Computers Stealing Our Dreams

by wjw on May 14, 2011

Ah, to be in England now that Adam Curtis has a new documentary series . . .

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace will premiere in a couple weeks on the BBC, and by all accounts is a sort of meta-critique of digital society and its proponents and heroes.  (About time, too.)

The most intriguing of the series’ various theses is that computers have stolen all our big dreams.   Computers and systems theory showed that everything was a component in a system, right?

. . . people started to believe there is an underlying order to the entire world, to how society is structured. Everything became part of a system, like a computer; no more hierarchies, freedom for all, no class, no nation states.” What the series shows is how this idea spread into the heart of the modern world, from internet utopianism and dreams of democracy without leaders to visions of a new kind of stable global capitalism run by computers. But we have paid a price for this: without realising it we, and our leaders, have given up the old progressive dreams of changing the world and instead become like managers – seeing ourselves as components in a system, and believing our duty is to help that system balance itself. Indeed, Curtis says, “The underlying aim of the series is to make people aware that this has happened – and to try to recapture the optimistic potential of politics to change the world.”

Have we traded all our dreamers for managers?  (And, by the way, how are our managers doing?)

I think there’s something in this.  Obama has great intelligence— and more importantly, sanity— and his very presence in the White House is enormously important as a symbol— but his actual program amounted to nothing more than “I can do this better than the other guy.”  No politician has dared to dream anything as magnificent as the Apollo program since, well, the Apollo program.  (In fact, Obama’s the guy who said We’re not going.  He canceled the program that would have returned us to the moon.  And he did this, in part, because NASA didn’t dream big enough— they were just doing Apollo all over again.)

There’s more in the series having to do with the consequences of Randian individualism.

Why don’t we have big ideas or dreams any more? “Because now that there’s nothing more important than you, how can you ever lose yourself in a grander idea? We’re frightened of eccentricity, of loneliness. Individualism just wants to keep the machine stable, leads to a static world and a powerless world. Rand is individualism carried to its most extreme form, yet she’s very popular, and not that far away from how a lot of people, especially the young, feel today.”

(I’m not sure how this fits into the larger thesis.  How can you believe yourself to be a Randian individual and a component of a system at the same time?)

Curtis then goes on to describe social networking as “Soviet realism.”

It is fashionable to suggest that cyberspace is some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality,” [Carmen Hermosillo] wrote. “This is not true. I have seen many people spill out their emotions – their guts – online and I did so myself until I began to see that I had commodified myself.” Says Curtis, “On Facebook and Twitter, you are performing to attract people – you are dancing emotionally, on a platform created by a large corporation. People’s feelings bounce back and forth – happy Stakhanovites, ignoring and denying the system of power. It’s like Stalin’s socialist realism.”

Well, now that’s provocation! Randian individuals, all part of a greater Stalinist komputer kollective!

But still, that main thesis has me thinking.   Do societies dream anymore?  Or is it just Western societies that have stopped dreaming?  (I see lots of aggressive dreaming in places like China.  And I see a lot of those aggressive dreams coming true.)

While we wait for the series to premiere on this side of the Atlantic— assuming it ever does— we can at least dream about it.

Tell me your dreams.  Please.

Chris May 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Other than the ones about Jessica Alba? I dream of a world in which people accept the fact that scientific theories sometimes change as new things are discovered. It’s always sad and disturbing to hear some low-IQ pundit or politician saying “Oh ho, science, you were WRONG about that? You are therefore wrong about EVERYTHING!” Advancement comes from trial and error; we should encourage that and not deride it.

Pete Johannsen May 14, 2011 at 10:11 pm

I apologize, I cannot resist this “but I wonder about those lesser figures, those managers who say, ‘I have no ideals, no dreams, all I want to do is make things run a little more efficently.’ What reason is that for us to give them anything? ‘I am mediocre, I have never had an idea to which you could object, give me your trust’ They appeal only to exhaustion. It is an emptiness of soul into which rot is guaranteed to enter.” ~City on Fire

I dream of saving the family farm from the insane depletion of the Nebraska aquifer. I dream that my children will choose the freedom of my culture, and the strength of their mother’s. I dream that I’ll eventually get that manuscript out of the attic that I put there 10 years ago, and it will be better than I remembered. I dream that in my lifetime, my country (or SOME country) will begin to reach for the stars again.

S.M. Stirling May 15, 2011 at 1:35 am

Considering that the principle result of Modernist utopian politics aimed at transforming the world and/or humanity over the last 100 years or so was invariably a gigantic mountain of corpses, I’m fairly happy to see stable management replace it as an aspiration.

The fact of the matter is that the world (particularly the human part of it) is not knowable, plan-able, or controllable, and the results of hubris and neglecting the Law of Unintended Consequences are pretty ghastly.

Furthermore, we’re not wiser or better than our ancestors; we’re just, at most, somewhat better informed.

When asked why she was slow to implement some reforms, the Empress Catherine the Great replied to Voltaire (with whom she correspnded) that “you write on paper; I must write on living human skin, which is infinitely more twitchy and ticklish.”

“If It Aint’ Broke, Don’t Fix It.”

Ken Thomas May 15, 2011 at 2:32 am

I don’t think computers are stealing our dreams, personally. In most of the western world I think it’s just comfort. Plenty of food, decent health, loads of options, lack of danger. Constant entertainment, constant reinforcement, a constant stream of moderately interesting information. All dreams come down to improving one’s situation, or the situation of those who will come after you. If your situation is pretty decent, what’s to strive for?

I guess most of my dreams are about exploration. Man will never again set out to explore something truly unknown. Our technology will always give us a pretty good idea of what we’re going to find before we get there. So what’s left? Exploring new ways to do things better, I guess. New ways to look. New ways to see and experience and relate. New ways to use the new things we have.

DensityDuck May 18, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Dammit, Sterling beat me to it. There’s also the bit from Stephenson’s “Command Line” about how the 20th century is full of examples of what happens when you put people with big dreams in charge of things.

George W Bush had a dream of a world where America was safe from terrorists because everyone was too fat and happy to want to die over political points. Kaiser Wilhelm had a dream of an invincible German empire with him in charge.

It isn’t computers that made dreams small; it’s experience.

Dream machine April 22, 2014 at 4:58 am

I just had a fever induced dream that told me that our dreams were chopped into little squares and our subconscious picks one out at random. there was a machine that talked through telepathy he says that he was the overseer of all dreams. he showed me information that I had never dreamed of he said that peoples experiences are recorded in this giant machine and control the world around us when we are awake using the dream reactions we choose to react to. He showed me a glimpse of my wife cheating on me and said that there was a price for the knowledge of what cannot be seen. He took something from me and i’m feeling like i’m dying inside a little bit. The price of knowledge. The matrix is real and not just a concept we are always dreaming it told me that I knew too much and if I kept on that the government would find me and take me away. Help me!

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