clarify ways to escape those cages. The task is not trivial but it IS necessary if we are to remain capable of rational decisions as a digital tsunami washes away the structures of a prior society, taking all of our “cognitive artifacts” with it. This presentation illuminates the nature of the cage and how to pick the lock.
Playing Through the Pain - The Impact of Secrecy and Dark Knowledge on Security and Intelligence Professionals
Philip K. Dick said, reality is that which, when you no longer believe in it, does not go away. When cognitive dissonance evolves into symptoms of traumatic stress, one ignores those symptoms at one’s peril. But the very constraints of one’s work often make it impossible to speak aloud about those symptoms, because that might threaten one’s clearances, work, and career. And whistle blower protection is often non-existent.
The real cost of security work and professional intelligence goes beyond dollars. It is measured in family life, relationships, and mental and physical well-being. The divorce rate is as high among intelligence professionals as it is among medical professionals, for good reason–how can relationships be based on openness and trust when one’s primary commitments make truth-telling and disclosure impossible?
One CIA veteran wrote: “I was for a while an observer to the Personnel Management working group in the DO. I noted they/we were obscenely proud of having the highest rates of alcoholism, adultery, divorce, and suicide in the US Government. I personally have 23 professional suicides in my mental logbook, the first was an instructor that blew his brains out with a shotgun when I was in training. The latest have tended to be senior figures who could not live with what they knew.”
Richard Thieme has been around that space for a long time. He has listened to people in pain because of the compelling necessities of their work, the consequences of their actions, the misfiring of imperfect plans, and the burdens of soul-wrenching experiences.
The bottom line is, trauma and secondary trauma have identifiable symptoms and they are everywhere in the “industry.” The “hyper-real” space which the national security state creates by its very nature extends to everyone too, now, but it’s more intense for professionals. Living as “social engineers,” always trying to understand the other’s POV so one can manipulate and exploit it, erodes the core self. The existential challenge constitutes an assault on authenticity and integrity. Sometimes sanity is at stake, too, and sometimes, life itself.
This talk discusses the real facts of the matter and strategies needed for effective life-serving responses to manage the paradoxical imperatives and identity-threatening pressures of our lives and work.
The Road to Resilience: Redeeming the Dark Side of Security and Intelligence Work (A Sequel)
In this presentation, Thieme elaborates on those strategies and counter-measures in detail. It’s not about leaving the profession: it’s about what we can do to survive, and thrive, and transcend the challenges.
It is so much easier to focus on exploits, cool tools, zero days, and the games we play in the space. It is not so easy to know how to play through the pain successfully. As we know from professional football, sucking it up, injecting drugs, and going back onto the field does not prevent long-term damage. The damage to us is also to our heads, but it does not show up in scans. It shows up in our families, our relationships, and our lives.
A lot of overcomers are called “supernormals,” which means they discovered resilient responses to deprivation, abuse, profound loss … or the daily challenges of work that demands that they look on the face of evil. Supernormals are driven, never quit, fight through adversity. It pays to know how to do that and know that we know so we can respond with resilience whatever comes our way.
One way or another, our choices bring consequences, and intervening in the cycle consciously and proactively is a lot better than letting everything take its course. That’s the assumption baked into this talk: we have the tools to do this right.
When Privacy Goes Poof! - Why It's Gone and Never Coming Back
Richard Thieme provides a historical and social context for some of that rethinking. He goes both deep and wide and challenges contemporary discussions of privacy that still use outmoded 20th century frameworks for thinking about privacy. His advice is basic: let’s get real.
Our technologies have changed us. We humans are systems of energy and information. We interact with similar systems, both organic and inorganic, “natural” and “artificial.” These “differently sentient systems” all consist of nodes in intersecting networks extending into several dimensions. We can’t think of ourselves as “flatlanders” living in two dimensions.
We have known we were similar to cells in a body, but we emphasized “cell-ness.” Now we have to emphasize “body-ness” and re-imagine who we are. What we see depends on the level of abstraction at which we choose to look. Patterns extracted from data are either meta-data or just more data, depending on the level of scrutiny. The boundaries we like to imagine around our identities, our psyches, our “private internal spaces,” are violated in both directions, in and out, by data that, when aggregated, constitutes “us.”It is reconstituted like orange juice by others who know us more deeply than we know ourselves. Just like “orange juice,” parts are separated and recombined in a new way. “They” see the patterns of that new way, how it behaves, and we do not.
Privacy is honored in lip service, but not in the marketplace, where it is violated or taken away or eroded every day. To confront the challenges generated by technological change, we have to know what is happening so we can rethink what we mean by privacy and identity. We can’t say what we can’t think. We need new language to articulate our experience and grasp the context in which we now live. Then we can understand the abstractions of data analytics and Big Data at a level that makes sense.
