From the other side of the bridge (Milan, April 2024)

19.57, Friday 3 May 2024

I spoke on 18 April at UNFOLD, an event hosted by Domus Academy in Milan as part of this year’s Design Week. Students from 6 international design schools presented their work over the day with an accompanying exhibition, and I was honoured to open the event. I chose to speak about dreams. This is an essay version of my talk, adapted for this blog.

Here’s a list of my upcoming and recent speaking gigs. I just put together this list. My first ever gig was in February 2004 which is frankly ludicrous.

I want to pull on a thread about dreams, and AI hallucinations, and - well - public policy I guess?

There’s the story of the black replica MA-1 flight jacket made by Japanese fashion brand Buzz Rickson’s. It featured in Pattern Recognition (2003) by William Gibson.

It didn’t exist, the jacket. It hadn’t been made. So then Buzz Rickson’s produced it, in response to people contacting them about it. An object from the other side of the bridge, Gibson said. As previously discussed.

The structure of DNA came in a dream.

The structure of benzene came in a dream.

In 1943 the M9 Gun Director was a breakthrough in anti-aircraft artillery, compensating for target motion, wind, rotating of the Earth and so on. It inaugurated real-time computing, and human-machine symbiosis, and inspired Norbert Wiener to conceive of cybernetics, that trading space of ideas that led to the modern computer and - for better and worse - today’s technology landscape.

The M9 was invented by engineer David Bigelow Parkinson. It came to him in a dream.

Then there’s Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article As We May Think, also previously discussed, published in The Atlantic. The central character of the essay was a non-existence device called the Memex: a design fiction! It became real in the form of the PC and Wikipedia too. Objects from the other side of the bridge.

So dreams and fiction have power.

Another kind of dream.

That breakthrough AI image generator by Google back in 2015… remember those squirrels made out of puppy faces? It blew our minds back then, me included. The software was called Deep Dream.

We use the word “hallucination” a lot when we talk about AI today but usually in a pejorative way.

True, hallucinations have downsides: ChatGPT is making up fake Guardian articles (2023).

Yet I built an iPhone app that points to the centre of the galaxy using that very same ChatGPT, hallucinations and all. Here’s how I built it.

Here’s some of the press for Galactic Compass.

Some mornings I wake up to emails from people in a really tough spot in their lives (I’ll quote anonymously):

It soothes me to check your compass several times a day and rest assured that the galaxy keeps spinning, it will after my father passes, it will after I pass, and if life is such a heap of nothingness, it’s up for us to decide what to do with our remaining time and to pick our direction as best as we can, irrespective of what any compass may point to.

From hallucinations!

I get dumb ideas in my head a whole bunch.

I couldn’t build this one on my own. I tried for a couple years and couldn’t quite persuade anyone to help me. They were into it, sure, but - rightly! - it wasn’t anyone’s priority but mine.

You know, just as fish are swum by slipping between flowing vortices, I can slip-hop-skip off the hallucinations of AI. And I brought this app back from the other side of the bridge.

We may damn AI because of hallucinations but it’s accelerating us into a world that seems directly out of fiction:

  • Project CETI (previously) is attempting to use AI to understand the language of whales.
  • Figure AI is one of several startups making general purpose humanoid robots – planning and instruction following have been intractable problems for home robotics, and AI solved these problems at a stroke. Robots will happen fast.
  • Prophetic AI is this year releasing a headband using ultrasonics to to induce and stabilize lucid dreams.

Back to dreaming!

That last one closes an interesting loop. Scientists already figured out two-way communication with individuals in lucid dreams: Real-time dialogue between experimenters and dreamers during REM sleep (The Cell, 2021).


AI is a general purpose accelerant. Accelerating the weird, amazing future. I’m enjoying it. But capitalism too.

(The idea that our current era is “late capitalism” is an optimistic one, I always say. What if we’re only halfway through?)

If the lucid dreaming headband works as promised, which I doubt to be honest but let’s go with it, we may use it to live out fantasies in a wetware metaverse, sure, but I would be unsurprised if where I end up is running Microsoft Excel Hypnogogic Edition on my colonised unconscious, grinding out a second job between midnight and 4am.

That’s my point.

William Gibson’s black replica MA-1 flight jacket compelled people to make it real.

The compelling dreams around AI are… well, I’d like us all to work harder around that.

For instance.

“AI is taking our jobs.”

Why that fear, in particular?

If there had been some promising technology that might “take our jobs” in the era that The Jetsons was broadcast, we’d probably have seen it as leading us to a life of leisure.

So why don’t we hear that from our politicians?

Why doesn’t the leader of the Labour party stand up and say:

Let’s have a three day weekend. The two day weekend has been generally available only since 1878. It was the dividend of the Industrial Revolution. That was 150 years ago. We won’t be able to reduce the working week by a whole day over the next electoral period, it’s not a 4 year project. It’s a 30 year project. It’ll be our North Star for a generation. But we’ll get there. Let’s make the dividend of technology increased leisure for all of us, instead of racing to achieve the world’s first trillionaire.

Yes I’ve suggested this before.

A failure of our collective dreams.

Instead the “compensation” for the loss of jobs is to pay people off: Universal Basic Income.

But being given simply the ability to consume is an impoverished life.

From Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich:

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.

We are within touching distance of this vision!

Look at my new-found ability to build an app, the Galactic Compass I mentioned earlier: it’s the amazing gift of AI, that the gains are disproportionately felt by people with skills in the bottom half of the bell curve (source). I am now proudly midwit everything! A joy.

So rather than Universal Basic Income we should pursue Universal Basic Agency.

It’s AI so-called hallucinations that will get us there.

Framing can be powerful.

A dream can be a hyperstition.

Hyperstitions bring about their own realitythat’s Nick Land.


A hyperstition is the opposite of a superstition. A superstition is a “false belief” but a hyperstition is an idea that operates in culture to bring about its own reality.

This is a term I’ve come to prefer to “design fiction” because it foregrounds the goal of autonomous persuasion.

It is wild to me that the clearest visualisation of a world in which high technology is used to live in accordance with the Earth, and to relish in family life, a solarpunk vision, is a TV commercial called Dear Alice (YouTube) by animation house The Line and yoghurt manufacturer Chobani. (To note: Chobani are pretty progressive in their own right.)

Like, more of that please??

But for policy makers.

So I feel that this is something special that artists and designers do.

Whether we call it design fiction or pathfinding or the manifestation of design and belief, there’s this power - in small ways, sketching an app and enticing the product managers, or in major ways, shifting policy - to dream dreams in such a way that we are all compelled to bring those objects back from the other side of the bridge.

That is my challenge and my hope, and I’m speaking here to a room of new design students at colleges all over the world, showing your work today, this is my challenge and my hope for you.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.