The Database of Dreams: Social Science’s Forgotten Archive of How to Be Human
This project tells the story of a vast yet almost entirely forgotten archive. Built in 1955, it holds the collected records of people’s inner lives: their dreams, their life histories, their psychological test results, and even their hallucinogenic experiences, all gathered together in the middle of the twentieth century, shrunk into dollhouse size and stored in the then-most-modern data-collecting format, the Microcard. These “subjective materials” came from around the world, from South Pacific islanders to Pathan frontier villagers to the Sioux Indians of the American West. Engineered to be accessible at any library in the world by means of the futuristic READEX machine or its hand-held pocket-sized reader, the resultant data bank was poised to remake the social sciences and cutting-edge data-storage practices more generally. It pioneered the gathering of personal data in large amounts, a practice that has only grown astronomically in scale and scope since then – in 1955 or 1962 it was rare to find, for example, 453 dreams of Harvard undergraduates alongside 52 dreams of Ifalukan islands but today such caches are only a Google away, linked by a trademarked algorithm. This was not the case when its creators built the database of dreams. To tell this story, and to discover what lies within this trove of 20,000 unknown pages, is also to tell in miniature the story of the cataclysmic yet day-to-day arrival of the modern world in some of its more faraway places. How did scientists try to measure and gain some control over vast changes taking place in others -- and also in themselves?