Dreams, Data, and Identity in the Void
In a dream—in which I have awoken from another dream—I walk outside to see what all the fuss is about. A girl has been assaulted, her nose ring torn out, and there is a very long line of cars, all honking.
“Never leave the house without a hammer,” someone says.
“And always keep a copy of the keys,” another adds.
“Yes,” I say. “Never leave the house without a hammer and always keep a copy of the keys. My mother taught me that.”
Later, I forget where my apartment is. There is a door I think must be my door, and I open it with my key. But, strangely, the lock is at the very bottom of the door and suddenly the door is very tall and I am chest-level with the floor, peering up into a warm room with enormous chairs. I hear a murmur of voices and think, this is not my apartment. Closing the door carefully, I turn to leave down a now very steep set of winding metal stairs.
An hour later I’m awake and my father has delivered a box from our family storage unit, one I have been thinking about for ten years. On the street, I tell him about the dream, and he says, simply, “Alice in Wonderland.” I nod very slowly with my lips pursed, because even though I have been thinking about Alice in Wonderland nonstop this had not yet occurred to me, and then I tell him about how the other day I found a beautiful 1943 copy of A New Model of the Universe by P.D. Ouspensky, who wrote about dreams within dreams, and about doors and stairs in dreams, and who believed that we are always dreaming, though we do not notice. After my father leaves I begin unpacking the box, which is full of things from my childhood bedroom. Inside it is another box (lots of little boxes, actually, and boxes within boxes): an old biscuit tin—a cube with a handle. On each side of the tin are copies of John Tenniel’s illustrations from Through The Looking Glass: Humpty Dumpty offering his hand to Alice, the White Knight sliding down a fire poker, the Red King asleep. In the box there is also an oversized ace of spades playing card and my first iPod, from 2003. There is a Polaroid of me from 1999—age eight, a year older than Alice—posing, hand on hip, head cocked, in front of a larger-than-life American Girl magazine cover that reads “Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow,” and “Winner! Girl of the Millennium.”
“Query:” wrote Lewis Carroll in his diary, in 1856, “when we are dreaming, and, as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say and do things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is the waking and which the sleeping life? We often dream without the least suspicion of unreality: ‘Sleep hath its own world,’ and it is often as lifelike as the other.” After my dream, for the rest of the day, I feel as though I am still dreaming—or that I’ve gone somewhere.
“Every time we experience REM sleep,” writes Michael Finkel in a recent National Geographic article, “we literally go mad.”
We’re all mad here. Everyone knows that line.
Lewis Carroll was a math professor who created puzzles out of numbers and words—logic games, encrypted messages that need secret keys to decode—and loved chess, croquet, billiards, and backgammon. Despite his affinity for the algebraic and the logical, he believed deeply in the power of play and imagination. Some think Carroll was a proponent of staying childlike, retaining wonder instead of doggedly pursuing “fact.” That he believed childhood is simple and beautiful and it would be best to stay there forever. Physically, he was asymmetric: one shoulder higher than the other, his eyes off-level, a crooked smile. He was a skilled photographer at photography’s advent as an art form. He was a deacon, but rarely preached because of a speech defect. He was highly religious, and yet had a significant interest in the occult. He was the kind of mathematician who found otherworldliness and the metaphysical through numbers.
“I have supposed a Human being to be capable of various psychical states,” he wrote in the preface to his later novel, Sylvie and Bruno, “with varying degrees of consciousness, as follows:
(a) the ordinary state, with no consciousness of the presence of Fairies;
(b) the ‘eerie’ state, in which, while conscious of actual surroundings, he is also conscious of the presence of Fairies;
(c) a form of trance, in which, while unconscious of actual surroundings, and apparently asleep, he (i.e. his immaterial essence) migrates to other scenes, in the actual world, or in Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence of Fairies.”
Carroll, it seems, believed we could shake ourselves awake into a higher consciousness, un-hypnotize ourselves from the logical world.
