Dreamers of the Network World

[As ever, this is also on the BBC News website]

Last Saturday morning I woke up and reached for my phone so that I could spend five minutes catching up on email, Facebook and of course overnight updates on Twitter before I got up to make some coffee and start the day.

Radio 4 is the best way to find out what’s happening in the rest of the world, but having easy access to news from my online social networks in bed is one of the boons of having  home wireless connection and a small portable computer that masquerades as a mobile phone.

One of my Twitter friends, game designer Jane McGonigal, had not slept well.

Had a nightmare last night. Ustreaming from home. In the chatroom, everyone starts typing INTRUDER! INTRUDER! Someone snuck in

she tweeted, followed by:

They saw it but I didn’t. I’m terrified. I wake up (for real) and can’t shake the feeling someone is in the apt. Very hard to sleep.

Ustream is one of the more popular services for streaming live vide from a webcam, and Jane’s nightmare was a technologically updated twist on one of the older slasher movie tropes, with a laptop and internet connection replacing the telephone clutched in the shaking hand of the the terrified victim as a friend shouts “he’s behind you!”

Fortunately it was, as they say, only a dream.

It is not too surprising that Jane’s dreams should involve online activity since she is probably more immersed in the creative potential of the internet than anyone alive. She is after all the world’s most interesting and engaged developer of games and experiences that occupy the space between online and offline.

She devises and runs alternate reality games of soaring beauty that work equally well at human and network scale, and a lot of her unconscious mind is probably taken up with working out ways to follow Superstruct and I Love Bees, two of her biggest successes.

I’ve had my own computer-inflected dreams too. Once a massive spacecraft crashed into the building I had just run from, and as I turned to look at it I thought ‘that’s extremely high-definition rendering”, somehow confusing CGI and reality in a way that didn’t seem at all odd inside the logic of the dream.

And I will confess to having had twitter-based dreams that were entirely carried out 140 characters at a time.

I suspect that more and more of us will find that computers and the network feature in our dreams simply because more and more of us are spending increasing amounts of time engaging with life through screens, keyboards and game controllers, and the subconscious will take what it gets from waking life to work into the dreamscape. Nobody dreamed about car chases before 1885.

Such dreams are one sign of just how important the network is becoming, and a reflection of the continuing impact of tools, technologies and services which rely on fast, affordable and reliable internet connectivity to operate.

We are also becoming more reliant on these services. A couple of weeks ago my son called me from home, interrupting an important meeting with the urgent news that our home broadband connection wasn’t working.  For him this was a disaster on a par with ‘the house has been burgled” or “I’ve chopped off my thumb”, and he expected an appropriate response from me.

Not every aspect of the ongoing revolution is positive, of course, and the changes that companies like Google have wrought on the economic, artistic and even intellectual landscape have occasioned a great deal of concern, especially among those who held power and influence under the old dispensation.

For example last weekend Henry Porter, whose campaigning journalism exposing the dangers of the database state is admirable in many ways, wrote an article for The Observer in which he took aim at ‘the destructive, anti-civic forces of the internet’, compared Google to a ‘delinquent and sociopathic’ eleven year-old child and complained bitterly that ‘Google is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time.’

His concerns about the cavalier attitude Google has sometimes shown to those whose data appears in their index, whose books are scanned for their catalogue and whose homes appear in Street View reflect the ongoing debate on the forms of regulation and control appropriate to the emerging network economy.

But it is hard to take serious notice of anyone who believes, as Porter apparently does, that the effort needed to create, manage and run perhaps the world’s largest database, capturing and sorting billions of items of data from the web, is no more than a ‘little aggregation’.

Sometimes the technology and the politics are so co-dependent that failure to understand one means you are very unlikely to say anything sensible about the other, and this is one of those times.

Porter’s clear ignorance about what Google is and what it does means that his call for it ‘to be stopped in its tracks and taught about the responsibilities it owes to content providers and copyright holders’ carries no real weight and seems simply to be a cry of anguish from a well-paid columnist who sees the world that sustained him replaced by one in which anyone can have a voice.

Politics, technology and culture can no longer be treated as separate worlds, and we need people who understand and appreciate this rather than those who continue to defend the old boundaries.

This is why I trust the political judgment of blogging and twittering Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson as he goes about trying to open up government systems much more than I would ever listen to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, and why I look to people who dream of the network, like Jane McGonigal, for inspiration and enlightenment.

At least her nightmare was based around an understanding of modern technology – Google probably stomps around like a rainbow-coloured Gojirah in Porter’s dreamscape.

Bill’s Links
Jane McGonigal on Twitter and  Wikipedia:
Henry Porter on ‘evil’ Google:
John Naughton on Henry Porter:

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3 Responses to Dreamers of the Network World

  1. Dominic Self says:

    While I can’t remember any heavily networked dreams, I did once meet God, who evaded my attempts to challenge his logical inconsistencies.

  2. NT says:

    My mother, who was born in 1940, once told me she dreamed in black & white. This seemed bizarre to me. I certainly don’t dream in black & white.

    Then, one year, in order to avoid blasting the house with noise so that i could understand the dialogue in TV shows and movies at home, I turned the closed captions on on my TV set and just watched everything with the captions. If I ever didn’t quite catch what some character or talking head was saying, I could read it instead.

    After a few weeks of this, I started having dreams with captions.

  3. Dougald says:

    My dad seemingly never has any visual component to his dreams – colour or black and white. As far as I can understand, he dreams in thoughts and his thoughts are almost never visual.

    He claims that the only exception to this was during his first year of studying psychology. After reading a lot of Freud, he had a week of classically Freudian dreams – complete with visual elements – before reverting to his normal pattern.

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