Erotic Computing

EC 2.3 (10-7-94)

by Douglas Davis, Ph.D.
Time's passed, and now it seems
Ever'body's havin' them dreams.

In Webster's 1.12 I confessed my belief that the digital diary, with evolving search tools and multimedia markup capabilities, would not only get us back to Woodstock (I or II) but also give each of us the kind of handle on our personal psychology that seems to me the ultimate game. I take as my model for such a self-examination Freud's preoccupation with his own dreams a century ago, and the hermeneutic miracle -- his 1900 Interpretation of Dreams -- that resulted. One seeks re-entry into the terrain of one's dreams (cf. Adventure) at peril both of making no sense of the strange doings found there and of making a different sense than the mental events that gave rise to the dream -- but the process of recalling, recording, and associating to the images of the dream is fertile ground for self-understanding, IMHO. In my search these past few days for another example of the kind of "erotic" involvement with personal information systems around which I've been spinning these columns, I retrieved the following, from a diary file:

May 5, 1990: Amazing laptop dream:

I was in some kind of camp or conference setting with a group that may have been [an interdisciplinary professional society to which I belong].[1] In the first image it seemed to be evening, and I entered a small room (it seemed my wife was behind me) and saw several people I seemed to recognize. One was K.L., and she stood up to greet me. She was very old and stooped. I hugged her, and wondered why I was acting fond.[2] Then I talked briefly with a very short, buxom black woman whom I wondered (after we'd exchanged friendly greetings) whether I really knew.

A new scene had me in a large dining room, apparently waiting for lunch.[3] I moved one of several tables and helped arrange some place settings. I sat down at the left of several other people whom I apparently didn't know. The place across from me was empty, but Bob S. walked up and sat down after turning quickly to look behind him. I greeted him (seemed we hadn't seen each other in quite a while, yet there was no real surprise) and commented that he's always had that gesture of looking behind him, which I said -- joking for the others at the table -- was like a swordsman glancing around to make sure someone wasn't about to slip a dagger into his ribs.[4]

In a third scene I was outside in what seemed a mountainous setting, maybe with picnic tables. Many other people around, some Haverford colleagues. I had the T1000SE[5] with me, was eager to show it off. I started it up, then seemed to be away from it, looked back to see John B and someone else fiddling with it. John had the top folded all the way back and seemed to be looking down on a bunch of lights as he worked the keyboard. I was a little concerned, then was holding the machine, apparently to demonstrate Tetris. I opened the top, and it was partly detached. I was worried/angry, was able to rehook two curved plastic protrusions at either end of the screen section. I saw that the screen and white plastic were covered with scrawled writing in pencil. I was furious (though I realized I could probably erase the writing), knew John was responsible, and called over (he was with several others some distance away) angrily asking who did this. He called back nonchalantly that [some common chemical] would easily take off the writing.

Then I was looking at the screen, which had Tetris but in a much more complicated, jet-black on shiny white display. The game seemed to have a large number of variants accessed by pressing the arrow keys. One gave a second simultaneous game display[5] with much more elaborate block shapes rapidly forming, others seemed like animated cartoon adventures. One may have been a harem scene, and finally I found one that had German writing on the screen and seemed to be set in Nazi Germany. After several scenes with soundtrack in German or accented English I was watching an elaborate race of two lines of old cars through a forest. I seemed able to control one of the cars with my arrow keys, and I tried speeding up and slowing down. The commentary was like a race announcer, and I deliberately sped up so that I was likely to crash. I apparently did, to excited commentary, then found myself on a steep mountainside. I was sprawled on a narrow track or path, was worried about sliding down. I realized that this was still part of the game display, and that I could probably <esc> from it at any time. As I wondered what to do I noticed a stone marker to my right, on which was a number over 200,000. This seemed to be my game score, and I realized it was very high but that this was because I had left the game running by itself for quite a while.

Suddenly, at paragraph four, I seem to have slipped into the gizmo. The sensation was uncanny, and exciting. I was fascinated by this dream four years ago when it occurred, and I read it then to several people as an example of the interplay of my fascination with computers and with dreams. Until I was thinking about this column yesterday, however, I did not connect the dream with a marvelous book I had read three months before (as I learned from a search of my diaries), viz.

Hardison, O.B. (1989). Disappearing through the skylight: Culture and technology in the twentieth century. New York: Viking.

If an innovation is basic, simply because it is so, a generation after it has been introduced, it becomes part of the world as given -- part of the shape of consciouness, you might say, rather than the content of consciousnes (Hardison, 1989, p. xii).

Hardison was until his recent death University Professor at Georgetown University and a founding member of the Quark Club, which the book jacket describes as "a group of scientists and humanists interested in cultural change." His marvelously fertile meander across 20th century art, architecture, Dadaist poetry, quantum physics, fractal mathamatics, and computer science provided me with a metaphor I love: of a piece of human consciousness and selfhood disappearing through the small window of the screen, as the technology becomes increasingly "transparent to thought." Chapter 29 ("Adventure") is especially fine, with its segue from the branching text game to an imagined hypertext markup of Shakespeare's Tempest. I have recalled as I write these notes that I took Hardison's book with me to the February, 1990, meeting connected with the first scene of the dream, and read the last chapters about hypertextuality on the plane ride back across the country.

In my day job, teaching bright undergraduates the psychodynamic psychology Freud invented in the late 1890s, I treat his 1900 classic The Interpretation of Dreams as both the one essential Freud text and the well-spring of modern (and postmodern) hermeneutic psychology. Each of his own dreams illustrates the hypertexual richness, the open-endedness, and therefore the "erotic" charge, of these daily steps through the looking glass; and none is really "interpreted" in the sense we bring to Freud -- translated in to a univocal statement in a mundane idiom.

[1]This society meets every February -- usually in a warm climate -- and provides a welcome relief from Pennsylvania winters. On several occassions I have arrived at the conference hotel and immediately recognized some of those already clustered around the bar or reception desk.

 [2]It seemed likely on recalling the dream that KL, a rather difficult colleague several years older than I, had for some reason been substituted for AV, a much older collegue whom I regard as a mentor. I had attended the previous February's meeting of the society to give a paper on Moroccan research done years before, partly under the sponsorship of AV and her husband.

 [3]This scene seemed to me on the following day to be partly based on a preceding-day lunch at a psychiatric institute with a psychoanalyst friend and three colleagues of his. Such meetings often became a setting for me to show off my knowledge of Freud's early psychoanalytic theorizing.

 [4]Bob was one of my closest friends growing up in rural Minnesota. Smaller than the rest of us, he was the most pugnacious. I dream of him occasionally in settings reminiscent of childhood.

 [5]My third Toshiba (™) laptop, with 3M. of static RAM. The purchase, configuration, and pleasure in using this computer are major features of my 1990 diary.

 [6]Some of this probably stemmed from showing my then-13-year-old daughter Deluxepaint the previous day, and her frustration with the split detail display. We were both moderately avid Tetris players at that time. John is a somewhat older faculty colleague with whom I have occasional and friendly -- but not cordial -- dealings. He does not seem especially interested in computers.

Next week: a Webster weview.

{Note: Five and a half years later, this column came up in a conversation with Washington Post writer John Schwartz about my student Nick Yee's study of the massively-multiplayer game EverQuest, leading to Schwartz's fascinating May 17, 2000, piece "Silicon Dreams," © 2000 The Washington Post Company}

Douglas Davis, Ph.D. <>

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Copyright © Douglas Davis 1994. All rights reserved.