8 February 2022

Prisoners of the Dream

Inception and Coors, capitalism and pandemic dreaming

Matthew Spellberg

One of the stars of Coors’s “psychedelic” 2021 commercial, designed—according to the company—to induce beer-themed dreams in viewers.

During the first pandemic lockdowns, thousands of vivid dreams were suddenly shared across the internet and among friends. Though some of them had to do directly with COVID, many were simply intense and mysterious, in the way dreams often are. Yet for some reason, people felt newly impelled to convey them to others. The dreams were soon compiled into databases, written up in newspaper articles, and eventually integrated into scientific studies. This phenomenon may turn out to be a significant event in the history of the social imagination. For thousands of years, and in many cultures, talking about dreams has been considered hugely important. But in modernity, dreams have been regularly denigrated. In the mainstream, at least, they have been written off as superstitious, flighty, or boring. Then suddenly, in the pandemic, a great mass of people, mobilized across the internet, felt (at least for a few months) otherwise. There has probably never been such a sudden and expansive efflorescence of public dream sharing in modern history.

Scientists have offered various explanations for this occurrence. People were getting more sleep because they didn’t have to commute to work. People were having a deep psychological response to the shock of such a traumatic event. People’s minds were responding to the isolation of quarantine by intensified dreaming. And there’s even this theory, which gets at the infinitely self-fulfilling nature of dream discourse: people were having pandemic dreams because they started reading about pandemic dream narratives on social media.

All of these explanations seem plausible, but somewhat superficial. I have a hunch that something deeper links them together at the level of historical, societal, and emotional experience. In the last eighteen months, across huge swaths of the world, the ideology of individualism took a darkly literal turn, as single people and nuclear families were confined to their homes, ever more physically isolated from communities. They came to depend for everything—food, entertainment, work, play, sex, friendship, validation, security—on complex and invisible systems of data and delivery, which (no one needs to be reminded) had already been colonizing our lives at a terrifying pace even before COVID. This dependence shows no sign of abating even as the lockdown ends in many places.

The systems that provide for us function by creating an intentionally imperfect feedback loop between our wishes and their fulfillment. They gather information about our needs, desires, and fears, and use that to author messages that suggest that we have yet to satisfy any of those emotions. Even if you just got the masks and Lysol you had so desperately wanted, or managed to discharge your anger in a ferocious Facebook post, or got laid by someone on Grindr, the algorithms will want you to still want more, to be angrier, to be horny for someone hotter. Each fulfillment of a desire is ruined by the implication that a greater, more complete satisfaction is possible; each quieting of a fear is distempered by the sense that a greater threat looms.

In some sense, the huge system that surrounds us works by harvesting our dreams, and using them as bait to extract attention and resources from us. When I say “dream” here, I mean the word in a different sense than when I used it above to describe the reporting of pandemic dreams. But the link between the two most common definitions of the word “dream”—as a world experienced in sleep, and as a desire or wish—is important for understanding our present predicament. The association between the two is very old, and very widespread. There is some kind of overlap between those concepts in almost all European languages, and many traditions the world over see dreams as places where thought is particularly likely (even dangerously likely) to turn into reality. In many cultures, there is a taboo on speaking nightmares aloud, lest they become real; and in the Bible, Joseph’s dream of power and prestige is convincing enough that it makes his brothers envious of him in waking life. In the twentieth century, the most famous evangelist for the link between dreaming and wanting was Sigmund Freud. He took the claim to its logical extreme: a dream is a wish, albeit a disguised and confusing one.

You don’t have to go as far as Freud to see that there is an important continuity between these two mental states. In my view, the continuity is not so much about shared content as it is about shared form. A wish is a thought that aspires to become reality. A dream is a thought (or set of thoughts) that appears as reality. In dreams, our thoughts, memories, experiences become an existence—vast, cosmic, full of life and death, a world which, while we’re in it, is no less vivid than the waking one. We see in dreams the pliability of reality, the way self and world are constantly, instantly able to reshape one another. Dreams are continuous proof, of a kind, that it really is possible, under certain conditions at least, to make things real by thinking of them. In their very structure, then, they represent the possibility that wishes, like other thoughts, can and do come true—though by the same token, dreams also serve as a warning that making your thoughts into reality does not always result in you getting what you want.

