Notes for
The Collins Talk
Virtual Science:
Dreams, Memexes, and MMORPGs

Doug Davis
Haverford College

February 21, 2003

Three vignettes: Freud’s fin de sičcle self-publishing as he transforms himself from research neuro-anatomist to psycho-diagnostician to proto-postmodernist dream-reader; Doug’s own geek self-construction  from Sidi Qasm Apple II to 4 College Lane XP; Mike and Nick’s articulation of what’s at stake in cyberspace and initial steps in getting personality psychology there. I conclude with my current project on youth and cyberculture in Morocco and my related consulting role with NITLE’s  Al-Musharaka.

The Dream of the Botanical Monograph

If we may speak of a "technology" of text production, as distinct from speech, then it may be fair to say that what Freud was constructing in the last several years of the 19th-century was such a technology, grounded in a simple proto-theory of "mental topography" -- the conscious/known as the subset of that which is "pre-known" to which attention is drawn, and the unconscious/unknown as that to which attention cannot be paid except under the very special circumstances of free association and interpretation Freud adduces dream by dream.  The most richly textured of these examples -- "Irma," "Self-dissection," "The Botanical Monograph" -- drew me in the last year of graduate school as I was trying to understand Freud's "metapsychology" in relation to the then-new cognitive psychology that was sweeping behaviorism before it.  These dreams became texts and exercises for my Haverford students in the 1970s and 1980s, and I got used to using them both as guides to what was most original in the early Freud and as case studies for the "epigenetic" identity psychology I had found in Erikson.  Freud at forty stood poised between a childhood-recalling adolescence and a childhood-reconstructing old age in a way 30-something Doug could teach with conviction and about which 40-something Doug seemed about to write a book of his own on the startling emergence of the Freud we know in the last five years of the 19th century.1 I got as far as my last Faculty Research Talk, and then my course web pages became the venue of choice. Freud's unpacking of his own bookishness at 42 allows him to fulfill the wish that Wilhelm Fliess has just articulated for him, to see the dream book open before him and himself turning its pages. As to what “specimens” are pressed in its pages, Freud tempts us but leaves each dream’s ‘navel’ un-plumbed. I have imagined often -- and as recently as two years ago -- that my last major scholarly project would be to edit Freud’s first edition for the hypertext presentation it so obviously craves, allowing the semantic networks linking dream to dream and dreams to life to become apparent. For a variety of reasons, I’d now like to inspire others to take on this task.

The story I tell a quarter of each freshman class, about Freud, and Erikson, and Gilligan, is old-fashioned.  If I cannot say I rejoice in the word, I am at least resigned to it.  It took me a long time to put together this very complicated picture of how personality and culture fit together, and it has been hard to shake loose of it in the absence of anything else remotely as complex and well integrated.  In any case, this introductory psychology way of thinking of things set up at least a verbal matrix into which students can imagine plugging their own experiences of self, and other, and place.  And I do succeed in persuading a few of them that -- as old Isak Borg of "Wild Strawberries" can be peeled back by Erik Erikson into all seven of his preceding epigenetic stages -- so can Sigmund Freud's note of thanks to the Burgomeister of Pribor be read convincingly in light of Freud's experiences of middle age, of adolescence, and perhaps of childhood.  If I succeed in making the students believe that the various stages of one's life are important in relation to one another, and if I get them to at least strongly suspect that they will remain curious about the course of their own lives, they too will become memex-builders (vide infra), if given the time and opportunity.

As We May Think

It would be good to pause here and read at least the footnoted text from Vannevar Bush’s 1945 Atlantic piece. Bush was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war, and he would have known all about new computing, remote sensing, medical and other military technologies – including that of the bomb about to fall on Hiroshima – but he chose to fantasize about a personal information system he dubbed the “memex.” A browse of my diaries suggests I found Bush in 1996, just when I needed him.

What’s it like, to build and maintain a memex? This talk and the short bio on your programs are of course mutually-referential, as each phrase in the bio suggests a page of the memex, and as the memex contains this and other versions and types of D2 autobiography. For many years (since I took my first microcomputer, an Apple II plus, to Morocco in January, 1982) I have kept a diary on my personal system.  This diary has always made mention of my other personal system projects, and it has for years included at least the occasional screen shot.  Since the Web, the diary has been hypertextual, peppered with bulleted lists of Web sites I have visited in the course of the day's work and salted with my comments on my own and other people's work.  The diary can be linked to screen shots of what I’ve been seeing on my digital desk at various moment in a day. I seem to have accumulated something like 2000 of these in the past several years. A diary is, of course, primarily an aide memoire.  I turn to mine when I am a loss for the origin of a phrase that comes to mind, when I want to link to some person or a topic I know I've run across in recent years, when I want to immerse myself in some historical period or personal drama.  I often drop fairly lengthy quotes into my diary, along with a link either to the Web resource quoted or to my local copy thereof. The 20 year diary forms the core of my "memex" (Vannevar Bush, 1945).[1] It seems to me that Vannevar Bush got the technical details of such a system almost completely wrong, when he had clear idea about them at all.  He seems to have imagined building a memex around some improvement in Xerox and punch-card technologies, and he saw it as linked to a desk-like appliance, feeding on paper.  Indeed, the nature of the digital revolution seems to have escaped most everybody.  What Bush did do, at least for me, was to suggest that -- as the care and feeding of a memex becomes both a goal and a daily activity of life – watching/studying/helping people start to build these personal information systems would surely be the most interesting way to spend the rest of a career. 