The weakest link in discussions of privacy is the definition of privacy, and the definition of privacy is not what we think. Clarity about all this is the goal of this presentation.
Staring into the Abyss: The Dark Side of Security and Professional Intelligence
An analysis of deeper political and economic structures reveals that narrative and illuminates our mixed motivations and the yin yang of our lives, the simultaneity of licit and illicit structures in society at large and in all of our lives.
This analysis will make you hesitate before uncritically using buzzwords and jargon–words like “security,” “defense,” and “cyberwar.” We have to stop thinking in a binary way about “good” and “evil.” By the end of this presentation, simplistic distinctions between foreign and domestic, natural and artificial, us and them, will go liquid while the complexities of information security as we call it will remain … and continue to challenge us personally and professionally.
The Only Way to Tell the Truth is in Fiction: The Dynamics of Life in the National Security State
Thirty seven published short stories and two novels later, Thieme’s work illuminates “non-consensual realities:” the worlds above all of hackers and intelligence professionals.
Thieme’s most recent novel, Mobius: A Memoir, powerfully presents a vision of the twisted threads of our lives. One reviewer said, “Richard Thieme, a legendary guru of young hackers everywhere, is excruciatingly well-versed in life in the bowels of governmental secrecy and manages a raw and at times even tender, deep dive into a world of secrecy and nigh capricious bureaucracy that extracts a great human price. Read it at your peril, but in doing so emerge ready to better
treasure your simple and honest pleasures. Thieme writes Mobius with all
the tragic beauty of a fallen Angel.”
And a veteran of NSA wrote: “Thieme’s level of consciousness and storytelling is spellbinding. A hall of mirrors, instead of hiding what’s true, the mirrored kaleidoscope becomes the truth. An old Jewish proverb has it that ‘story is truer than truth’, here the turning and twisting story becomes the truth. Here lies our unseen contemporary history, told from the inside about the people who make history.”
A scholarly study of “The Covert Sphere” by Timothy Melley documents the way the growth and influence of the intelligence community since World War 2 has created precisely the reality to which that NSA veteran pointed. The source of much of what “outsiders” believe is communicated through novels, movies, and television programs. But even IC “insiders” rely on those sources, as compartmentalization prevents the big picture from coming together because few inside have a “need to know.”
Thieme asked a historian at the NSA what historical events they could discuss with a reasonable expectation that their words denoted the same details. “Anything up to 1945,” the historian said with a laugh – but he wasn’t kidding.
This fascinating presentation illuminates the mobius strip on which all of us walk as we make our way through the labyrinth of security and intelligence worlds we inhabit of necessity, all of us some of the time and some all of the time. It discloses why “post-modernism” is not an affectation but necessary to understand our lives.
As Mobius says–and as Thieme says–nothing is what it seem.
UFOs and Government: a Case Study in Disinformation, Deception, and Perception Management
UFOs were challenging since the 1940s, when “foo fighters” trailed planes on bombing runs over Germany and Japan. But strange flying vehicles did not go away when the war ended. In the 1950s, the CIA advocated training observers “inside” to learn what they could about the vehicles while publicly dismissing reports to manage the potential of distress.
UFOs were anomalous, well-documented, and challenging because, as Major General John Samford said, “credible people have seen incredible things.” This talk is about how governments manage these challenges from “incredible things.”.An NSA veteran thinks that Thieme’s talk is “perfect timing – it’s about how the government deals with serious yet largely unknown or not understood potential threats, while trying desperately to keep the public from knowing what they are doing. What better way to discuss the current situation at a meta level, without ever getting into the knee-jerk muddle of response to current events? You can’t ask for a better context for this talk.”
Richard Thieme was privileged to be invited to join the UFO History Group which includes the best researchers in the field. After 5 years of work, they produced “UFOs and Government: A Historical Inquiry,” an outstanding work of historical scholarship that reads like a fascinating detective story. In almost 600 pages and with nearly 1000 citations, the work illuminates the response of the government since the early 1940s. how and why policies were set, and how they were executed. Reviewers say, “this is the best book about the UFO phenomena that was ever written” and “UFOs and Government is a triumph of sober, conscientious scholarship unlikely to be equaled for years to come.”
Don Quixote said, “Insanity is seeing things as they really are.” This speech uses UFO phenomena as dye in the arteries of “how things really are” and how governments carry out cover and deception with all of the best intentions in the world.
Creativity and Leadership: Thinking in a Little Bit Bigger Box
Using insights from the best and the brightest in the worlds of information and communications technology, security, and professional intelligence, this presentation demonstrates how we often neglect our innate creativity to capture and use the creative insights we do have. You will learn that you cannot control creativity, but you can tend it and nurture it and capture its results. And as a leader, you can create a culture that does all that too. And you will learn that creativity, properly used and understood, is the real road to genuine freedom.
