Nightmares of a Smart Home

Nightmares of a Smart Home by Kelly BulkeleyDreams from Germans in the 1930’s highlight the danger of new home technologies.

I have always been a strong advocate for the creative potentials of dreaming and its capacity to envision future realities. Now, however, I worry that dreams from an earlier era may have predicted a new technology with frightening potentials for abuse in our world today.

One of the most important books in 20th century dream research was The Third Reich of Dreams by Charlotte Beradt, published in English in 1968. Beradt was a journalist in Germany, and when the Nazis rose to power she, as a Jew, could no longer find work. Instead, from 1933 until 1939, when she and her husband fled Germany to the United States, Beradt collected people’s dreams about the Nazis. She cast a wide net among friends and acquaintances, asking for dreams about their country’s increasingly dire political situation. The resulting book was not only searing testimony of the psychological brutality of the National Socialist regime. It also illustrated how dreams can accurately reflect collective fears during times of social crisis.

Many researchers have been deeply moved by The Third Reich of Dreams and inspired to explore new ways of drawing cultural insights from individual dreams. When I first encountered Beradt’s book in the 1980’s during graduate school, I was struck by the poignant reflections in these dreams of people’s experiences in an increasingly totalitarian environment where “others” were attacked as inhuman, racial purity and blind loyalty were exalted, and no one could escape the pervasive atmosphere of fear and vulnerability.

I was especially intrigued by a type of dream that Beradt described as the ultimate example of political toxicity. These were nightmares in which the oppressive power of the state reached directly into people’s homes and turned their own possessions against them. From a woman described as a housewife, in 1933:

“A Storm Trooper was standing by the large, old-fashioned, blue-tiled Dutch oven that stands in the corner of our living room, where we always sit and talk in the evening. He opened the oven door and it began to talk in a harsh and penetrating voice. It repeated every joke we had told and every word we had said against the government. I thought, ‘Good Lord, what’s it going to tell next—all my little snide remarks about Goebbels [Nazi Minister of Propaganda]?’ But at that moment I realized that one sentence more or less would make no difference—simply everything we have ever thought or said among ourselves is known.” (45)

Reading Beradt’s commentary on this dream today sounds eerily prescient, and uncomfortably resonant with current concerns about new home technologies. Remember, she was writing more than fifty years ago, about events that happened thirty years before that:

“Here we see a person in the process of being fashioned by a very elusive and even today not fully understood form of terrorization, a terrorization that consisted not of any constant surveillance over millions of people but rather the sheer uncertainty about how complete this surveillance was…. What dream could better suit the purposes of a totalitarian regime?” (47)

She went on:

“A greengrocer had exactly the same type of dream about a cushion he placed over the telephone when the family gathered in the evening for a cozy chat, a precaution everyone took in those days. The atmosphere of coziness became one of terror: the cushion—a sentimental keepsake cross-stitched by his mother and ordinarily kept in his easy chair, his domestic throne—began to talk. It testified against him and went on and on, repeating family conversations ranging from the price of vegetables and the midday meal to the comment ‘Old Potbelly [Hermann Goering, Nazi Party leader] is getting fatter by the day.’” (49)

Such dreams expressed a catastrophic loss of privacy and safety, even within the personal confines of one’s own home. Objects which used to give people pleasure and comfort now turned against them and became their enemies. She continued:

“I received quite a few reports about similar dreams involving household objects—about a mirror, a desk, a desk clock, an Easter egg. In each of these cases, all that remained in the recollection was the fact that the object concerned would denounce people. The frequency of such dreams may have increased as people became more and more aware of the methods the regime employed.” (49)

Beradt did not rely on any psychological theories in her approach to these dreams. Indeed, she did not try to interpret the dreams at all, at least in a conventional sense. Rather, like the journalist she was trained to be, she focused on reporting the cases that gave the most vivid illustrations of life in a totalitarian society. She used the political ideas of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell (especially his novel 1984) as guides in connecting the personal dream imagery to collective political realities.

“The following singularly grotesque example of this type of dream was dreamt by a young girl: ‘I dreamt I awoke in the middle of the night to discover that the two cherubs that hang over my bed were no longer looking upwards but were instead staring down at me. I was so frightened that I crawled under the bed.’” (50)

These nocturnal visions from another place and time offer an uncanny foreshadowing of present-day anxieties about the dystopian dangers of new household technologies. It takes no great leap of imagination to see connections between Beradt’s haunting collection of dreams and the latest generation of “smart” lamps, appliances, thermostats, and the like. People are inviting into their homes devices that were the stuff of surreal nightmares in Nazi Germany. The marketing for Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri emphasize their power to relieve us of domestic toil, increase our comfort, and save us money. And yet, despite the many benefits of these systems, recent reports (here, here, here, and here) have shown how easily they can be abused in exactly the ways foreseen by Beradt’s dreamers—secretly recording private conversations and revealing embarrassing, immoral, and incriminating behavior.

