The Overexamined Life


I lol-ed when I read Emily Gould’s post a few months ago about dreams:

The symbolism in my dreams is usually so obvious and hackneyed it’s ridiculous. Like, if my subconscious was enrolled in a creative writing class its classmates would constantly be making “Oh my god, not again” eye contact with each other behind its back. Example: when I used to (over)work at a publishing house, I had a recurring dream that I was preparing to leave the house in the morning by picking up various of those canvas totebags full of manuscripts by which we can identify low-to-midlevel publishing staffers on the subway. I tried to pick up two ordinary-looking bags and found that I couldn’t — they were so heavy I was unable to lift them. Whoa! Like, what’s that about?

The other evening, after mulling over the music career that never quite happened, I had a dream that I was watching a guitar fall from the back of a pick-up truck from the side of a highway. Cars kept driving over it until it was a wreck of wood and strings.

I’ve been having too many cars-running-over-a-guitar dreams, which is why I haven’t bothered updating my “dream journal” much this month. Well, actually, no, last night I had a dream about that mall in China that is all stores of counterfeit items. But it was a dream I had and lost in the hypnagogic state between the first alarm and snooze reminder.

I never hear people talk about Dream Journal, although it could be catergorized with Mint,, and Dopplr (which I just joined), as a useful social-stat tracker. (I wish Dream Journal had an iPhone app.) You enter your dream and the program scans for keywords. Here are some of mine: DOOR – 5 MALE – 5 GIRL – 4 HOUSE – 4 WALKING – 4 WOMAN – 4 TOWN – 3 FRIEND – 3 RUNNING – 3 STAIRCASE – 2 SUN – 2 BASEMENT – 2. Five of the 17 dreams I’ve posted publicly had men in them and four took place in houses, and five involved opening a door. So a typical dream of mine involves walking upstairs in an unidentified house, in an unidentified city, opening the front door, and seeing an unidentified man. On the site, I can click on my frequent key words to see what they may signify:

DOOR The door often represents opportunities, the openings life offers. It can be an opening or realisation of new parts of you, new feelings, or new ideas. It can be a barrier put between yourself and others, yourself and life, yourself and God. The opening or closing of this door represents the movement of your feelings and attitudes. Death is sometimes spoken of as the other door, birth being the first.In some dreams the door, or passing through it indicates the shifting from one situation or perception of life to another.
MALE If the man is someone you know look at what you feel about that person, how you see them and what sort of qualities or weaknesses they have, because they depict your feelings about that person. For instance if I see a male friend as very loving or sexual, then they depict those feelings or qualities in myself.
In a woman’s dream – your dream male depicts the feelings or pains you have about relating to men in general, and about that person in particular. If it is a man you are in relationship with, or want to be, then he illustrates all the difficulties or ease of your feelings and your response to him. In general a man represents your positive outgoing and capable qualities.
In a man’s dream, he will depict some aspect of your own character. What aspect he depicts depends upon how you see him. So define how you would describe his qualities or weaknesses to someone else.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal had an article, The New Examined Life, interviewing people who obsessively document their lives in spreadsheets, graphs, lists, and maps. Nicholas Felton, a graphic designer interviewed for the story, tracked every “New York street he walked and sorted the 632 beers he consumed by country of origin” and included it in his “Feltron Annual Report.”
On this subject, I also recommend This American Life Episode 88: Numbers(which is worth listening to if just to hear the opera singer rap about cowboys,)

But, I haven’t even come to the interesting part of my history with Dream Journal yet (and I’ve had a few too many glasses of wine, so apologies if this is a totally weak transition from one idea to the other. Or for the spelling errors.)

The Dream Journal is something I happened upon while googling my most frequent handle: jomc. Filtering out everything related to UNC’s School ofJournalism and Mass Communication, I found a whole bunch of bits of my personal history. There’s a gap of four entire years — from May 2004 — until I found it again in September last year. But the themes and concepts of my dreams are still the same.

Perhaps I’m at a similar stage in my life. I know why I gave up the dream journal before — I was moving from four different cities in four months before landing in Chicago. I forgot all about it, but now I’m entering in it again, fairly regularly.

Dreams are typically about fears and insecurities. No one ever has a dream that clearly communicates to oneself: hey, you’re doing an awesome job at life! And to record it is to acknowledge that the fear exists rather than continuing to hide from it.

But, odd about the site, is how many pageviews my dreams receive. Something I entered a week ago has about 60 views. Who are they and why do they care? Not that I mind…it’s public. But I type all the information bleary-eyed as soon as I wake up so I won’t forget. And it’s pretty incomprehensible anyway.

I haven’t spent enough time exploring the site or using it for anything other than narcissistic purposes, but i get a hunch it is a thriving community still for those on livejournal (another digital ghost town for some of us.)

There is that process of packing your bags from Friendster to Myspace to Facebook and never looking back, because whatever purpose the previous site had is now exceeded by the newer one. There’s no brand loyalty in social media. When one network gets crowded with too many people too unlike the early developers, they will flock elsewhere.

If I were to log into Friendster today I would see a perfectly preserved document of my life in 2003. The people I was friends with then (most of them, sadly, I’m no longer in touch with) and the inside jokes we shared, not to mention the photos of me at that age. It makes me really want to not log in or log in and destroy it all. That’s almost too many memories worth keeping and for someone who prefers to think about life in the present rather than relive past experiences in my mind, it’s just baggage.

One day I’ll likely look at my Twitter page with the same sense sense. Like that moment in Back to the Future 2 when teenage Elisabeth Shue sees herself as an old married Elisabeth Shue and they say in unison “I’m Old!”/”I’m young!” and they both faint.

But a vague internet memory doesn’t doesn’t even have to be from that long ago. You might to be look around on the web one day, narci-searching and you’ll find you had filled out a profile a few months back.

I can’t find any sort of neuro-scientific study phrased exactly this way, but my theory is, (and I’m sure science already proves it) that online media almost always processes in one’s short term memory. It’s not experienced enough to kick in the cerebellum and the striatum. Your five senses aren’t all at work. I have trouble retaining information I get from books, but it’s nowhere near as difficult as it is for me to remember what I read or saw online. Turning pages slows me down and maybe makes me think about the knowledge I’m acquiring as a stage in a process.

To give another example. Everytime I check some “social media expert” homepage (which isn’t often, and when it happens is usually a mistake) I always see my name right there in the side bar as a “MyBlogLog” visitor: “Joanne McNeil has visited just now!” One day I actually clicked on my profile to see if I actually filed anything out. I did, and I even joined a group — a group of fans of Coudal Partners. I have no memory of filing out the profile or signing up as a fan of their blog at all. I mean, I read Coudal and I like it–a lot!– but if i were to join a community of blog readers for a certain blog, I can’t say it would crack even my top ten.
But apparently, I did. At some point. One some evening. Maybe drinking alone at my laptop and ignoring a major sporting event like I am now.

Dreamlike art by Anette Harboe Flensburg

The Tomorrow Museum
Feb. 1, 2009