Memex pages

The Linking Book. In designing the kind of personal system that would be, in Gerry Levin's language, "endearing," timing is crucial.[2]  When an idea pops to mind, we have a certain kind of access to it for a few minutes, let's say, during which we can easily associate other ideas to it, make both inferences and leaps of logic, and realize the connection of this idea to others that are or will be important to us.  If during this time we could both record the core idea and its associations and link each of these nodes in our associative process with memories represented as text, or image, or sound.  A DSL or better Internet connection, a portable computer with wireless, a well tuned browser, a comfortable word processor, and a speech-recognizing engine are all necessary, in my opinion.  They are not, of course, sufficient.  Analogy is particularly suspect when we leap from a conventional and accustomed technological domain -- the internal combustion engine, say -- to the emerging world of personal systems in cyberspace.  Nonetheless, I make bold to suggest that something of the comfort we all achieved as teenagers in driving a car -- succeeding as it did the terror of each turn, each entry into the passing lane, each attempt to park, when we were in the driver's ed -- will be necessary if even the fairly mundane predictions about the importance of computers in our lives are realized.[3]  To be sure, the computers are getting better; and we may indeed discover one day that they do not require the patience, the attention to nit-picking detail, the tolerance for insult, the expense of emotional as well as physical capital, with which we now associate them.  At present however one can only be struck by the depth of the ambivalence, and the open hostility -- the shame and the anger -- with which successful intellectuals talk about their office computers.

“An enlarged intimate supplement to … memory” – yes, that’s what I’ve been after. As the realization of the components of Bush’s dream arrive, each proves daunting, and seductive. Mastering each (the PDA, the digital camera and recorder, the DVD and RW drives, the wireless mouse), and segueing from one to the other, fluently – keeping the memex at hand and attuned to my every information need – that’s what it’s been about, from Zenkat Filistin to Ossawinnamakee to College Lane. I’ve tried to accomplish this by maintaining a hypertexual (and crudely multi-media) diary, started in 1981 on the eve of Susan’s and my departure for Morocco with the Adolescence Project and maintained through 20 years, eight operating systems, and nearly 20 PCs.

Webster’s Weekly. For me, the early conversations with Jon Schull and Bryan Knatz about what “Mozaic” represented as a successor to FTP, Gopher, and WAIS were electrifying. Jon came next door from 308 Sharpless after his first crash-free hour with mosaic and said, “I’ve been to cyberspace, and it’s great!” Then Bryan called one day early in the summer of ’94, to invite me to help him create the first weekly features electronic magazine of the web, as psychology columnist. My first column ran just over 500 words, and situated my interest in personal information systems vis a vis a dream-recording computer.  I took unseemly pride in many of these brief meanders into cyberspace and its pleasures and discontents -- including a summer/winter pair of “virtual reality” sketches -- and I still fiddle occasionally with the set of Webster's pieces resident on the Haverford server -- fixing broken links, adding cross-links among the columns, or adding a hypertextual reference to something more recent on which it seems to me the still-anticipated visitor might wish to browse.  The theme of the first several columns was the striking gender difference that had become apparent in responses to the hard-and software available at the dawn of the Web.  I produced two pieces that were sketches of my own fantasies of a virtual reality -- a "holodeck" -- improvement on the click-and-go environment and which I've given you a look.2  I saw immediately the charm and power of the Web, and I think I said so clearly in 1994-95. Can’t say I feel I’ve had much citation of my prescience, but you can browse the linked archive of these pieces and see what you think. As the dream recorded in all its puzzling complexity seems almost transparent when the diary is reopened months or years later, so these summer and winter pages of the Ossawinnamakee linkingbook speak to me eight years later of earlier reflections on web teaching, researching, and living. They now invite me to think about what I want from the years ahead. 

Sidi ROM

In the most delightful moment of my pursuit of the project I pretentiously called "Bringing the Networked Future to Morocco," documented in a Webster’s piece I wrote on coming home from a weekend Rabat conference, in October, ’94, I spun a fantasy that still guides my cross-cultural work (see the archive). The Moroccan boy I evoked at that “The first Days of the Internet in Morocco” is practicing to be a denizen of the digital future I’m describing, as he sits in the corner of the shabby, noisy schoolroom with his hypertexual Qur’an, caresses the flowing text with a leftward movement of his right hand on the mouse, lets words of power fill his consciousness. What if we could bring the networked future – email, games, libraries, memexes, and all – to as unlikely a place as Halima’s home town? What will Yassine and Karima have to say to Katie and Kashi, when they meet -- as elves and hobbits, as sims, as themselves -- on-line?