The dream displays the power the mind possesses, especially when cut free from perception, to be an author of the universe—to be a god, or at least enter into direct congress with one. It is this peculiarity of dreams that I believe made them so important to so many cultures for so many millennia. In the isolation of sleep, you lose your connection to all of the stabilizing procedures that hold together a communally agreed-upon reality. And what you get instead is the mind experimenting wildly with the parameters of the real. Dreaming is like laboring in the workshop of reality—where an individual’s own memories and experiences meet with the narratives of culture, the personages of myth, and the vivid particularities of the landscapes and traumas she has known.

In cultures where dreams are valued, talking about dreams, and talking about them correctly, is equally as important as actually having them. (This is also true of the most famous modernist dream-sharing culture: psychoanalysis.) That’s because the importance of dreaming has to do not only with the generation of new realities; it also has to do with the reintegration of these unpredictable experiments back into the communal reality. Not to suppress them, nor to give into them wholesale, but rather to strike a balance between what they offer and what already exists. Dreaming and dream sharing, in other words, provide for a continuous back-and-forth between an agreed-upon communal reality and an individual’s experience of the real, a continuous negotiation where the influence of each upon the other can be carefully examined, tested, and consented to. This process, in turn, influences future dreams, creating a living system of circulation between discourse and lived experience, like blood going to and from the heart.

• • •

The project of surveillance capitalism (to use Shoshana Zuboff’s phrase) is the latest in a long history of endeavors to hobble the agency that individuals have in the building of a communal imaginative world—the kind of process that dream sharing has long been intended, I believe, to facilitate. Surveillance capitalism hijacks the back-and-forth between inner life and outer community. The algorithms that run our lives experiment with triggering and modifying our wants and needs. They are able to intensify and bring to a head those desires that we merely half-want, or barely entertain. Certain programs, for instance, study how long a person lingers over an ad or an image while looking at a website. The program will prompt that image to be displayed all the more prominently the next time around, and the next time, and the next time, until, finally, inevitably, the person cannot help but click on the link. The key to the procedure is that everything is made to seem as if it came from you. The strategy is never to sell you something that you don’t feel like, somehow, already, you’ve been wanting. Deep inner desires, merely entertained, half-believed, get co-opted and turned into bait, becoming a kind of camouflage to make an external sales pitch seem like it comes from within the self. If you are pushed to want this thing, you will feel that you’ve always wanted it: a secret and self-fulfilling circle.

The circle is the total perversion and parody of traditional forms of dream sharing, where such inner experiences are carefully presented to and discussed with the community by the dreamer, who can choose when and how to present them, and thus what form they take when they are integrated into communal narratives that will shape future behavior. Very little such agency exists in our present system.

It is against this backdrop that the true significance of pandemic dream sharing should be considered. It was perhaps a collective intuition that an old and venerable technique for asserting control over the imagination was lacking, and needed somehow, in some form, to come back. In other words, our pandemic dream sharing should be seen as a warning—that our agency over the unseen structures of the world is vanishing (or has vanished), that the picture of the world being fed to us is distorted (or is completely false). Perhaps the impulse to share dreams in the pandemic was a cry for a renewed and conscious participation in the building of that picture.

• • •

It is possible that our actual sleep dreams will soon be overtaken by explicit projects conceived by the agents of surveillance capitalism. In less overt ways, though, this has already happened. We already dream of the society that surrounds us, with all of its ambitions, advertisements, consumer objects, material conditions. This is not in and of itself bad—it is in the nature of dreams to explore and play with our experiences of waking life. But the recent compulsion to share pandemic dreams is a canary in the coalmine for the loss of individual participation in the building of collective narratives. What’s important is that we are at risk of not being able to share anything from inside ourselves with others on our own terms. Instead, our thoughts are taken from us in ways we do not fully authorize.

Dream sharing can serve as a cultural metaphor for the relationship between self and structure. More than a metaphor, though. It can also be a model for, and a barometer of, this relationship. In that respect, it’s worth looking at two documents, conceived deep within the paradigm of surveillance capitalism, that are explicitly about sharing sleep dreams: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, and the advertising campaign run by Coors around the 2021 Super Bowl, which aimed to incubate a dream of Coors beer in the minds of consumers. Each of these uses, in intentional and unintentional ways, the trope of dream sharing to explore (and enact) the exploitation of mind by digital capitalism.

