23.59: I lay in bed, the dark room lit up by the soft glow of my iPhone. I check my messages one last time, scroll through my news aggregator, maybe see if my Amazon order has shipped; then I set the alarm clock and drift to sleep. 06.40: the alarm rings. Within the next 30 minutes, I will use my phone again – messages, news, Facebook feed. Since my spare time, during the rest of day, is also dominated by the presence of internet-enabled devices and video screens, could it mean – as Crary suggests in his book – that sleep is the last “uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism and its corporate players, who compete for dominance over the remains of our everyday?”
The “technology” argument bluntly summarized above is not what I expected when I picked up 24/7. Instead, I imagined that the author would embark on a critique of the modern fixation on allowing access to everything 24 hours, seven days a week. People work late into the evening, and see value in the availability of services outside their job hours (a friend of mine recently sung the praises of his cable provider because it was able to replace his broken box at 9.30 pm, thus rescuing him from an evening without tv). The critique of an always open, always illuminated urbanism is central to Crary’s book, but his thesis isn’t restricted to damning a society and economy that pushes workers to put in extra hours, forces shops to keep open during the nighttime, and demands new laws and regulations that will eventually eliminate the concept of day and night as far as productivity and access to services are concerned.
One of Crary’s more compelling points relates to how our use of technology fits into this idea of unbroken continuity of the individual’s participation in the cog work of capitalism\consumerism. Through our smartphones, tablets, and computers, we are integrated into a mechanism that demands, when we are not producing (working), that we either consume, absorb advertising, or provide collectable information about our habits and preferences. It is largely because of these new portals to a virtual world that our reality resembles “a non-stop work site or an always open shopping mall of infinite choices, tasks, selections, and digressions where producing, consuming, and discarding occur without pause”. The fact that the content offered online is often more appealing to us than a human conversation, then, becomes less scary than the fact that we are developing a habit of perpetual connection to a network that exists for the main purpose of minimizing our down time from economic life. The last unconquered area of our existence, Crary proposes, can only be sleep.
One way through which the uninterrupted integration makes us “useful” even a during our private time is exposure to advertising. Your favorite tv shows are chock full of product placement and models of behavior that prompt imitation. Access to most “instant” media such as YouTube videos requires viewing ads. Ads litter your Facebook feed, and your friends’ Instagram pictures – though which everyone can reinvent themselves as stars to an audience of followers – unconsciously advertise clothes, food, activities, products, and holiday destinations.
We also never stop contributing information about ourselves, our tastes, and our preferences. In Crary’s words, we are “passively and often voluntarily collaborating in our own surveillance and data-mining”, and our “gestures are all recorded, permanently archived, and processed with the aim of predetermining one’s future choices and actions”. Every online activity leaves a trail that defines how we are willing to invest time and money. The omnipresent “Facebook login” button that appears on countless websites and smartphone apps simply ensures that the information you surrender on that service (e.g. your musical tastes on Spotify) ends up in the same place – so that it can be more easily be accessed, analyzed, and sold.
Many of Crary’s ideas are not entirely new, but are energized by the ultra-technological context he describes, and by the clever use of examples from both literature and cinema. Literature, in particular, has always played a fundamental role in social criticism: dystopian authors such as Orwell (1984) and Huxley (Brave New World) have held readers spellbound with tales of societies gone astray, where present day social tensions and fears materialise in a not-too-distant future. The idea of a society of “automatons” – men and woman dehumanised and alienated by the mechanisms of modernity – has also been explored by countless authors and filmmakers outside the science fiction genre. Crary provocatively asks the question: what if the new automatons could function on a low-sleep diet? After all, military scientists have been trying for decades to make the concept of the “sleepless soldier” a reality. Obviously, we are not quite there yet. Much more urgent and disturbing is the picture of a society of individuals who spend every waking hour either producing or contributing information that will define tomorrow’s production, creating and fostering virtual identities, managing virtual friends, and that can only be torn out of this vicious cycle by the arms of Morpheus.
Clocking in at a mere 130 pages, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 is both topical and compelling, and comes highly recommended to anyone interested in the “paradoxes of the expanding, non stop life-world” of modern society. Although uncompromising in its criticism, Crary’s book is not of the “kill your television” kind. It invites readers to look at the bigger picture, to become more curious of what is at work behind their everyday actions. Is is a healthy habit to ask oneself if, and how, behaviors that one considers spontaneous or even linked to one’s identity, are in fact the product of strong outside influences. It might not change one’s behavior in the immediate, but the awareness will remain – and hopefully inform future choices.