How to Reinvent Yourself in a Time of Radical Change
Richard Thieme is in the fourth career-chapter of his life. He has reinvented himself, his work, his way of thinking, even his identity or persona successfully when it became time to shed the skin that became too tight. His life is testimony to his success. After this presentation, you’ll have the same tools at your disposal and the same ability to break through habit and fear to forge new paths.
Mutuality, Feedback and Accountability: Keys to Individual and Organizational Success
Blending Families ... and Work Cultures
The Challenge to Identity, Freedom, Democracy and other 20th Century Words
“[We] can get this god’s-eye view of human behavior,” we are told. “People look like little particles that move in space that occasionally communicate with each other.”
How do we reinvent ourselves – realistically – to live in this world and recontextualize words like “freedom, human identity, democracy” so they have meaning?–so we are not flocks of real birds in moving digital cages? How do we live robustly in a world without walls? How, in short, do we free our minds – and ourselves?
Thinking About the Future
This talk sounds like science fiction but it isn’t. A man with a proven track record of getting it mostly right illuminates what is likely to come.
What used to be done by scientists in labs because fodder for competitions in universities. Now it is in the hands of teenagers. The tools to reinvent ourselves by hacking the code that makes who we are are widely available. Some think it should not be done. Those who think it should be done are already doing it. Nation-states, non-state entities, children in collaboratories, all are pursuing holy grails without knowing what will result.
This talk is not science fiction. The future is already here and we can be responsible for it only if we let ourselves know what’s happening.
Using discoveries from research and development originating in military and intelligence warrens, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and neuroscience, Thieme illuminates some of the challenges we face and how to meet them.
The Changing Context of Intelligence and Ethics: Enabling Technologies as Transformational Engines
This presentations explores the deeper implications of identity-shift in the Intelligence Community and what it means for the rest of us.
Freeing the Mind: Security and Power in a World Without Walls
“We are asking the wrong questions. That’s why our answers do not address the real challenges we face.
The real questions are: (1) How do we live vibrantly? (2) How do we free our minds? (3) How do we live in a world without walls?
This presentation addresses those questions. It explores the relationship of context to content in a world transformed by new technologies. It challenges traditional thinking rooted in prior technologies and explores how new technologies do not merely extend our senses and cognitive abilities but change how we experience life itself–including identities from “individuals” up to geopolitical structures. These changes have profound implications for war fighting and for geopolitical thinking as they do for every aspect of our work and lives.
Think of the search for a unified field theory in contemporary physics as a metaphor for what we are doing in security work too. That search for a unified theory stems from the inability to reconcile quantum physics and relativity theory and has pushed research toward mathematical models such as string theory in an effort to model a single way of looking at everything.
The same can be said of the distribution of power in networks and hierarchies. The individual person looks like one kind of thing when viewed in the context of a network–a node defined by parameters that locate it in space and by attributes that characterize it–and another kind of thing when viewed in the context of filling a slot or box in a hierarchy. This is analogous to describing a photon as both a particle and a wave. The parameters of our inquiry determine what we see.
We do not currently have a unified theory of computing and its consequences–or a universally agreed-on definition of what it means to be a human being. The notion of the “individual person” is central to debates about privacy, intellectual property, and the legality or illegality of network aggression (“black hat hacking”), but from the point of view of the distributed network, there is no individual person, there are only nodes in the network. There are only aggregated structures of information that transit the world and zoom through porous borders like neutrinos. Hierarchical structures like “nation states” are in fact a function of complexity and the speed of the flow of information. Those structures exist at multiple levels of abstraction, and the level at which one sees them and links them to levels above and below determines mastery of the battlespace. The mind of society is the battlespace in the 21st century. Soft power is hard power. War is peace and peace is war. Power is distributed unevenly (as William Gibson said of the future). An “individual” inhabits a niche in a hierarchical structure; a mathematical aggregation of points, data points, define one the way a locus is defined in space. A network consists of nodes in relationship to other nodes. The speed of the transfer of information about the contents or defining characteristics of the nodes can seem like “spooky action at a distance.”
Traffic analysis can identify the contents of a discussion when one knows the participants, the duration of the discussions, the context of the conversation. The identities of the ones who are communicating are not known a priori but emerge from analysis of the dynamics of the conversation. The same can be said of analysis of the flow of information on a network, and we can infer “who” is talking and what they are talking about. We know the nodes by how the nodes behave. How the nodes behave defines their relationships.
Relationships are primary; the objects or artifacts in relationship are secondary. Relationships define the “space” of the landscape we see.
