DREAMS REWIRED traces the desires and anxieties of today’s hyper-connected world back more than a hundred years, when telephone, film and television were new. As revolutionary then as contemporary social media is today, early electric media sparked a fervent utopianism in the public imagination – promising total communication, the annihilation of distance, an end to war. But then, too, there were fears over the erosion of privacy, security, morality. Using rare (and often unseen) archival material from nearly 200 films to articulate the present, DREAMS REWIRED reveals a history of hopes to share, and betrayals to avoid.
‘Every age thinks it’s the modern age…’
– but this one, a time of always-on connectivity, ubiquitous computing, and the acceleration of everything, really is new. No longer even modern, we are allegedly post-modern, post-industrial, and hurtling towards the post-human. With its profusion of desire and superabundance of information, our age couldn’t be more different…
DREAMS REWIRED offers another perspective. A montage of films from the 1880s to the 1930s, many rare and previously unscreened, it traces contemporary appetites and anxieties back to the birth of the telephone, television and cinema. Its claim: that the social convulsions of today’s hyper-mediated world were already prefigured over 100 years ago, during the electric media boom of the late 19th century. Early electric media were as revolutionary as social media are now. They sparked a fervent utopianism in the public imagination; promising total communication, the annihilation of distance, an end to war. The technologies were to serve everyone, not just the elites. Through strengthening human relationships, increasing efficiency, and predicting the future, it would become possible to build a new world for all to share.
But what these media initially promised, and what they eventually delivered was very different. The early radical openness was disciplined and regulated, and two-way, peer-to-peer communication gave way to hierarchical broadcasting. And the fears that had accompanied the hopes – fears of the erosion of privacy, of ubiquitous surveillance, of financial exposure and moral hazard – began to appear well-founded.
DREAMS REWIRED is an assemblage of clips from nearly 200 films, ranging from the earliest dramatic works to music hall slapstick, newsreels, marketing materials, recordings of scientific experiments, and artistic adventures with film as medium. Through years of research in archives around the world, the directors have unearthed material that is by turns hilarious, revelatory, aesthetically striking, and astonishingly prescient. This footage is spliced together with a commentary on our contemporary predicament (voiced by Tilda Swinton) that, rather than plunging the audience into the past, pulls the historical material into the present. By forging an identification between contemporary viewers and their idealistic peers from 100 years ago, DREAMS REWIRED suggests a path of positive action towards a 21st century conception of openness.
Attempts to understand where we are, and where we might be going, appear feeble against the acceleration of our times. If it’s on the market, then it’s already obsolete. But ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
DREAMS REWIRED is an essay film about technological utopias, a work that exposes the historical promises and processes in which current notions of progress are rooted. It deals poetically with our desires to connect to each other, and the way these desires were further spun out into fantasies. It is a political film, yielding new perspectives on pressing contemporary debates – on security, privacy, and rights in virtual space; recalling forgotten histories – especially the role of women; and reminding us of the limits to the inclusiveness of utopia – the historical relationship between technological development and colonialism is mirrored in the way we ‘externalize’ the production (and disposal) of hardware today. The information revolution progresses on the backs of cheap labor and precious minerals.
It was in the telephone exchanges that large numbers of women first entered the white-collar labour market. And from the first (actual) director of narrative films to the first (fictional) DJ depicted on screen, women assumed leading roles in shaping the realities and fantasies of the new electric age. DREAMS REWIRED restores to these pioneers to their original prominence.
Perhaps most provocatively, the film advances a new thesis that overturns the established precedence of cinema over television. The arrival of the telephone immediately triggered fantasies of communicating with live images over distance – what today we would call the videophone. Thus, before the birth of cinema, ‘moving images’ had already entered the public imagination as ‘tele-visual’ pictures. While tele-vision remained technically beyond grasp, early cinema provided a near-live substitute, carrying news, sports, and events. As different as cinema and the telephone were as technologies, turn-of-the-century visions understood them both as links in a chain of progress that drew the world more tightly together. It was cinema that dreamed of becoming television, aspiring to a place among the other ‘instantaneous’ electrical media.
Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart, Thomas Tode 2015