His first major publication, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, begins with a bored girl. She is lying about, looking over a book and lamenting its lack of pictures or conversations. “What is the use?” she wonders. Wonderland was published in 1865, during the Victorian Era, whose temporal borders are 1837 and 1901. The Victorian Era has been called the first Information Age, because it was a time of rapid technological change: Samuel Morse invents the single-wire telegraph system; Babbage and Lovelace devise their Analytical Engine, the first computer; the typewriter is developed; Elisha Otis devises the elevator brake, making skyscrapers possible. George Boole’s The Laws of Thought (the origins of binary code), Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and Charles Darwin’s Evolution of Species are all published. In 1851, Lewis Carroll goes to see the Great Exhibition, London’s first world’s fair, where textile and adding machines, printing and hydraulic presses are on display in the 800,000 square foot Crystal Palace. French photographer Nadar takes the first aerial images, making Paris look like a toy town. As buildings get bigger, time and space become compressed. Colonization, industrialization, and advances in chemistry make steel and glass more affordable, meaning taller, grander structures; steam and electricity make the world go faster. All of these endless inventions, new technologies, and discoveries provoke popular interest in science, in the history of the earth and in the narrative of humanity itself. The influx of innovations comes with a fixation on information, and the idea that all data is of great importance.
“—did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness!”
Fast-forward a hundred or so years, and the transistor is invented, commencing our modern Information Age. The effect is similar, the pace accelerated. Transistors’ tiny signals consist of “on” and “off,” “yes” and “no,” 1 and 0, and they are the stuff that make up a computer’s memory. As these devices got tinier, more could be fit into a chip, and the power of digital processors—the electronic circuits that hold logic and give instructions—grew. In 2014 Forbes calculated that approximately 2.9 sextillion transistors had been manufactured since their invention in 1947. These miniscule yes/no gadgets, conceived using Victorian logic and made of silica—just like glass—are what make our digital devices tick, the reason so much information is at our fingertips, as they say. But the vastness of data has also made it more difficult to make sense of anything; the speed at which we can access information means our brains cannot discern what is meaningful and what is static.
In 1955, British psychiatrist Dr. John Todd reports that some of his patients are experiencing a feeling of shrinking and growing, of space expanding and contracting, of things becoming closer and farther away. Associated with migraines, vomiting, and seizures, and most commonly noted in children, the condition is dubbed Alice in Wonderland Syndrome—both because of the changes in perception of scale, which Alice undergoes, and because of Todd’s theory that Lewis Carroll himself, who had written about similar symptoms, may have experienced this phenomenon.
A friend of mine who had Alice in Wonderland Syndrome as a child tells me they were aware of the unreality the whole time: it wasn’t a hallucination, but rather a perspective shift. Their hand looked gigantic, the television very far away. Like a waking lucid dream. The first reported case of these symptoms is in 1907. The patient noted “feelings of unreality in what is seen.” The sensations seem linked to the general unease that is born from a time of dizzying transformation. Headaches, bile, quickening pace, not knowing what size anything—including yourself—is supposed to be. Growing up feels like this, always either too small or too big—especially for those of us who went through puberty when social media was itself coming of age—girls of the Millennium, necks stretched—like Alice when the pigeon calls her a serpent—craning toward the computer room.
“I’ve seen a good many little girls in my time, but never one with such a neck as that! No, no! You’re a serpent; and there’s no use denying it.”
During the Victorian Era, concepts of childhood and education are transformed. A result of shifting religious ideas—Rousseau’s rejection of original sin in his 1762 Émile, or On Education had a lot to do with it—as well as a concern about child welfare versus child labor in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. An emphasis on allowing children to be free, playful, and natural proliferates; Romantics like Blake and Wordsworth revere youthful innocence in their pastorals; Poe’s Annabel Lee is immortalized in her kingdom by the sea. Freud’s mining of the cave of the mind, his theory that we spend our lives repeating our childhoods, is not too far in the future. Historians have puzzled over the Victorian obsession with childhood: was it a desire, in the face of overwhelming change, to regress? Or was it an urge, in the face of overwhelming change, to control the narrative?
Often called the Cult of Childhood, the idea that children have an enchanted quality that tragically fades before adulthood solidifies in Western culture around the time Alice in Wonderland is published. As technological progress is idealized, the past, individual and collective, is given a story. Childhood becomes a period of formation, when one’s identity is molded. And it becomes—as in Carroll, and in Poe—a dream that one remembers of one’s self. Grains of sand pass through Poe’s grasp, as he weeps, and asks, “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?” Carroll’s callous Walrus and Carpenter weep to “see / Such quantities of sand.” If it were only swept away, they say, “it would be grand.”
. . . and still the Queen kept crying “Faster! Faster!” but Alice felt she could not go faster, though she had no breath left to say so. The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything.
