Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Monday, 6 April 2009 11:27 UK

When the network invades your dreams

Man sleep
What does it mean when the network invades our dreams?

The network is so pervasive it now invades our dreams and that is a good thing, says Bill Thompson

Last Saturday morning I woke up and reached for my phone so that I could spend five minutes catching up on e-mail, 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 a 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 video 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.

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Such dreams are one sign of just how important the network is becoming
Bill Thompson

It is not too surprising that Jane's dreams should involve online activity since 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 online 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.

One sign

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.

Database state

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 run the risk of not saying anything sensible about the other, and this is one of those times.

Cry of anguish

Porter's lack of understanding 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 Godzilla in Porter's dreamscape.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet



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