Database of Dreams

Database of Dreams: Social Science’s Forgotten Archive of How to Be Human

Rebecca Lemov

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Dreams and dream-like materials circulated in 1955 by means of the then most futuristic data-storage-and-retrieval format, the Microcard, on which materials were read via desktop Readex machines or an alternative, the pocket reader.

This project (published 2015 by Yale University Press) tells the story of a vast yet almost entirely forgotten social scientific 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 their experimental archive, which had a brief period during which its constituent technologies worked successfully together. Afterwards it fell victim to the perishability of its chosen format and the half-life of the epistemological assumptions on which it was founded. To tell this story, and to discover what lies within this trove of thousands of unknown pages, is also to tell in miniature the story of the cataclysmic yet day-to-day arrival of the modern world in places considered faraway during a period of accelerating globalization and decolonization. It is a parable about pioneers of data and dead media.

  • Lemov, R. (2015). Database of Dreams: Social Science’s Forgotten Archive of How To Be Human. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Lemov, R. (2015). Endangered Data in Postwar American Anthropology. In F. Vidal and N. Dias (Eds.), Endangerment and its Consequences. London: Routledge.
  • Lemov, R. (2016). Archives-of-Self: The Vicissitudes of Time and Self in a Technologically Determinist Future. In L. Daston (Ed.), Science in the Archives: Pasts, Presents, Futures. Under submission to University of Chicago Press.
  • Lemov, R. (2017). Anthropology’s Data from Area Files to Statistical Samples. To be submitted with E. Aronova, D. Sepkoski & C. v. Oertzen (Eds.), Histories of Data, Osiris special issue.
  • Lemov, R. (2015). Quantifying the Body Through Data. Hedgehog Review.
  • Lemov, R. (n.n.). The Post-Ontological Self in the Post-Industrial World. To be submitted to Science, Technology & Human Values.
  • Lemov, R. (2012). The Strange Career of Rationality in the Cold War. Coauthored with P. Erikson, L. Daston, M. Gordin, T. Sturm & J. Klein. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lemov, R. (2009). Toward a Database of Dreams: Assembling an Archive of Elusive Materials, 1947-1961. History Workshop Journal 67(1), 44-68.