Law in the Internet Society

The Death of the Dream Censor

-- By DanaDelger - 18 Nov 2009

“Social-networking Web site Facebook Inc. is quietly working on a new advertising system that would let marketers target users with ads based on the massive amounts of information people reveal on the site about themselves…. Next year, Facebook hopes to expand on the service, one person says, using algorithms to learn how receptive a person might be to an ad based on readily available information about activities and interests of not just a user but also his friends -- even if the user hasn't explicitly expressed interest in a given topic…..[It] figure[s] out what people might want before they've specifically mentioned it.”

Vahuni Vara, “Facebook Gets Personal Ad Targeting Plan,” Wall St. Journal, August 23, 2007

Since even before we first began scratching out narrative on the dark walls of the cave, we have longed to debiologize memory--- to preserve experience in a shape less fickle than the physical self. This is a desire born of necessity: Nothing more than the heavy firing of neural artillery, memory is as fragile as the tissue which embodies it, and so the life of man has been a constant search for way of escape from its total caprice. Today, this escape is not only easy, it is already done: turn on the Facebook and let the ticking seconds of your daily life find permanent rest: memory, immortalized.

The biological memory, fragile though it is, does not travel alone, unmoored; it has for a constant companion its twin: that is to say, dreams—the pieces of our day made ciphered, unreadable, and spit back into us while we sleep. Awake, the brain traces fire along neural pathways to form memory; in sleep, it reconstructs a narrative from the fragmented and bleating ashes of that loop. But if the dream is the fractured reconstruction of memory, and our memories are now machinized, does it not follow that our digital selves too are susceptible of dreaming? Yes, yes, the digital self too dreams, but they are different in kind and more dangerous than those born of the body.

In the The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud teaches that dreams are a means of wish fulfillment, symbolic reenactment of those wishes that have failed to find gratification in our waking life. But it is not our conscious desires that give rise to dreams, nor the longings we can readily identify. Rather, it is the workings of our unconscious that do so, and dreams are the child of the conflict produced by the unfulfilled nature of those wishes that lurk beneath the surface. We try to suppress, push down, down, down the forbidden want, but we cannot kill our desire; in the dream, all is revealed, even if the nature of our longing is such that our mind must censor it.

The dream censor is responsible for the distorted vision of dreaming. When is a cigar not just a cigar? When your subconscious wish cannot be fulfilled in the context of the social mores of the world in which you live--- here enters the dream censor. It is by this light that we can understand the digital dream. When the Facebook machine looks at your profile, reads your digital memory and aggregates the small movements of your day-to-day life to produce the target ads which reveal the subconscious wish, it is dreaming. But where the biologic dream is opaque, the digital dream is crystalline. What do you want? Ask your dreams and come up with only a handful of runes. Ask your Facebook, and all your wants are known. It reveals the wish before you know you had it, but here there is no censor to keep you from the truth.

On the surface, this may not trouble. There is perhaps an autonomy interest lost in giving control of the digital dream to another, but who indeed feels that he controls his bodily dreams at all? For many, the gee-whiz world of new products meant just for you! is a sufficient trade-off for all sorts of losses to privacy and freedom more tangible than the harm to the “digital dream.” But this misunderstands the equation, for there is a real and heavy price for the loss of our control over what may seem an ethereal fiction. Return to the question: Why does the dream censor keep us from the true nature of our desire? Why do we dream at all? We dream, and we dream obscured, because not all wishes should be fulfilled.

In Freud's view, the dream-wish is suppressed because of its awful nature; the dream wish is incest and murder, sexual depravity and blood. In order for civilization (not civilized society, but civilization ) to survive, these desires, which all men share, must be constantly suppressed. To Freud, no world which gave form to the terrible dreams of man could sustain itself, and the satisfaction of every man’s desire would lead to the total dissolution of society. Man shouldn't have everything he wants, because the things he wants, deep down, are poison to his body and his world, and this is as true for those dreams of endless consumption as they are for those of violence and death.

