Dreams rewired -
Every age thinks it’s the modern age
The outstanding film “Dreams Rewired” takes viewers on a journey way back in time to the electric media boom of the late 19th century. At the same time, the directors provide a foretaste of technological development and the need for each of us to act in order to secure an open future. Read More
Take a journey with us back to the birth of the telephone, television and cinema, back to the electric media boom of the late 19th century. Over 100 years ago, early electric media were as revolutionary as social media are now. They sparked a fervent sense of utopianism in the public imagination by promising total communication, the annihilation of distance, and an end to war. The technologies were to serve everyone, not just the elite.
The documentary Dreams Rewired offers a new perspective on technological utopias. It is a montage of archival footage recorded between the 1880s and the 1930s. Rare clips from 200 films – spanning dramas, newsreels, artists’ experiments, cartoons, educational films, and scientific recordings – reflect on how technological progress was perceived in the past. A poetic voiceover by actor Tilda Swinton is interspersed with the powerful symphonic soundtrack, weaving together past and present, image and sound.
We talked to two of the three co-directors of Dreams Rewired, Manu Luksch and Martin Reinhart, about the desire and anxiety related to new technologies, the timelessness of the underlying promises and threats, and the need for each of us to act in order to secure an open future.
“Dreams Rewired” is a quite unusual film - it is far from a standard retelling of media history with the usual dates and names and places. Where individuals are mentioned, they’ve predominantly been chosen from among those marginalised by standard history. The narration continually shifts moods and registers, moving between the effervescence of the new and the darkest periods of the 20th century, drawing equally on ‘business-speak’ (Steve Jobs) and literature (Tom Stoppard). What was the idea behind “Dreams Rewired”?
Manu: Technology is often considered an instrument, a means to an end – we can use it to heal or to wound. But that doesn't make it neutral. Every technology has a deeper aspect – it frames our existence, our possibilities. To understand how a particular technology does this, we need to look at its infrastructure, including the legal codes and cultures surrounding it. Dreams Rewired invites us to do this by drawing parallels between our present encounter with big data and ubiquitous computing, and the dawn of the electrical age over 100 years ago.
The effect of the narration in Dreams Rewired is to suspend historical time and local culture for the viewer, revealing the underlying pattern shared by these various technological booms. Do you think that technology belongs to everybody?
Manu: At the level of wheels, screws and engines, yes – we all are free to design and use certain technologies. But no powerful telecommunications medium has ever belonged to everyone, apart from during brief nascent periods. The clearest example in Dreams Rewired is the radio.
Martin: After World War I, when army radio operators demobilized, a decentralized peer-to-peer network developed where everyone had a transmitter and receiver. The communists understood the potential of this radio network as a propaganda tool. Our film includes clips of children assembling radios and encouraging viewers to do the same. The German government, among others, perceived this implementation of radio as an immense threat. All of a sudden, ordinary citizens had access to technology that paralleled the best that the military had. To protect their vested interests, governments began to regulate the spectrum and introduced the broadcast model.
What kind of changes has the Internet brought?
Martin: At one time it seemed to be growing towards an egalitarian, democratic communication network. Today it is a multi-tiered, highly segmented and monetized, surveilled network where we increasingly consume broadcast material. Even better for the media companies, the costs of producing programme material have plummeted, since we’re all keen to ‘create and share’. I don’t want to take anything positive away from the explosion in citizen creation, invention, journalism… but we need to be extremely vigilant about the platforms that we use. Who really owns what you create?
There has been vigorous debate about state agencies spying on citizens, but your film reminds us that the corporations do at least as much, and that we give this information to them quite willingly.
Manu: Our actions are recorded and interpreted by the machines and 'intelligent systems' that we (often voluntarily) surround ourselves with – and entitlements, constraints, even entire identities are constructed from this data. Prediction is big business, and 'big data' is sold as a political and economic panacea (promising efficiency, security, transparency) and a social elixir (the ultimate PA, recommender, matchmaker). We’re willing to be tracked so that we can use GPS navigation, meet up with friends, take advantage of local bargains. Everything is trackable – wants and needs, health, social status, political leanings, credit risk, and the analyses are highly sensitive – supermarket algorithms can diagnose pregnancy in the first weeks from subtle changes in shopping habits. You observe, analyse, and make better-informed choices – but so do those who observe you. Everything you click becomes a data point to be sold, and pretty soon stores will ship products to you even before you realised you wanted them. In such an environment, we’re going to have to fight hard to maintain some autonomy. If we don’t start now, we’ll have lost it for a generation, maybe far longer.