Clock time rises in the Victorian Era, too. By 1855, most clocks are standardized to Greenwich Mean Time. Big Ben is installed in 1859; mills and factories displayed large timepieces, and in 1888 the employee time clock is patented. Within the logic of clock time, lived experience—what Henri Bergson called duration—is subject to measurement. Throughout his books, Carroll makes a farce of the conception of time as fixed. The White Rabbit is terribly late for a very important date. The Mad Hatter refers to Time as “him,” and recalls being sentenced to beheading for “murdering the time.” Personified, time becomes an uncontrollable entity who refuses to comply. Wonderland is, if we are to believe the Hatter, frozen in time. And yet Alice is always being rushed to and fro, from one puzzling appointment to the next. She is forever wondering what time it is and how long things take, wondering if growing in size means she will be an old woman in body, yet remain a girl who hasn’t learned her lessons in spirit.
The violent impulses of the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter’s bad manners and insistence on posing unanswerable riddles, the White Knight’s silly contraptions, the rattle battle of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the manipulations of the Walrus and the Carpenter, make no sense to her at all. Alice doesn’t understand this upside-down world because the rules—which, she has learned from her lessons aboveground, ought to be rigid—morph from page to page, as does Alice’s conception of herself. The implication is that, to a child, grown-up rationale is nonsensical. But it is also that an excess of rules, tests, lessons, reasoning, and codification doesn’t actually lead to meaning. (As Blaise Pascal, inspiration to Carroll, wrote, “We burn with desire to find a firm footing, an ultimate, lasting base on which to build a tower rising up to infinity, but our whole foundation cracks.”) In other words, the more one uses data to try to understand the world, the less it makes sense.
To Carroll, and Alice, the attempt to “know” and catalog everything leads to a computational coldness, a distortion of what is “true.” Profligate systemization doesn’t help people understand each other better. It, instead, leads to an entire culture of Alice in Wonderland Syndrome.
“Don’t be in such a hurry to believe next time,” Carroll wrote in a letter in 1864. “If you set to work to believe everything, you will tire out the muscles of your mind, and then you’ll be so weak you won’t be able to believe the simplest true things.”
In Our Broad Present, critic Hans Gumbrecht writes that, “Between the pasts that engulf us and the menacing future, the present has turned into a dimension of expanding simultaneities.” Because of automated, electronic systems, he argues, there is simply too much—too many possibilities, too much digital memory. Our machines can remember for us, but they are the same machines that help us forget that we have bodies, that we reside on a living planet. The future encroaches instead of unfolds, and we’ve turned our backs to it, unsure which direction to go. The timeline, the stream, the feed—it all implies a forward motion, a continuousness, a deluge. We are all Alice, consuming curious vittles that change our proportions, finding ourselves paddling through a sea of our own tears, which must be real, we think, which surely prove we’re not figments of the Red King’s dream. The forward motion is an illusion—or delusion—the direction is really more of an eddy.
Alice asked, what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations? Gumbrecht asks an updated question: “Today the computer has made knowledge accessible at levels previously unimaginable scope and density—at the same time, however, its use raises a question: What is this knowledge good for?”
When I was a child, the internet felt like a kind of Wonderland, a place to visit. Now, shrunken down to fit in our pockets, it’s lost all its charm. It’s called doomscrolling for a reason: there is nothing new, not really. (scroll, from the Proto-Indo-European root to cut, also found in carrion, excoriate, screw, scrape.) The doomscroll is a horizon contracting while giving the illusion of dilating. My thumb gestures upward as I scroll, always, down. I have to remind myself to look away from the screen. It is no longer exciting, barely useful. I clutch my phone wherever I go, though the playing card-sized blackness of its screen terrifies me—it is always open, this gaping maw, drawing me toward it. Sometimes I feel the urge to throw it across the room. Bored, I grasp for it; what I find there, boring.
A YouTube video titled “The Sound of dial-up Internet” has 15 million views and 12,000 comments. One, from 2020: “this sound was awesome, it meant you were about to be online: a magical place. not something ordinary, normalized, ever present. it was something you deliberately had to do, rather than unconscious habit. you used to be able to log off.” Now it is always there, ready to give us an answer to any question we may have.
Alice is nearly a scry, a peer into a future in which answers weigh more than questions, but none of the answers teach us anything at all. Twitter asks, “What’s happening?” Facebook, “What’s on your mind?” Google knows, almost every time, which query I’d like to enter. Siri exists to provide information. With my little computer almost always in hand, even I am eternally called to answer.
