Replacement Imagery?

Richard Catlett Wilkerson



As our culture shifted from horse and buggy to Ford and Chevy, our dreams shifted as well. People didn't stop dreaming about horses and buggies, but the frequency of the older vehicles dropped as the newer vehicles replaced them. Was this just a simple issue of vehicular substitution, or do dream cars function psychologically in ways that horses and buggies never did? This question is now being raised in this preliminary study of Computer Dreams for computers and the Digital Revolution in general, as well as for the new mixes and interfaces between human and machine, such as cyborgs, implants, prosthesis, transplants and a host of other robotic/human mixes.

Outside of Jung's exploration of the emergence of Flying Saucers as a contemporary symbol of the Self, (1) I am not familiar with any content analysis studies at this time exploring the issues of symbolic dream evolution. But we can posit some general assumptions. At the most abstract levels, the symbols of cars vs horses may operate in similar ways. Simple equations such as losing one's breaks in car and losing control of the horses in a buggy are bound to elicit similar reactions of fear in the dreamers. Or put in a more associational context, abstracting the loss of vehicular control constellates a set of relations that will be similar in each case, such as fears of death and damage to oneself and others, fear of loss of control in general, heroic and creative attempts, successes and failures to re-gain control, abandoning control issues altogether, and so on.

From the viewpoint of a critical theory, we can also make the assumption that those who do interpret either their own or other's dreams will apply similar abstract categories to either automobiles or horses and buggies. That is, an interpreter can be expected to look for a familiar abstract category such as vehicles, means of conveyance, control of destiny, control of oneself and other such abstract categories which are suggested by, and then applied to the dream image.

A question arises here whether the dream image can supply a new abstract category (can function psychologically in a novel way) or whether the dream image is forever condemned to conforming to categories the dreamer or interpreter has prior to the interpretation, prior to the assigning of the image to category. It may seem that this question would be beyond the dream as categories are usually developed before the dream and applied to a dream from the outside. But dreamwork has never been so dogmatic, at least not in its best applications and uses. Dreamworkers often emerge from an encounter with a dream image with a new category, a new perspective, a new viewpoint, a new psychological structure or attitude, a new sense. This occurs even when at the beginning of the dreamwork, old and common categories are initially assigned.

We now have three worlds or realms that are being juggled. The first is the realm of content. Usually this is referred to as the empirical, concrete realm of the dream objects. [To be truly empirical, it is the recorded dream texts in this study, but let's not split hairs yet]
The second realm includes the way these dreams are expressed, the way they are recalled, recorded, retold, as well as the way they are interpreted and otherwise encountered. The third realm consists of the relations of the first two to one another and to other content/expressions which they envelope or are enveloped by in subsequent encounters.

This leads to a reformulation of the original question about dream and computers. Originally we asked whether computer dreams were simply replacing some earlier image the way cars replaced horses, or whether there was something more fundamental occurring which would produce a new category. This question became problematic right away, even with the simplistic car/horse as means of travel analogy.

Further, unlike the horse/car exchange, computers serve several functions. They "replace" (at least time-use wise) telephones, televisions, typewriters, magazines, newspapers, records and CD's, tape recorders, clocks, billboards, calendars, cameras, videos and more.

This is even further complicated by the way the computer invests itself in the very structure of these other functions and objects that were once analog, converting them all over to digital. The digital revolution is not just much about having new weird objects in your house that are hard to use, but rather in the massive change in the infrastructure of culture and cultural products. Conversion to digital is not swapping an analog clock for a digital clock, but the creation of a digital plane of being. In a sense, the Digital Revolution is somewhat like a virus itself, which invades analog production and reproduces itself within the old analog objects and processes, replacing all analog functions with digital processes. And along the way, new processes are discovered that were not possible with analog functioning, the most important right now being that digital reproduction can be exact, collapsing or imploding the map into the territory, the copy with the original. With analog production, there was often the attempt to exactly reproduce the original, but with digital production, their is no difference between the copy and the original, thus imploding the whole concept of originality. As Baudrillard (2) has noted, we begin to drift from dealing with objects to maps of objects, from reality to simulations of reality.

Thus there are two significant complications with computer dream images and the investigation of novel categories. The first is that we can look at computers as not being in any previous category and not replacing anything that came before it, or we can view computers as replacing all things that came before it, all culture products and processes, including the concept of category itself. There is its novel aspect, and its viral aspect.

In the novel-object aspect, the car/horse analogy is shown as incorrect. Attempting to say that cars replacing horses is like computers replacing X would be a fallacy of Orders. A more fair analogy than cars vs horses would be something like mechanical engines replacing animals. The Digital Revolution is more akin to the something like the Industrial Revolution. A comparable dream study in history will have to be something like the replacement of animal dreams with machine dreams. The horse and car would simple be one example of this larger process at work.

In its viral aspect, the Digital Revolution is more akin to the Neolithic Revolution. Not only is there a change in the materials that make up the cultural objects, but also a whole new set of cultural objects. The cultivation of plants and animals is akin to the cultivation of information. Fields of information are now cultivated and circulated and exchanged. Just as stone objects give way to metal objects, analog objects give way to digital objects. Sometimes it is the same bowl, but the substance it is made of will dramatically alter the society that uses it.

Computers as symbols, as engines of psychological production, will tend to both mimic in dreams their daytime uses, and to go far beyond these uses. We can see this in computer dreams where people fall into their computer monitors like Alice through the Looking Glass (3) or where the computer becomes a flying carpet that takes the dreamer to distant lands. Although there are binary dynamics at work in animal biology, by the time the dream is formed, these digital codes probably have little to do with the dream's content. Still, simulations of digital functions continue to operate at the level of the dream.

And so an interesting collision of forces appear in the computer dream, those forces which will attempt to simulate digital computer operations as they exist in the waking world, and those which attempt to give other expressions to the dream computer. The results are themselves a human-machine mix, which is bound to differ from either and produce novel processes, to produce breaks into the flow of each of the previous processes and open new planes across which these symbolic cyborgs will exist.

For articles and data on Computer and Digital Dreams, see the DreamGate Computer Dreams section.


Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2001 June). Digital Dreaming Series: Computer Dreams VI :: Digital Dreaming: Emergence or Replacement Imagery? Electric Dreams 8(6). Retrieved May 26, 2001 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

(1) Jung, C. G. (1978/1964). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. (RFC Hull, trans). Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

(2) Baudrillard, Jean (1983). Simulations. Semiotext(e):New York, NY

(3) Wilkerson, Richard C. (2001). DreamGate.com Computer Survey 2 :: 02/14/2001 - 3/15/2001. DreamGate Publishing: San Francisco, CA


Richard Wilkerson is a Bay Area educator and communications specialist who has been teaching dreamwork since 1985. He is the author of several texts and has been the editor of Electric Dreams since 1994. His most recent works include the book A Brief History of Dream Sharing: Theory, Techniques and Cyberspace, and "Dream Sharing in Cyberspace" from Stanley Krippner & Mark Waldman's Anthology Dreamscaping: New and Creative Ways to Work with your Dreams.  Richard Wilkerson is the Chair of the Electronic Communications Committee for the Association for the Study of Dreams and webmaster for their homepage (www.asdreams.org). He owns the  communications company, DreamGate.com.