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Dreaming in code

A coder's dreams here.

But when I’m lying in that splintered early morning consciousness the night after partying, slipping in and out of dreams, and as the previous night’s fleeting attempt at liberation recedes, I often find that I am dreaming in code. It can be one of various kinds of code — any of those that I work with. A sequence will pop into my head and rattle around, unfolding itself as it goes, like a snatch of melody or conversation repeating itself in your ears. Much of the time, if I was conscious enough to re-examine it, it’d probably be nonsense: I have enough difficulty dealing with the stuff when I’m awake, and I suspect that my unconscious mind would fare little better. But sometimes it is meaningful.

One morning recently I awoke with the thought of a bug in some code that I had written — a bug which I had not previously realised was there. My sleeping mind had been examining a week’s work, and had stumbled upon an inconsistency. Since I am a thought-worker, and since the identification and solution of such problems is the major aspect of my job, it is not that fantastical to say that I have been performing actual labour in my sleep. This is not the magical fecundity of some generalised creative power, churning out “value” somehow socially, beyond and ontologically before the labour process. It is actual work for capital, indistinguishable in character from that which I perform in my working day, but occurring in my sleeping mind. Suddenly the nightmarish idea of some new kind of subsumption — one that involves a transformation of the very structures of consciousness — begins to look meaningful. Indeed, I find that standard paths of thought seem increasingly burned into my mind: the momentary recognition that there is a problem with something prompts a fleeting consideration of which bit of code that problem lies in, before I consciously jolt my mind out of code-world and into the recognition that “bugfixing” does not solve all problems. Comical as it sounds, there is something terrifying here.

Beyond the specific syntax of a language, isn’t it a particular logic, or way of operating that is brought into play when one thinks in this way? It is one that I suspect is not neutral: the abstract, instrumental logic of high-tech capitalism. A logic of discrete processes, operations, resources. A logic tied to particular “ontologies”: the objects, classes, and instances of “object-oriented programming”, the entities of markup languages like HTML. This is the logic which increasingly inhabits my thought. And when thought becomes a mode of activity that is productive for capital — the work for which one is actually paid — when that mode of activity becomes a habit of mind that springs into motion “as if by love possessed”, independent of one’s willed, intentional exertion, doesn’t this prompt us to wonder whether the worker here is entirely the bourgeois subject that capital always summoned to the marketplace: whether the subject of this labour process is the centred individual who would set about making his own world if it were not for the alienating, abstractive power of value? When I find myself observing myself sleep-working, I observe myself acting in an alienated way, thinking in a manner that is foreign to me, working outside of the formal labour process through the mere spontaneous act of thought. Who is to say that the overcoming of this “alienation” will not be that language taking its place as mother-tongue: that alienation will not entirely swallow that which it alienates?