For 21st century military planners and strategists whose primary concern is total dominance, any distinction between night and day is irrelevant. It’s no surprise that DARPA, the advanced research division of the Pentagon, spends large amounts of money to discover ways to enable soldiers to go without sleep. In laboratories across North America, scientists are conducting experimental trials of sleeplessness techniques, including neurochemicals, gene therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation. The near-term goal is to find ways for a combatant to go without sleep for seven days—and in the longer term perhaps two weeks—while preserving high levels of mental and physical performance. Existing means of producing sleeplessness have inevitably been accompanied by troublesome cognitive and psychic side effects, such as reduced alertness. This was the case with the widespread use of amphetamines in most 20th century wars and more recently with drugs such as Provigil. The quest now is not to find ways to stimulate wakefulness but to reduce the body’s need for sleep.
The larger goal of this research is to enable human beings to more closely mimic technological devices and networks. The corporate-military complex wants to develop forms of “augmented cognition” that will supposedly enhance many kinds of human-machine interaction. As history has shown, the broader society inevitably assimilates war-related innovations; the sleepless soldier becomes the forerunner of the sleepless worker or consumer. When aggressively promoted by pharmaceutical companies, products that induce sleeplessness would first become a lifestyle option and eventually, for many, a necessity.
Around-the-clock markets and a global infrastructure for unceasing work and consumption have existed for some time, but soon we will be forced to coincide with them even more intensively. Only recently have our personal and social identities been reorganized to conform to the uninterrupted operation of markets, information networks and other systems.
A 24/7 world refashions human life into a duration without breaks, defined by the principle of continuous functioning. It is beyond clock time. It is a time that no longer passes.
Behind the banality of the catchphrase, 24/7 is a reordering of experience severed from the rhythm of human life. It connotes an arbitrary, uninflected schema of a week, devoid of varied or cumulative experience. To say “24/365,” for example, would not be the same, for this suggests an extended temporality in which something could actually change, in which unforeseen events might happen. The 24/7 reality resembles a social world, but it is actually an abstract model of performance and a suspension of living that doesn’t disclose the human cost required to sustain it. It must be distinguished from what philosopher Georg Lukács and others in the early 20th century identified as the empty, homogeneous time of modernity, the metric or calendar time of nations, finance and industry, from which individual hopes and projects were excluded. What is new here is the sweeping abandonment of the assumption that time is coupled to any long-term undertakings, even to fantasies of progress or development.
This makes 24/7 a time of indifference, against which the fragility of human life is increasingly inadequate and within which sleep has no necessity or inevitability. In relation to labor, it renders plausible, even normal, the idea of working without pause, without limits. It is aligned with the inanimate, inert and unaging. As an advertising exhortation it announces the absoluteness of availability and hence the boundlessness of our desires. We are long past an era in which we accumulated mainly things. Now our bodies assimilate an ever-expanding overload of services, images and chemicals to a toxic or even fatal threshold.
The long-term survival of the individual is undesirable if it includes even the possibility of interludes without shopping or its frenetic promotion. In related ways, 24/7 is inseparable from environmental catastrophe because it entails permanent expenditure and endless waste. It disrupts the cycles on which ecological survival depends.
But sleep—with its profound uselessness, intrinsic passivity and incalculable loss of productivity and consumption—will always collide with the demands of a 24/7 universe. The portion of our lives that we spend asleep, freed from fulfilling a proliferation of false needs, subsists as one of the great human rebukes to the voraciousness of contemporary culture. Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of capitalism’s theft of our time. Most of our seemingly irreducible appetites—hunger, thirst, sexual desire and, recently, the need for friendship—have now been commodified or financialized. Sleep, however, is an interval of human time that can’t be colonized and harnessed to an engine of profitability (sleeping pills and mattresses notwithstanding). It thus remains an anomaly and the site of crisis in the global present. Despite the scientific research in this area, sleep frustrates any strategies to exploit or reshape it. The inconceivable truth is that no meaningful monetary value can be extracted from sleep.
Given the immensity of what is at stake economically, we shouldn’t be surprised that there is now an erosion of sleep everywhere. Throughout the 20th century, steady inroads were made against the time of sleep. The average American adult now sleeps approximately six and a half hours a night, down from eight hours a generation ago and (hard as it is to believe) 10 hours in the early 20th century. In the mid–20th century the familiar adage that we spend a third of our lives asleep seemed to be axiomatic, but now it is a quaint assumption that continues to be undermined. Sleep is a ubiquitous but unseen reminder of the premodern agricultural world that began disappearing 400 years ago. But that world has never been fully vanquished. Sleep embeds in our lives the rhythmic oscillations of solar light and darkness, activity and rest, work and recuperation. Such oscillations have been eradicated or neutralized elsewhere.
