Laura Gascoigne

How capitalism killed sleep

The modern plague of insomnia has its roots in our 24/7 culture, suggests a new exhibition at Somerset House

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What can you make a joke about these days? All the old butts of humour are off limits. No wonder the top ten jokes at the Edinburgh Fringe are starting to sound as though they were banged out in a cracker factory. But this one, from Ross Smith, did make me laugh: ‘Sleep is my favourite thing in the world. It’s the reason I get up in the morning.’

If laughter is an escape valve for our fears, then sleep, or the lack of it, is now comic material. When 10 per cent of the population pops sleeping pills at least three times a week, self-help books about sleep — yawn, yawn — are international bestsellers and the President of the United States is up tweeting before the birds, something has gone awry in the land of nod. Meanwhile 19 per cent of us are online for more than 40 hours a week. Could the statistics be related? The curators of 24/7 think we should be told.

Inspired by Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Somerset House’s new exhibition brings together works by 50 multidisciplinary artists examining the root causes of our sleeplessness and proposing solutions. The trouble started, obviously, with artificial light, but before the Industrial Revolution burning the midnight oil was an indulgence of the educated classes who could afford the fuel, and the laudanum, to counter the effects. Then along came gas lighting and 24-hour production, and bang went the body clocks of the working classes.

The northern painter of lamplight, Joseph Wright of Derby, made one of the first visual records of round-the-clock production in the 1790s when he painted ‘Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night’ with all its windows lit up like an advent calendar at Christmas. Sir Richard Arkwright invented the modern factory, but it was Josiah Wedgwood at his Staffordshire pottery who introduced ‘clocking in’ by means of a bell and a human timekeeper, eventually replaced by a mechanical stamp. The show includes a basic model manufactured by the Warwick Time Stamp Company in around 1890, but major employers like the Central Telegraph Office preferred the fancy dial version launched by the International Time Recording Company in 1905, promising ‘1,500 people registered in five minutes. Collusion, favouritism or errors are impossible.’ The company later became IBM.

In our own telecommuting era, every home is a potential non-stop workplace illuminated by the blue light of a digital screen. Where once sleep filled the idle hours between dusk and dawn, it is now regarded as a waste of time and money. ‘In its profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity, with the incalculable losses it causes in production time, circulation and consumption, sleep’, says Crary, ‘subsists as one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism.’ As the CEO of Netflix freely admits: ‘Our biggest competitor is sleep.’ For global media conglomerates, shut-eye is a dead loss; the winners among them, Crary points out, will be ‘those who succeed in maximising the number of eyeballs’. In Benjamin Grosser’s supercut video ‘Order of Magnitude’ (2019) we see Mark Zuckerberg manically ringing up totals of eyeballs. Grosser’s edit of 14 years’ worth of videoed appearances by the Facebook CEO has him firing out growth figures like an auctioneer on speed, only catching his breath for an instant to remark: ‘A billion is a kind of arbitrary number; it’s a nice round number but it’s kind of arbitrary.’

While our eyeballs are occupied, we’re being watched. The show traces the evolution of the surveillance society from Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 design for a ‘Panopticon, or Inspection House — A New Type of Prison’ to the diary-room chair from the first Big Brother series, which you can pay money to charity to sit in. Now we live in a sousveillance society in which self-tracking allows employers to monitor productivity and fitness through their employees’ own mobile devices. Fortunately these are easy to fool. Tega Brain and Surya Mattu show us how in ‘Unfit Bits’ (2015), a display of elementary ways of hacking the system, from swinging your phone in a desktop cradle to clipping your fitbit to a ticking metronome. ‘Free your fitness — free yourself — free your fitness from yourself,’ urges the accompanying LIVE SMART video: wave bye-bye to the quantified workplace, and off to bye-byes.

A simpler way of tuning out and turning off was trialled by Nastja Sade Ronkko during a six-month residency at Somerset House when she foreswore the internet, reverted to foolscap, snail mail and old-fashioned paper maps and, one imagines, slept like a baby. But not everyone has that luxury. Never mind the workers, what about the sleep-deprived executives with no slack in their schedules in which to log off? For them Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard have come up with the idea of ‘Somnoproxy’ (2019): being paid a fee to sleep on other people’s behalf. Their immersive installation gives a taste of what might be involved, if you’re prepared to lie for 15 minutes in a darkened room being lulled into a hypnagogic state by flashing lights and a rumbling electronic soundtrack while being told a bedtime story. I submitted and would have drifted off had the soundtrack not been suddenly interrupted by the buzz of a mosquito in my left ear.

A mosquito in November? Clearly an insect with no sense of time. Even the birds, apparently, are losing it. Increasing noise and light pollution are causing urban songbirds to clock on earlier and sing louder and at a higher pitch, like competitive X Factor contestants. The most chilling contribution to the show is Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s ‘Machine Auguries’ (2019), a false dawn chorus in which the warbles of real birds — redstarts, robins, thrushes — are progressively swamped by machine-learned synthetic birdcalls. Pigeons are the canaries in the mine in Mat Collishaw’s ‘The Machine Zone 00-01’ (2019), an installation of animatronic avian skeletons obsessively pecking at buttons in glass cases. It recalls the experiments with birds in ‘operant conditioning chambers’ by which the behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner first demonstrated the addictive effect of the sorts of rewards now distributed by social media algorithms.

Is there no escape? Catherine Richards’s ‘Shroud/Chrysalis 1’ (2000) offers a respite from electromagnetic signals from mobile phones to anyone prepared to be wrapped head-to-foot in a copper blanket, but the danger is not from other people’s mobiles; it’s from our own. Outside the exhibition MetroNaps have provided two EnergyPods ‘for sleeping on the job’; when I came out, one of their occupants was busy with his phone. The whole experience left me with an urgent craving for profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity. But perhaps the inability to switch off is a simple fact of modern life. It’s probably no coincidence that the master of pre-digital social media, Andy Warhol, devoted a five-hour film to the subject of sleep. ‘Being born is like being kidnapped,’ he said. ‘And then sold into slavery. People are working every minute. The machinery is always going. Even when you sleep.’

24/7: A Wake-Up Call for our Non-Stop World is at Somerset House until 23 February 2020.