For people living in Germany in the 1930’s, their futuristic dreams of smart devices reflected a terrifying realization of the intrusive power of the state and its dominance over the most intimate personal aspects of their lives. The challenge today is preventing their nightmares from becoming our realities.

Note: This essay first appeared in Psychology Today on September 12, 2019.

How Not to Raise a Witch

How Not to Raise a Witch by Kelly BulkeleyMany years ago a student told me a story about her childhood dreams that still haunts me.  It’s not a happy story—in fact I find it incredibly sad—but it’s kept me thinking about what we know, and don’t know, about the potentials of dreaming.

 

Wanda (a pseudonym) was a student in a religious studies course I taught for upper level undergraduates at Santa Clara University.  The topic of the class was religious and psychological perspectives on dreaming, and we covered the history of Western dream theories from ancient Greek myths to modern sleep laboratory research.  I encouraged the students to think about how the various theories related to their own dream experiences as one way of testing the validity of those theories.

 

After class one day Wanda told me that when she was a child, she often had dreams that seemed to anticipate future events.  She didn’t think it was a big deal, and the predictions were often about trivial things, but she was always intrigued by the possibilities her dreams revealed.

One night when she was thirteen-years old, a few weeks before her 8th grade prom, she dreamed that her mother would be in a car accident the very night of the dance.  In the dream Wanda saw that, for some unknown reason, her prom dress was in the car, and so was her mother’s collection of record albums.

She shared the dream and its strange details with her best friend, and they were both stunned when, right before the prom, Wanda’s mother did indeed have a car crash.  Without telling Wanda, her mother had taken her prom dress to be hand-tailored, and on the way to the tailor she was taking her stereo and albums to loan to a friend.  Fortunately no one was injured, but the accident seemed to conform very closely to what Wanda had recently dreamed.

At this point I should note something Wanda had mentioned in earlier class discussions, namely that she was raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian family.

Excited by the weird accuracy of her dream, Wanda told her mother about it, and also about other dreams she felt had accurately foreseen future events.  To her surprise, her mother became frightened and angry.  She said she didn’t want to hear any more dreams like that.  “I am not going to be the mother of a witch!” she shouted.

Realizing how upset her mother was, Wanda simply stopped having such dreams.  She said it was like she chose to shut something off inside her.

And now, many years later, she didn’t know how she could turn it back “on” again even if she wanted.

In other cultural contexts, Wanda’s extraordinary dreams would be taken as indications of her natural aptitude for training as a shaman, healer, or diviner.  But in the cultural context of Wanda’s fundamentalist Christian family these kinds of powers, especially when emerging in a female, were harshly repudiated as “witchery.”

It’s possible, of course, that Wanda made up her story.  I have no way of independently verifying what she told me.  She certainly seemed honest and sincere to me, and I saw nothing in her behavior during the class to make me doubt her character.  She was a good but not spectacular student, quiet and reserved among her peers.  She gained no special favor by telling me what she did.  Actually, given that SCU is a Catholic school, it probably wasn’t a wise thing for her to share such a heretical experience with a teacher.

There’s no compelling scientific evidence proving that dreams can predict the future, although there is an argument to be made that dreaming has the adaptive function of simulating potential threats that may arise in waking life (Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli have done research in this area).  But Wanda’s dream was so accurate and so detailed, and it involved a threat not to her but to someone else.  How is that possible?  We just don’t know.  Current science cannot explain this kind of ability.

We do know, however, that humans vary widely in their dream recall, with some people naturally much more receptive to the products of their nocturnal imaginations than others.

We also know that some Christian authorities have a troubled history of demonizing unusual dream experiences and persecuting people, especially women, who show an interest in them.

And we know, thanks to works like Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams, a study of dream reports gathered in 1933-1939 Nazi Germany, that extremely oppressive cultural forces can disrupt people’s capacity to dream, scaring them away from their own inner lives.

In light of all that, I’m left thinking that Wanda was likely telling me the truth.  She was a “big dreamer” with the misfortune to be born in a cultural context that was hostile to her gift.