Befriending Ogres and Wood-Elves

Knowing the right questions to ask of the hundreds of thousands of people who now have daily experience of real relationships in virtual places -- and getting those folk of Norrath and the neighboring kingdoms of the MMORPG world to answer, at length, on their own time, and for no more reward than to be heard and clearly reported – is daunting indeed; and no one does it better than Nick Yee.


What am I up to now?, Well, aside from being two weeks behind in two of my classes (these are ones I’m teaching, mind you) since I’m revising both in light of Fall, 2002 fieldwork in Morocco, I’ve a consult in progress on Al-Musharaka (“The Collective”), the faculty outreach portion of the “Arab culture and Civilization” project of the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE, pronounced “nightly”). I have described this project and its relation to my own teaching in a just-published piece in Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors.


Arab and Islamic Cultures: An Initiative to Develop Online Curricular Offerings and Inter-Institutional Collaboration. NITLE.

Bush, Vannevar. (1945). As We May Think. The Atlantic Monthly. (open source link)

D2 HyperResume at

Davis, D.A. (2003). Milennial Teaching. Academe, v. 89, 1, pp. 19-22.

Doug Davis. 1994-95. Erotic Computing. Webster’s Weekly.

Davis, D.A. (1990a). Writing Freud. transcription of Haverford College Faculty Research Talk, November 29, 1990.

Davis, D.A. (1990b). Freud's unwritten case. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 7, 185-209.

Dunn, Ashley. (1996). Writing That Defined Computing. The New York Times, CyberTimes, November 6.

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. On-line version of A. A. Brill (1911) translation [Classics in the History of Psychology].

Freud, Sigmund. (1905). Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Standard Edition, 8,  70-71.

He united in himself the characteristics of the greatest men. He carried his head askew like Alexander; he always had to wear a toupet like Caesar; he could drink coffee like Leibnitz; and once he was properly settled in his armchair, he forgot eating and drinking like Newton, and had to be woken up like him; he wore his wig like Dr. Johnson, and he always left a breeches-button undone like Cervantes.
(pp. 70-71 [from Lichtenberg, “The Great Spirit”])

Freud, Sigmund. (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents. Standard Edition, 21, 91-92.

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. ... Future ages will bring with them new and possibly unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man's likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our present investigation, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his God-like character.

Freud, S. (1931). Letter to the Burgomeister of Pribor. Standard Edition, 21, 259.

I offer my thanks to the Burgomeister of the town of Pribor-Freiberg, to the organizers of this celebration and to all those who are attending it, for the honor they have done me in marking the house of my birth with this commemorative tablet from an artist's hand- and this during my lifetime and while the world around us is not yet agreed in its estimate of my work.

I left Freiberg at the age of three and visited it when I was sixteen, during my school holidays, as a guest of the Fluss family, and I have never returned to it again. Since that time much has befallen me; my labors have been many, I have experienced some suffering and happiness as well, and I have had a share of success- the common medley of human life. At seventy-five it is not easy for me to put myself back into those early times; of their rich experiences but few relics remain in my memory. But of one thing I can feel sure: deeply buried within me there still lives the happy child of Freiberg, the first-born son of a youthful mother, who received his first indelible impressions from this air, from this soil. (Freud, 1931, p. 259)

Hall, Justin. (Homepage)

Oswalt, Michael. (2000) Transmutations of Self: The Personality of Cyberspace Through the Modern Video Game. Senior thesis. Department of Psychology, Haverford College.

Yee, Nicholas. (2003). The Hub: Exploring the Psychology of MMORPG's. Website at

Revised 3/2/03
Copyright © Douglas A. Davis, 2003.

I have hidden underlining for the many hyperlinks in the text above, for “readability.”


[1] Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail.

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client's interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

In the outside world, all forms of intelligence whether of sound or sight, have been reduced to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted. Inside the human frame exactly the same sort of process occurs. Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another? It is a suggestive thought, but it hardly warrants prediction without losing touch with reality and immediateness.

Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.
The Atlantic Online)

[2] He was speaking in Sharpless Auditorium, a decade ago, about “The Future of Multimedia,” and he described his plan to bring the entire Warner film archive to a set-top box. Since this would serve more information than anyone would want to review seriatem, Levin described a variety of ways each member of a family would be able to browse the archive, and said Time-Warner had partnered with firms like Industrail Light and Magic because this new user interface had to be ‘endearing’. I thought to myself,  “Yes!”  Surely having on one's desktop an icon pointing to thumbnails of all one's favorite moments in film would be "endearing."

[3] Recall that the car – setting for the experience of rock music, slow cruises of Main Street, and erotic evenings on country roads – was more than simple transportation.

Note: These are not the actual words I spoke in my Collins talk on 2/21/03, but rather the notes from which I constructed a presentation that ran most of an hour. A video archive of that event exists. Links here will in due course fail, though I may from time to time fix or add some.