“If they would only purr for ‘yes’ and mew for ‘no,’ or any rule of that sort,” she had said, “so that one could keep up a conversation! But how can you talk with a person if they always say the same thing?”
Binary code asks “yes” or “no” (or “true” or “false,” or “on” or “off”), and Boolean algebra asks “and,” “or,” “not” (these are operators called logic gates) so simple in theory, so incomprehensibly Brobdingnagian in consequence. From What if the only numbers in the world were 1 and 0? to What if we could turn everything into 1s and 0s? The big question about little things that shrunk it all.
The internet is the world flattened—like Alice, squashed thin under the microscope in Jeff Noon’s 1996 adaptation, Automated Alice, after she is thrust into a late-‘90s alternate universe where slowness is outlawed and computers run on termites. Everything looks the same, every week there is a new aesthetic trend that is last month’s trend re-named. Even language becomes humdrum, with users parroting the same vaguely applicable phrases in every situation—this lives rent free in my head, it’s giving, based. Always the same questions: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Are there more eyes than legs in the world? Would you love me if I was a worm? It’s hard to crawl out of the rabbit hole once you’re there, where everything is both expansive and compressed, fake new, big, but small.
“I quite agree with you,” said the Duchess; “and the moral of that is—‘Be what you would seem to be’—or, if you’d like it put more simply—‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’”
The website Aesthetics Wiki catalogues various internet aesthetics, a word that has been almost completely severed from its academic and philosophic origins, and which now means something like, a visual style or identity associated with specific fashion, music, and lifestyle elements, more often than not devoid of any values or ethos. It started growing rapidly in 2020 with “cottagecore,” an aesthetic associated with the desire for a lifestyle characterized by living off the grid, in the country somewhere, usually with animals, Snow White style. This constant identification of new aesthetics—usually the same styles under different names, usually something to do with girls—is just another form of pixelation, of making things small. Of course, there is an aesthetic called Wonderland. The wiki’s lead image is a still from the 1951 animated Disney film, with the subtitle: “How do I run from what’s inside my head?” The description reads that Wonderland is “an aesthetic based on the feeling of being lost and far away from home, but being okay with it,” and it also goes by Lostcore and Wonderwave. There are links to playlists like “‘we’re all mad here,’ an alice in wonderland playlist ⏱” and “pov: you fell into twisted wonderland.” Alice is used and reused. In a self-help meme, she peers into a stream, the overlaid text attempts to soothe: “knowing that our adult self will not leave our younger self is the reassurance we truly need.”
Saturated in our hyper-visual, hyper-speed aesthetic culture, even the pretty pictures and conversations Alice desired have become, to us, boring. Maybe not just boring, but exhausting. It is exhausting to be constantly discerning meaning, intention, truth, substance, for the switch to always be on. Is it me or is it not. The dreary nowness, its endless presence, was wrought from the pathological compiling of data. Crucially, our personal information—what we like, click, save, visit—is reflected back to us. Our presence in that dimension of simultaneities makes us feel simultaneously like we are merely data to mine, and like everything is about Us—the algorithm found this For Me—and that sensation seeps offline. Those of us who spend significant time in digital spaces have dual identities: online and offline. And when we interact online it is almost as though our offline personas are talking to our online personas: we talk to ourselves. Alice likes to pretend she’s two people, to talk to herself, give herself advice she rarely takes. But once she starts changing size, she decides it’s no use. “Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!” she cries.
What does a collective memory machine do for one’s individual memory, their self-conception? Memory, and a sense of the past, is how we understand who we are. I saw a tweet a few months ago whose author wondered whether anyone else had noticed that recently people have been dropping the “I.” Starting digital sentences with “Am,” or “Have,” or “Been,” the self gone missing. Alice’s adventure is within herself, to find herself, to remember who she is, what size, what age, what name, what knowledge. She keeps forgetting who she is. And each time she is asked, it’s distressing. She thinks she is a girl, although she can’t be sure.
I am constantly thinking about shifting scales and tiny things and upside down worlds and mirror worlds and nonsense. I am convinced that the obsession with small things is an aversion to the corporeal, the earthly, the bodily, that it is an attempt to contain and control. I am infuriated by the joke that is the cloud and I tell my brother via Instagram DM that I am going to go back in time to tell “information” “theorist” Claude Shannon to drop out of school and stfu about “bits.” Or maybe I’ll go back further and slap the math out of George Boole’s head so that he never thinks up symbolic logic—which, by the way, Lewis Carroll also wrote about—and maybe then we’d never get the internet and he wouldn’t have a descendant who wound up working on the Manhattan Project, another big monstrosity made out of a very tiny thing. “While you’re at it kill the creator of the Industrial Revolution,” my brother writes. “Guillotine them all.”
