What’s Your Totem?

The fascinating aspect about dreams is not what is unreal, but the parts which are so real that we can’t confront them when we’re awake. Events in  our lives so horrid or disturbing, we’d rather only dream about them. Happy dreams are radical dreams, like happiness, which is a radical emotion, the constant being the state of despair, the never ending river of nightmares.

While explaining the concept of the ‘dream heist’ in the 2010 sci-fi classic Inception, Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) explains to Adriadne (Ellen Page) how to navigate and build her dreams, how to seize the ‘inception’ in the now very memorable scene at the Pont de Bir-Hakeim bridge in Paris, France. One would notice that there can be no inception of a dream – we begin from either anywhere, trace our ways through everywhere and end up probably in neverland. To structurize a dream is to defeat its very purpose i.e. the freedom to be anybody in anything and anywhere. Another key aspect, as explained to Adriadne in the movie is about time and space in a dream, time being non-linear and much slower than real time. Five minutes in real time equals an hour in dream time.

In a much distant and real world of Seattle, Washington, a journalist named Brad Stone is following up with the ultra-busy and ultra-intelligent technocrat, now in the legion of the Rockefellers and the Du Ponts – Jeff Bezos, Founder & CEO of Amazon. Bezos, famous for his usual reprimand to his executives and employees alike – “why are you wasting my life?” explains to Stone the necessity to not let a minute be wasted in the age that he rules, because “7 days on the Internet equals 7 days in real life.” And being the person who rules the Internet today, he certainly knows what he’s talking about.

In his Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, David Weinberger remarks that Internet time supposedly is seven times faster than real-world time. And more important than the speed of time, on the Internet you are in control of your time. Weinberger notes that Internet time is threaded. He defines a thread as a set of messages on a topic. This means that conversations have two dimensions: chronological, flowing in time, and systematic, meaning not time-based. Threads bind the flux of the Internet into meaningful currents and make it possible to leave a context and come back. Whereas in a real-world conversation, topics come one upon another in a hyperthreaded medium like the Internet, free of the drag of space and our permission-based social structure. You’d remember what X commented on your Facebook profile picture much better than what he might’ve said to you about your dress (in real life) some days ago, because you can always get back to it on the Internet – nothing is ever lost on the Internet and as recent happenings have revealed, not even if you wish it were lost. There is no immediacy in the repercussions and consequences as is to be found in the real life of the users. If we are to believe in Carl Jung’s ‘duality of man’, it’s not surprising that the Mr. Hyde in us are mostly to be found while we’re browsing the Internet, free of any inhibitions, at our complete horrible naked selves. Platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram have gone a step further in ensuring this absolute freedom and by negating the classic belief in “irreversible changes such as spoken words and shot arrows” by putting in a new feature of deleting sent messages before the receiver sees it (on WhatsApp) and ‘unsending’ messages (on Instagram).

Within the strictures of philosophy, time on the Internet as in sync with time in dreams is what Martin Heidegger argued for in his lecture on The Concept on Time (delivered to the Malburg Theological Society in 1924), rejecting the entire Western philosophical conception of time, starting from the fashion of Plato – not that the fundamental unit of time is a moment, but that it is a story, a string of stories. A string of stories tied together by our clicks and our attention towards it.

A common counter argument to this and a generally accepted notion is about the ‘transiency’ of things on the Internet – that things on the Internet last shorter than Tinder relationships. This may have been true a few years ago, but now the shift is increasingly towards permanency, towards creating an industry of mental archives and digital footprints. Let us take the concept of ‘stories’ which are well replicated across all social media but originally started by Snapchat and Instagram. Now users can archive their stories on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (but not on WhatsApp). This indicates a paradigm shift in the way these corporations want people to use the feature of the ‘story’ which was originally all about transience.

With such paradigm shifts, there arrive two pertinent things to realise as far as time and its causality with user experience is experienced. Firstly about the concretisation of the concept of time on the Internet which pursues Heidegger’s concept of time – it being a string of stories, non-linear and very complicatedly inter-connected without the connection ever being lost, and secondly, and more importantly (since it concerns the user experience), that such paradigm shifts do indicate our inevitable although not sacred marriage with our devices – a sort of an extension of our brains as stored in our devices, as recently observed by the prototype cyborg himself – Elon Musk while in conversation with Joe Rogan in his now infamous ‘smoke-weed-drop-stock-price’ interview. This of course departs from the fetishized dream of superhuman cyborgs sold by movies like The Terminator, because this doesn’t mean that we’re an advanced species but only that we’re connected with devices which are control us and are much faster than we ever will be.

The Italian Marxist theorist Franco Berardi wrote in Biopolitics and Connective Mutation that “the rhythms of the technological mutation are a lot faster than those of the mental mutation. Hence the expansion of cyberspace is incommensurably faster than the human brain’s capacity to expand and adapt (to cybertime). We can increase the length of time an organism is exposed to information, but experience can’t be intensified beyond a certain limit. Acceleration provokes an impoverishment of experience, given that we are exposed to a growing mass of stimuli that we can’t digest in the intensive modes of enjoyment and knowledge.”

Given this wide incommensurability coupled with the centralisation of information towards certain big corporations such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, users have been reduced to mere clicks for the publications which must route themselves through these platforms. Now one might argue that the media has a long history of sensationalising things – yellow journalism. And that’s absolutely true, but what’s frightening is how less accountability is attached to such instances of yellow journalism on the Internet, how much they can get away with and how often so. It’s all about the reactions, all about the number of clicks. There is absolutely no time for either the editorial to ponder and publish nor is there time for the reader and retrospect and react. When it comes to making money on the Internet, the ultimate exchange of ideas is overpowered by the exchange of clicks for money. Who controls the most clicks wins.

Saito: Have you come to kill me? I’ve been waiting for someone…

Cobb: Someone from a half remembered dream.

Saito: Cobb? Impossible. We were young men together. I’m an old man.

Cobb: Filled with regret…

Saito: Waiting to die alone…

Cobb: I’ve come back for you… to remind you of something. Something you once knew…

[the top spins without end]

Cobb: That this world is not real.

Where we’re moving towards is the stage of techno limbo – a point of no return from our world in social media which will become our new reality, given that we assume time to be intelligible. It won’t be a constructed reality because a constructed reality can’t be real but it’ll be our new reality where the new real and the unreal will unravel differently. Just like in Inception, the chemist Yusuf explains the limbo about the multiple people dreaming away in his basement – “they come here to wake up. This is their reality. Who’re you to tell them otherwise?” Similarly, users are logging onto social media to resume their lives, to make sense of their time, to live a reality much more exciting, something possible only in a dream. The line between what is real and what is virtual is becoming very thin.


Swagat Baruah is writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.

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