We all inhabit nodes in multiple networks simultaneously. We can field any network-determined identity we choose but we do not determine an individual identity until we choose a network identity. That choice is made in the moment in which we act, so paradoxically, while context determines content, choice is always prior to context and creates it. Until we choose, it is impossible to predict with certainty which choice will be made and therefore what identity will be asserted. Every “individual” is a collection of discrete possible “identities.” The attributes aggregated at the moment of choosing to act determine “who” is acting–a mole, for example, who entered a network by mimicking the attributes of allegiance, trustworthiness, and belonging, or a “loyal citizen” who never questioned their assimilation into a culture and its values and paradigms.
Security based on perimeter defense or authentication is a failed model because there is no perimeter and there is no single authentic identity. Identity is a function of observation, not assertion; like the identity of a particle or a wave, it will be known only afterward. This is also why, for the ordinary human living in consensus reality–a reality or paradigm which always lags current realities–we are known by others using data mining and AI better than we know ourselves. Others see patterns of our behavior at abstract levels that enable them to know us and predict our behavior better than we can predict it ourselves because we imagine we are the identities we see at a lower level of abstraction. But those identities were formed in the context of a 20th century world with its lenses and frames and the resulting cognitive artifacts, dependent on that prior context, no longer exist. Yet we conduct political discussions, among others, as if they do, as if they define possibilities.
They do not. They limit possibilities. We need to rethink how we think, especially about thinking.
This analysis has implications for traditional notions of freedom, loyalty, citizenship, abstract rights like human rights, intellectual property rights, national identity, the ability to exercise power, and security. “Rights” were emergent properties of a society transformed by the printing press, objective scientific facts, and the values of the Renaissance. The consciousness and notion of a “self” which emerged from those revolutionary changes has been internalized so deeply we no longer see it, while we inhabit it unconsciously. It explains why a disciplined hierarchical structure like the military can use network centric warriors and fight networks with networks while maintaining a basic identity–for the moment–as the machinery of a nation state. But it also explains why that identity is morphing, why what it can think and do sometimes does not feel quite “right.” That dissonance is because it does not in fact quite “fit” the realities on the ground that we experience, the way life is fired at us every morning from the barrel of a gun. “Nation states” as collations of definable behaviors are being subsumed by trans-nation states and by non-state states.
At higher abstract levels, identities are trans-national and shorn of twentieth-century national loyalties; those who act on that level have already created alternative global structures of power, economics, and law. The laws are not so much codified as understood as the appropriate rules of behavior and engagement for “we few, we powerful few.” Offshore islands–both real and metaphorical–are their ports of call. Those ports are linked in in a league or alliance based on the knowledge of what one can and must do to transcend the limits of the past and be powerful in the present. Their primary commitment is to not being seen and understood well enough to affect them, to fence in the rest of us with words, and pictures, and event-scenes, and the other intoxicants of the mind of society which we down, one after the other, like shots at the bar. We swallows their pills of disinformation to their advantage and our detriment.
It will be necessary then to discuss cultures and how they inflect our perception and ability simply to think about things as well. Paradigms determine the questions we can ask and then the answers are predictable. Other questions, other answers, are not even thinkable. It is easy to talk about out of the box thinking but much harder to do it when the customs and habits of years militate against grasping the implications of a new bigger box and executing strategies based on them. Those who inhabit that bigger box look in on those in the smaller box with satisfaction and confidence. Those who live in three dimensions smile wryly at “flatlanders” who live in two.
Of course, we never get out of a box; we simply get into a slightly bigger box. In transition from the one to the other, however, we can feel as if we see all of spacetime as prior frameworks dissolve before they are reconstituted at a higher level of abstraction, we can see all options, we feel omnipotent and omniscient. That illusion vanishes when the new, little bit bigger box comes into being. Thus we crawl forward again, inside our boxes like turtles in shells.
In addition, it helps to identify the attributes of successive generations of hackers to understand how the management of perception has turned the mind of society itself into the battlespace of the 21st century. It helps to recall the evolution of a closed model of computer simulation which has become the de facto landscape that we share. We’ll look at what happens when we forget that we built it in the first place and why our perceptions and beliefs can be manipulated based on that forgetfulness and used against us by adversaries. We’ll discover that the essence of the struggle in and out of cyberspace is psychological and even spiritual and why perception, belief and ultimate intentions will determine the outcome. We’ll develop a dictionary of “newspeak” that redefines “individual,” “religion,” “democracy,” “military victory,” and much more.
At the end of our discussion, we will understand that ALL media is social, everything is connected to everything else, and relationships define illusory “objects” which are in fact “cognitive artifacts” floating in the vast space of our minds. We will understand why verbs are more appropriate to our experience, not nouns, because all is flowing, as Heraclitus said, and we can’t step in the same river twice. So time is of the essence, navigating the OODA loop is crucial, but time, too, and its relationship to success in this brave new world is not what we think it is. Nothing, in fact, is what we think it is. Nothing is what it seems. So we had better think about our thinking, before it’s too late.