It is this insight that should make us fear unhampered access to our machinized memory. Though the dream-ads produced by the Facebook don't share the same skin as those whose fulfillment Freud posited to be harbingers of the end, they are, at their core, the same. The dream-ad is the dream of constant consumption and, accordingly, constant debt; it is a bottomless vessel, a trap by which the desire to consume---to fulfill the wish--- enslaves us to a system which depends for its own existence on the degradation of many at the expense of the few. If every desire is gratified, we may never be able to turn away from the capitalism which will one day dissolve us. A digital dream which makes it impossible to do so is one that we should awaken from, as if a nightmare.


First off, I really enjoyed this piece.

However, the last part of the last paragraph left me with a question: how does the satisfaction of every desire lead to the dissolution of society? I think it may be hinted at with the first sentience of that paragraph, and the dream censor theme. Maybe the answer is that I should go and read Civilization and Its Discontents, but I think that if you can fit in a little more about that concept without spoiling other parts (and please don't spoil them: the piece is elegant and powerful) it could benefit the reader.

Also, although I would hesitate to introduce another thinker on the topic, I believe that Holmes may speak to a similar point about desire and society in Natural Law that could be drawn on if you wish.

-- JustinColannino - 20 Nov 2009


Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I concede that my paper assumes the reader is at least familiar with Civilization and Its Discontents, an assumption I don't think is entirely unfair, given the sophistication of my audience and what I think of as Freud's place in the canon of Western thought, but you are completely right in saying that I can do a much better job of making the links clear. I'm still thinking about a way to do that, but your comment has made it possible for me to do so, so thank you!

-- DanaDelger - 28 Nov 2009

Dana, great piece; and the penultimate sentence (when you speak of losing oneself upon waking from the dream) was evocative of Plato's myth of the caves in The Republic, and the Matrix movies. I have not read Freud so the impact of the last paragraph might have been lost on me!

-- AllanOng - 30 Nov 2009

Dana, I love this paper. I never knew that I wanted poetry in my legal writing until now. Thank you for enlightening me! This is such a refreshing change from slicing away all adjectives and adverbs!

However, the paper kind of made me want to submit myself to Facebook (or whoever else can divine my digital dreams). I want to know what my subconscious wishes are! I want to have my hidden dreams fulfilled! It doesn't sound so bad to me :). People spend tens of thousands of dollars to try reach the nether recesses of their mind through psychoanalysis...

-- GavinSnyder - 03 Dec 2009


This is a great essay. I've looked at your paper now a few times but still I have no substantive edits. I did find the final paragraph to be suddenly faster-moving than the rest of the essay, and thus somewhat harder to follow. But that is minor at most.

I agree with Gavin, the style of the writing, this approach, is refreshing. I am inspired to try something similar in my next paper. Very nicely done.

-- BrianS - 03 Dec 2009

  • It interests me how some groups respond first to the content and others first to the style of your writing. On this occasion I think you balance successfully on the edge of the precipice of just a little too much, stylistically, but I think the substance is invaluable and goes further than the readers have allowed for. The issue becomes clearer when one considers the theory behind the advertising. You might find it useful to spare a few words to draw those inferences.

  • I think you might go so far in the project of adjoining Marx and Freud as to point out that what is advertised by the dream is not only consumption but debt. In fact, until the moment before yesterday, people had been referring to mortgage debt, the American's endlessly subsidized middle-class religious offering on the altar of suburbia, quite without irony, as "the American Dream." Debt is the essence of unfreedom from the distinctively American, Jeffersonian, point of view.

  • I think you put a foot wrong when Justin asked you about the argument of Civilization and Its Discontents. I wish it were possible to assume that people have read the thinkers (Darwin, Marx, Freud) who cut the pathways of thought that led to the twentieth century. It should be possible, because people like the people we live with should have encountered those thinkers first hand. They shouldn't want to let others mediate their experience of the ideas that set fire to so many extraordinary minds. But, because taking it all predigested and imagining you know what the ideas in their real form would do to your head is so much easier, people don't read these incomparable thinkers anymore. You have to give people a few words more, or link to something explanatory. And when you cite to a great work, you don't have to assist the Google Books surveilled-reading approach. In addition to using them when you only want a page of something, you can always point the reader to a copy of the full free text online, if one exists, at Gutenberg, The Internet Archive or elsewhere. The wonderful works that everyone can now carry everywhere all the time in her free book reader should always be only a click away.

-- LuciaCaltagirone - 05 Mar 2010



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