In spite of its insubstantiality and abstraction as a slogan, the implacability of 24/7 is in its impossible temporality. It is always a disparagement of the frailty and limits of human time, with its blurred, meandering textures. It effaces the relevance or value of respite and variability. Its celebration of perpetual “on-demand” access conceals its eradication of the periodicity that shaped most cultures for several millennia. The daily pulse of waking and sleeping, and the longer alternations between days of work and a day of worship or rest, became a seven-day week for ancient Mesopotamians, Hebrews and others. The weekend is the modern residue of those long-standing systems, but even this marking of time erodes in 24/7 homogeneity. Naturally these earlier distinctions (individual days of the week, holidays, seasonal breaks) persist, but their significance is being erased by the monotonous indistinctions of 24/7.
Of course, people will continue to sleep. Even sprawling megacities will still have nocturnal intervals of relative quiet. But sleep is now an experience cut loose from notions of necessity and nature. Instead, like so much else, it is defined only instrumentally and physiologically. Recent research has shown that the number of people who wake themselves up at least once a night to check messages is growing exponentially. One seemingly inconsequential but prevalent phrase is sleep mode. The notion of a machine in a state of low-power readiness remakes the larger sense of sleep into just a deferred or diminished condition of operationality and access. It supersedes an off/on logic. Nothing is ever fundamentally “off,” and there is never an actual state of rest.
According to the logic of global capitalism, sleep is an irrational and intolerable affirmation that there might be limits to how compatible we can be with the allegedly irresistible forces of modernization. One of the truisms of what passes for contemporary wisdom is that there are no unalterable givens of nature. Even death, we are told, will be overcome when we download our minds into digital immortality. To believe that there are any essential features that distinguish living beings from machines is, we are told by celebrated critics, naive and delusional. Why should anyone object if new drugs could allow us to work at our jobs 100 hours straight? Wouldn’t flexible and reduced sleep time allow us more personal freedom? Grant us the ability to customize our lives in accordance with our individual needs and desires? Wouldn’t less sleep allow more chance for “living life to the fullest”?
One might object that human beings are meant to sleep at night, that our bodies are aligned with the daily rotation of our planet and that seasonal and solar-responsive behaviors occur in almost every living organism. To which the reply would likely be: This is just pernicious New Age nonsense. Within the globalist neoliberal paradigm, sleep is for losers.
As the major remaining obstacle to the full realization of 24/7 operations, sleep cannot be eliminated. But it can be wrecked and despoiled. And the methods and motivations to accomplish this wrecking are fully in place. With the collapse of regulated forms of capitalism in the United States and Europe, rest and recuperation are no longer necessary components of economic growth and profitability. Allotting time for human rest and regeneration is now simply too expensive within contemporary capitalism. Sleeplessness is the state in which producing, consuming and discarding occur without pause, hastening the exhaustion of life and depletion of resources. The injuring of sleep is inseparable from the ongoing dismantling of social protections in other spheres. Just as access to clean drinking water has been programmatically diminished around the globe, with the accompanying monetization of bottled water, we can see a similar construction of scarcity in relation to sleep. All the encroachments on it create the insomniac conditions in which sleep must be bought (even if we are paying for a chemically modified state that only approximates actual sleep). In 2012 nearly 60 million pills such as Ambien or Lunesta were prescribed to Americans. Millions more bought over-the-counter sleep products.
Clearly, no one can ever shop, game, work, blog, download or text 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, since no moment, place or situation now exists in which we cannot shop, consume or exploit networked resources, there is a relentless incursion of nontime into every aspect of our lives. There are now, for example, almost no circumstances that cannot be recorded, displayed or archived as digital imagery or information. The promotion and adoption of wireless technologies, and their annihilation of the singularity of place and event, are simply aftereffects of new institutional requirements. In its despoliation of the rich textures and ambiguities of human time, 24/7 urges an unsustainable and self-liquidating identification with its phantasmic requirements. It solicits an open-ended but always unfinished investment in the many products for facilitating this identification. This new model may not eliminate experiences external to or unreliant on it, but it does impoverish and diminish them.
Located somewhere on the border between the social and the natural, sleep ensures the presence in the world of the phasic and cyclical patterns that are essential to life and incompatible with capitalism. Because capitalism cannot limit itself, the notion of preservation or conservation is impossible. Against this background, the restorative stillness of sleep counters the deathliness of all the accumulation, financialization and waste that have devastated anything we once held in common.
Within the immense domains of sleep, damaged but abiding at the heart of life, are a multitude of dreams. But one thread of dreaming supersedes all others: It is of a shared world whose fate is not terminal, a world without billionaires that has a future that is neither barbaric nor post-human, one in which history can take on forms other than worn-out nightmares of catastrophe. It’s possible that in many different places, in many disparate states, including reverie and daydream, the imaginings of a future without capitalism begin as dreams of sleep. These would be intimations of sleep as a radical interruption, as a refusal of the unsparing weight of our global present, of sleep that—at the most mundane level of everyday experience—can always rehearse the outlines of what more consequential renewals and beginnings might be.
Jonathan Crary, professor of modern art at Columbia University, is author of 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control; National Sleep Foundation