• • •

In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio plays a mercenary corporate spy who specializes in extracting important information from the minds of businessmen. He does this by entering their dreams with the help of a nebulous wire-and-chemical-based technology, which looks to me like a crude visual metaphor for a server farm. At the beginning of the film, DiCaprio’s character, Cobb, is approached to do something even harder than extracting information: implanting it. A businessman wants the son and heir of his main competitor to break up his father’s corporate empire. The only way to get the heir to act so clearly against his own self-interest is for the idea to be implanted in his dreams. Cobb recruits a Seven Samurai–type team, and they all come together on a long-haul flight from Sydney to Los Angeles—fourteen hours of sleep time—in order to go into the rich boy’s head, disarm the defenses of his “subconscious,” and convince him that his unloving and now dead father secretly wanted him to break up the company he was going to inherit so that he would be free to make his own mark on the world.

Digital still from Inception, 2010, directed by Christopher Nolan.

This film is an allegory for the reality that was reaching maturity in 2010. To begin with, the plot of this rather trippy movie about collective consciousness and the nature of reality is set in motion purely by money. Gone are the old hippy beliefs that altered states of consciousness lead to cosmic revelation or deep human communion. Instead, they are weapons to be deployed in convoluted but ultimately banal corporate power struggles. This particular one looks something like a cross between an anti-trust suit and a hostile takeover. Billions of dollars are at stake, it’s true, but that’s all that’s at stake: billions of dollars. The point of putting ideas into someone’s head is to make money off of them.

The principle of inception as explained by Cobb is that the idea must appear to be entirely authored by the person in whom it’s being implanted. “When we get inside his mind, we’re gonna have to work with what we find,” he tells his gang of dream samurai during their training montage. The external idea—you will break up your father’s corporation—must be turned into an inner emotional narrative—my father wanted me to be my own man, and in spite of his coldness, deep down he loved me and wanted to see me flourish in the world. One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie occurs when finally, in a sub-sub-dream-world, the rich heir confronts the dream-image of his dying father, and discovers beside the deathbed a treasured pinwheel from childhood. This makes him think his dad really did love him after all (and ergo, wanted him to break up the company). The corporate dream-spies, who have manufactured this tableau, look on at this intimate moment with a certain grim satisfaction, and then, having attained their objective, immediately blow the dream world to smithereens so that everyone wakes up again. Every time I watch the young man grab the pinwheel, I get genuinely teary-eyed, but when the camera zooms out to the watching spy, it’s like an estrangement out of Brecht. You remember this is not the real father, who was probably an asshole. This is not the real pinwheel, this is not a real reconciliation. It is all staged in the mind for the purposes of profit. The scene becomes a perfect emblem for the algorithms that rule our emotions on the internet. They resurrect in us deep memories and atavistic feelings, and then watch paternalistically as those images are converted into actions that will make them tons of money. Once that happens, they have no need of the apparatus, and they’re happy to close down the whole operation and take our dreams from us, at least until the next cycle of inception. The son is hoping desperately for a message from his father, and he gets it. Except, of course, it’s actually not from his father at all. It’s his own fantasy of the message, which has been extracted from him, repackaged with secret instructions, and then smuggled back into his mind.

Inception has a sub-plot, in which Cobb is haunted by dreams of his dead wife. We learn that he and his wife had once descended as deep into the dream world as possible, and they had lived an entire lifetime there (though it was only a few hours in the waking world). His wife began to forget that she had lived outside the dream, and didn’t want to leave. In order to get her to return to waking existence, Cobb planted an idea in her head: namely, that their world, the dream world, wasn’t real. But when she finally woke up, the idea was still there. She became convinced that the waking world was also fake, and eventually she killed herself, thinking it was the only way to wake up.

All of the film’s dream saboteurs suffer from this problem to a greater or lesser extent. Not knowing whether you’re in a dream is a professional hazard for them. In order to protect themselves from the fate of Cobb’s wife, they each carry a “totem,” a small, irregularly weighted object that no one else has ever touched. Recognizing the feel of your totem guarantees you’re not in a dream of someone else’s making; you are not to share your totem with anyone under any circumstances. The implication is that anything you share with another person can and will be used to manipulate your reality.

This element of Inception links it to a much wider field of recent cultural objects that tell us our reality is not real, and that we are prisoners of a dream world. The Matrix has become the most important of these in popular culture. It has spawned the metaphor of being “red-pilled,” which members of the Far Right use to describe their experience of waking up out of the repressive dream reality constructed by the left-wing media into what they consider to be the truth.