So our choice is between privacy and security or comfort?
Manu: You cannot easily opt out of these systems. To live without a telephone, credit card, and the Internet means abandoning many friends, the formal workplace, a wider community. The choice isn’t between privacy and security. In the first place, the promised security does not exist – consider the pitiful success rates of TSA searches for weapons at US airports – it’s simply a matter of faith. And ‘privacy’ is an increasingly slippery concept at a time when the idea of public space has been so transformed. The choice, if it exists, is much starker – it’s between having some agency, some ability to do things in a wider community, but under complete oversight, and having a very reduced sphere of autonomy – at least by contemporary standards. One way forward is to think more about what autonomy and independence mean. These are difficult questions of community and politics, and the great danger at the moment is that they’re being settled with minimal debate by the powerful, and presented as fait accompli.
What should we do then?
Martin: To give one example: We’d been looking for amateur footage of the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin and found that it mostly depicts what the official footage does. That’s because the mise-en-scène of the city was so perfectly executed that there was no way to look behind it anymore. Everything had been ‘tidied up’ so thoroughly that it was impossible to produce a counter-image.
Today’s corporate logic creates a similar situation. It’s the consumer who asks for optimization – comfortable, personalized offers that save time. The provider then requires information, and seals the argument with an appeal to security: ‘Sure, we don’t have to read your emails, but don’t be surprised if the next bomb hits your town’. You have to resist this hermetically sealed perspective; you have to break it open and search for alternatives.
Time for speculation: What will the near future look like? Will people be able to limit the data that they divulge?
Martin: At first you will be impressed by tomorrow’s toilet, which will automatically analyse your urine and alert your doctor if necessary – but what about when it reveals your risky lifestyle to your insurance company? Can you foresee a legal regime where you might be allowed to withhold this data? How do you create the appropriate market segmentation? Take the food industry as a model: First, the quality of products decreased. Then a niche opened up for high quality, organic, locally sourced food. Some customers were willing to pay more for these ‘quality foods’ (that had previously been the standard). I think exactly the same thing will happen with communication. Companies will offer cheap communication channels with a lot of unhealthy additives, colorants and flavour enhancers, or you can choose to pay for a healthier Internet that does not track you.
So data will be the currency of the future?
Manu: Data channels will multiply with no limits. Not only will there be many more interpersonal channels (so our hearts can beat in sync!), but there will be immeasurably more data streaming between ‘smart objects’, which will transform cities into giant data processors. What will rapidly be lost through these developments is the idea of public space, where you can assemble freely without some commercial transaction or analysis happening. This has begun happening already. The multi-tier info-world that Martin mentioned is also establishing itself. Either you pay with money, or with your personal data. If you don’t want ‘personalised advertising’, then you’d better get your credit card out.
Back to Dreams Rewired: Will technological density and efficacy continue to grow exponentially until we reach the point of singularity?
Martin: Much of the technology we are using today – television, radio, vinyl records, computers – had already been envisioned and conceptually developed by the 1850s. The fuse was lit then, and we’re in the midst of the explosion now. Technological progress does indeed seem to develop exponentially, at least as far as information-processing capacity is concerned. However, the genealogy of cellular phone networks does not include telegraph poles in a simple way. Many clear paths were abandoned; other novel ones discovered. We will continue to be plagued, and blessed, with unintended consequences. I’d claim that we are far from any point of ‘singularity’, where our collective human and machine intelligence sends us into a known and controlled future. It’s a morally toxic idea. Some individuals and groups might feel they’re close to this point, but the deep claim is that we as a species (at least – if not as a colony of interdependent species) are making this ‘great leap forward’. To those driven by this prospect, I’d suggest they look over at their weaker neighbours who’ll definitely be left behind. And I’d suggest they trace the desire back historically – a century ago, the idea that we’d arrived at a singularity was already current. But reality turned out to be rather different. Dreams Rewired shows this, giving a perspective that’s important for counteracting our blind faith in technology.”