To be in a rabbit hole is to make connections everywhere, which is why I can so easily project a map of my own making onto Alice. It is to answer questions with questions. It is to never conclude anything. It is a space in which to feel small and lost, all while feeling the illusion of control. It’s the information effect: “At the heart of things science finds only a mad, neverending quadrille of Mock Turtle Waves and Gryphon Particles,” Martin Gardner writes in his Annotated Alice, which has been noted as an early hypertext. “For a moment the waves and particles dance in grotesque, inconceivably complex patterns capable of reflecting on their own absurdity.”
First, however, she waited for a few minutes to see if she was going to shrink any further: she felt a little nervous about this; “for it might end, you know,” said Alice to herself, “in my going out altogether, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?”
The more you shrink things down, the closer you get to the void. The Quantum Physicists have “proven” that “the universe is not locally real.” According to Scientific American, that means “objects are not influenced solely by their surroundings and they may also lack definite properties prior to measurement.” Is it a coincidence that one of the “observers” in the experiments was given the name Alice? (To a sane person, yes.) In Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across The Table, the protagonist’s girlfriend, Alice, a physicist, falls in love with a void. The void is called Lack. The protagonist says things like, “I argue against depth wherever I find it,” and “My heart [is] nostalgic for the present. Always a bad sign.” The internet is a place without time, or a place outside time, or a place that is always looking backward, or a place that is always the present. There is a reason the feed is called the feed: all it does is feed on itself, which means it feeds on what we give it, which means it feeds on us. The gyre widens as the door closes incrementally, like Achilles stepping toward the tortoise.
Definition of “rabbit hole,” cobbled and paraphrased from various sources:
a bizarre world (in which everyday rules do not apply);
a way into such bizarre world;
an initial clue that leads to an alternate reality;
a situation in which one becomes so engrossed in a subject that it becomes difficult to stop;
a time-consuming tangent or detour often difficult to extricate oneself from
See also: a wild goose chase
See also: goose egg:
a score of zero in a game or contest;
“I think there’s something… erotic? about being swept into a void” a friend texts me. “Bc in a way a void is a frictionless environment that can be entirely aestheticized and there’s something attractive there.” I tell her I have been collecting books about holes and voids and zeroes and nothings. Rabbit holes. Objects from the past, from the future, nonexistent objects, conceptual objects all tossed together into a blizzard, a timeless, senseless space in which directions turn into loops. I tell my friend I think I love the void, like Alice. It seduces me—I can’t tell if I’ve fallen in or chosen to crawl through. If I’m dreaming all the time and don’t notice.
In another dream, I’m sent on a mission to infiltrate a secret society that is turning all my friends into somnambulist versions of themselves. My task as a double agent is to make a copy of the keys before I drop them off. Under a sink faucet at a darkly lit hotel, I am soaking paper doll replicas of the outfit I have been assigned to wear. Later, I leave the hotel, wearing the un-miniaturized ensemble, and am caught. I’m sentenced to death and wake before my execution—before I go out altogether, like a candle.
At the end of each book, Alice shakes herself awake. She doesn’t exactly emerge, but rather the dream recedes from her as she grows back to size. She becomes her regular height again and sees the deck of cards for what it is. The Red Queen, The White Queen, and Humpty Dumpty are her three kittens. In Wonderland, when Alice wakes, her sister continues her dream, hearing the rattling of the teacups and the sob of the Mock Turtle. She pictures Alice as a grown woman, in “the after-time,” retaining the “simple and loving heart of her childhood.” When Alice wakes in Looking-Glass she wonders whether she really was in the Red King’s dream, begging an answer from her kitten, who pretends not to have heard the question. “Which do you think it was?” our narrator asks, and we are left to wonder. As a child I thought Alice hadn’t been dreaming at all.
A poem by Carroll at the end of Looking-Glass puts the two books to bed. In it, Alice haunts him, “phantomwise,” and Wonderland is one’s childhood—a dream that haunts us. The poem’s concluding query is a reference to the nursery rhyme, Row, row, row your boat / Gently down the stream: Life, what is it but a dream?