Inception’s take on the unreality of modern reality is far less romantic than that of The Matrix, and is therefore in some sense more accurate. In Inception, realizing that your world is fake is no liberation from it. On the contrary, it is what imprisons you most completely in the dream. In fact, part of Cobb’s strategy in seducing the rich heir is to reveal to him, in the dream, that he is dreaming, and use that as a further tool for manipulating him. Once you accept that you are in a dream, you cease to believe in the meaningfulness of your agency. You don’t believe that your actions have any value anymore. You do them, but you do them wantonly, listlessly, without conviction. “We felt like gods,” says Cobb at one point about life in the lucid dream, “but none of it was real.” It would be hard to produce a more pithy summation of the phenomenology of the internet.

There is something profoundly boring about Inception. Its stakes are low and its mythology is pedantic. Its vast dreamscapes are extrapolations of middle-management aspiration. One dream scene takes place in an antiseptic luxury hotel, full of glass and high-end prostitutes. Another is set in a James Bond–style snow fortress, where the characters have skidoos and Humvees to play with. The deepest stratum of the dream—the very “shore of the subconscious,” as it is styled in the film—turns out to be a huge corporate office park, made from hundreds of identical glass-cube skyscrapers, arranged around endless flagstone plazas, not a vegetable or animal in sight. In the dream world, Cobb’s house is an Arts and Crafts bungalow located on top of a fifty-story condominium tower. “We wanted to live in a house but we loved this type of building,” he explains. “In the real world we’d have to choose, but not here.” This is the infinite freedom promised by dreams: in them, you can have both a condo and a country house.

According to Inception at least, the collective dream world of modernity is unimaginative, restricted, directed toward certain narrow channels of consumption and gain, and modeled on the complete transformation of the physical world into a jungle of steel and glass. Disturbingly, its most powerful tool is the truth (at least a certain species of it). It reveals to dreamers on purpose that they are dreaming, and then harnesses the helplessness, rage, alarm, uncertainty, anomie, and fear of meaninglessness that results. This tactic was predicted as early as 1976 in the film Network (“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”) and was perfected by the pseudo-cynicism of TV advertising in the ’90s. Now it has spread far and wide in the culture, and often seems to come directly from the digital masses. (Remember: the implanted idea must seem like it originates with the dreamer.)

Right-wingers are right to think they are living in a dream world. But they’re wrong to imagine that getting red-pilled frees them from it. On the contrary, it only narrows the cage, and forces them, like the panther of Rilke’s poem, to pace back and forth in anger and impotence. To elaborate the conceit: they are not just in a cage, but also on a treadmill, and the fury and helplessness they evince feeds the machine that keeps them imprisoned. The storming of the Capitol showed this feedback loop perfectly. QAnoners made it into the inner sanctum of American legislative power and what they did when they got there was—take selfies in the Senate president’s chair to post on Instagram. And I don’t mean to single out the Right in this respect. Much of the Left’s anger and activism is likewise stoked by the algorithm, and designed to be fed back into it.

• • •

Here’s where the second dream of digital capitalism comes in. Around the time of the 2021 Super Bowl, obviously seeking to capitalize on the outpouring of interest in dreaming occasioned by the pandemic, Coors ran an advertising campaign that invited viewers to incubate a dream of beer in their minds. Like Inception, there was some confusing and somewhat boring corporate cloak-and-dagger business behind it. According to Coors’s own promotional materials, the company is forbidden from advertising during the Big Game by an exclusive contract the NFL has with a “certain competitor”—presumably Anheuser-Busch. So instead of doing it on TV, they decided to run their commercial in the American psyche.

Coors engaged a prominent Harvard University dream scientist named Deirdre Barrett—she’d recently been in the media for her research into pandemic dreams—to design an incubation protocol. She helped the company develop a special website (since taken down), featuring a short incubation video to be watched right before bedtime, and an eight-hour soundtrack with eerie sounds and whispered phrases that was supposed to be played while sleeping.

Barrett—who was prominently featured in a New York Times Magazine article on pandemic dreams this past November—set up some kind of “scientific study” related to the commercial, footage of which you can watch in a promotional video for the campaign. Subjects are shown being admitted to a sleep lab, then watching a Coors video in bed, and then being woken up in the middle of the night to describe their dreams of beer. The little video is generously laced with B-roll shots of Harvard, strongly implying that the study took place there (though the word “Harvard” never appears, not even out of Barrett’s mouth). The whole project culminated with a cameo appearance from pop star Zayn Malik, who watched the video and then went to sleep on Instagram Live. At some point he woke up and described the dream he had had to the thousands of people watching his livestream: “I seen like this huge robot, and it was like a metal robot but he was made of Coors cans, and he was like walking over the hills. … I was quite skeptical, but actually it worked.” Then he says, rather half-heartedly, “I’ve told you my dream. Now you can tell me yours.”

