By Séveric Yersin |

“Wanna learn more about your sleeping habits and create a better routine?” asks one of the smartwatch producers dominating the market. “When I fall asleep,” the woman explains in the dedicated ad, my watch “checks my heart rate and measures my blood oxygen. So I can track how I’ve been sleeping.” The promise is that by using this cutting-edge technology, you will be able to find a solution to the difficulties of finding sleep, avoid waking up in the middle of the night for no reason, and wake up more rested and serene every day of your life. The dream of total rest is thus within reach – something humanity, apparently, longed for.

The object reveals more about contemporary concerns than one might imagine at first glance. Critics have not failed to see in it the extension of ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Soshana Zuboff) to the last place it has left to colonise – sleep, rest, the unproductive moment par excellence. But this tendency to control, manage and transform our sleep into an antechamber of our productive workday underlines something deeper – something the writings of Roger Ekirch highlights. As one of the pioneers of so-called sleep studies in the social sciences, he has been interested in the way in which the industrialisation of the 19th century has modified sleep. In other words: far from being the last oasis of tranquility, sleep appears to have been profoundly affected by the modernisation of the last two hundred years. The sleek spy-watch is only the most recent expression of this.

Roger Ekirch’s thesis is relatively simple. In pre-industrial societies, sleep was not achieved in one uninterrupted block of eight hours, as is common today, but in two phases of two to four hours duration separated by a break. After a phase of deep, regenerative ‘first sleep’, a period of wakefulness often follows, before a return to lighter ‘second sleep’. During this intermediate pause, individuals engage in more or less quiet activities – prayer, meditation, but also night-time washing, sexual intercourse or discussion of dreams – without completely interrupting their rest: the twelve or so hours of relative darkness thus see phases of sleep and wakefulness that are more dynamic than generally imagined. It is only with the generalisation of artificial lighting, particularly electric lighting, that the limits of productive time extend into the evening and morning, forcing sleep to be no more than a moment of regeneration of the forces necessary for work, a sleep calling for rationalisation. With industrialisation, the time available for rest is thus reduced to a rigid schedule, a block of six to eight hours for the most privileged, a block to be consumed in one go – and non-standardised forms are gradually perceived as pathologies. Alcohol, sleeping pills and the like: solutions are multiplying to a problem caused by the organisation of work, daily life, production and exchange.

Robert Ekirch’s thesis are, admittedly, not always bulletproof and sometimes a bit conjectural. Still, they are worth considering: why do most people stick to a sleeping schedule that seems so off-balance? Now that many office workers and academics are used to working from home, how will this relative freedom impact the way people sleep? The afternoon nap – the famous siesta – could make a comeback in near future, or sleeping late may be seen as less problematic, as sleep schedules are being adjusted to biological needs instead of societal norms.

An interesting question to ask around is: how do you sleep? Let’s start this conversation, and post the answers in the comment section or share tips about the topic.

Séveric Yersin is a PhD Candidate at the University of Basel and at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris.

Photo by Becca Schultz on Unsplash