The center of the Coors campaign was its dream incubation video. It is a technicolor fantasy of nature. An anthropomorphic blob (presumably meant as a placeholder for the dreamer to project themselves, or a celebrity, into) flies over a landscape of mountains, streams, oceans, forests, glittering ice caverns, and other natural prodigies. Moving mushrooms and a talking narwhal pop up like parodies of an acid trip. There are Coors cans everywhere. Against the lush natural landscape, it looks like a semi-truck fell off a mountain road in Yosemite and sent cans flying over the whole valley floor. It again makes me admire Inception’s honesty: there, the dream takes the form of a planet-sized Financial District, which is where we really are headed as a society. The Coors dream depicts the delusion of an undefiled nature, no poisoned rivers or denuded forests in sight (though it is littered with beer cans—perhaps this is more self-aware than I give the creators credit for).

The video’s aesthetic is meant to mimic the oneiric state. To do so, it relies on the fractured patterns of ice crystals, rustling leaves, and splashing water (perceptual phenomena that are close to dreams, as several people, myself included, have argued in the past). But the video is cartoonish—it is literally a cartoon—and full of psychedelic clichés. It has none of the uncanniness or absolute absorption that characterizes the best depictions of dreams in art. The whole campaign is a gimmick, conforming almost exactly to Sianne Ngai’s definition: something that overpromises and underdelivers. Promised: a deep intervention in the dream life. Delivered: if you watch this video, you might dream of a beer can.

If this project is silly in its execution, it nevertheless seems to me dangerous in its framing (a feeling shared by a trio of dream scientists, who raised their concerns in an essay published last November by the magazine Aeon). The campaign was thinly disguised as a scientific experiment. The website invited viewers to “participate in the world’s largest dream study.” The footage at Deirdre Barrett’s “sleep lab” made it seem as if there was an actual controlled sleep study going on, and it was complemented by Malik’s nebulous and social media–friendly “experimenting.” Coors attempted to use the vocabulary of science to create a new feedback loop between dreaming and dream sharing. In the campaign’s promotional film, we see sleep subjects voluntarily signing release forms for the study before they go into their bedrooms. The subjects have consented to have their minds impregnated with Coors imagery, and then to share what they’ve seen and experienced—in the name of advancing knowledge. This is a fig leaf, as everyone knows. The real project is to make money for Coors. But the fact that it is a fig leaf is precisely the problem. We know it’s dishonest—it’s even winkingly admitted to us—but we are invited (told) to accept it anyway. The fact that we all know what’s really going on is intended to disarm objections with a veil of self-generated irony. At one point in the promotional video, a graphic artist working on the campaign is asked to reflect on the ethics of implanting advertisements in people’s dreams. He stutters, and the camera cuts away knowingly. You are dreaming; we are manipulating you; you know this; we even admit it; who cares; this is already the status quo; you may as well buy the beer.

The discourses a society has for sharing its deepest mental phenomena are as important as the phenomena themselves. Here I mean not only sleep dreams, but also the many other forms of mental life that are associated with them, and that have been grouped under rubrics like the unconscious, primary consciousness, or the voice of the gods. Dreams often stand as the emblem for all of these because they present a limit case for the radical privacy and radical intensity of individual experience. Protocols for dream sharing give the privacy of dreaming its public meaning, and they create the back and forth necessary for individuals to reconcile the imperatives of social life with the conditions of consciousness.

The flare-up of vivid dreams in the pandemic is a call to find ways for the intensity and singularity of experience (both dreamt and otherwise) to become meaningful across the realm of shared sentience—human sentience, and perhaps even more-than-human sentience. Such an ache for communion makes us singularly vulnerable to manipulation by technologies of extraction that deny us any meaningful part in forging the link between imagination and action. In this economy of oneiric attention, critique risks becoming another tool of manipulation, a way of telling the dreamer she is dreaming, and so inducing a paralytic cynicism. New, more resilient, and more difficult techniques for transmitting inner experience must be developed if we are ever to pre-empt a system that tries to make us slaves of both our ignorance and our self-knowledge.

Matthew Spellberg is a scholar of dreaming and oral literature. He was guest editor of the “Dreams” theme section in Cabinet no. 67.

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