ELECTRIC DREAMS

by Geoff Olson

The other day I could log in but not post on Twitter, even using various devices with different browsers. I felt a milder form of the low-grade panic I experience when my home wi-fi signal evaporates.

Like most of us, I take constant digital connection for granted. I half-expect my Internet service provider to deliver 24/7 without interruption (short of an electromagnetic pulse from a high-atmosphere nuke, or a monster solar flare that would fry telecom networks and reduce us all to communicating face-to-face for months with our mouth parts).

Too tired to puzzle out the online FAQ on Twitter troubleshooting, I decided to sleep it off. I noticed no less than three electronic devices by the bed: an iPad, iPhone and Blackberry.

Now that digital technology has conquered First World bedrooms, the next stage of silicon-carbon intimacy is said to be wearable tech, starting with smart watches. Presumably implants will follow. Then we’ll have SkyNet, time-travelling Terminators, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as Governor of California. (Though I may be confusing Hollywood with real life, which happens when I’m tired.)

But who needs science fiction? Walk into any coffee shop or board public transit, and you’ll see a clutch of strangers in silent communion with their devices, like postindustrial monks. And most of the data flying back and forth isn’t even from us. According to a 2012 study by the Internet firm Incapsula, 51 percent of online traffic at the time was conducted by scrapers, spambots, automated hacking, and search engine indexers, rather than actual human beings.

It seems the only way we can get an extended break from all our clicking, tapping and swiping is by snoozing. Yet a full, restful sleep has become one of the defining status symbols of the extremely wealthy. The rest of us have reportedly lost 15 percent of sleep time since 1960, through overwork, stress, and an inability to stay away from brightly lit screens.

As you probably know, it’s not a good idea for us to use tablets and smart phones late at night because artificial light interferes with the brain’s production of melatonin, a hormone associated with the body’s circadian rhythms and sleep cycles.

Yet turns out that eight hours of unbroken sleep is something of a culturally conditioned habit. In the 1990’s, Virginia Tech history professor A. Roger Ekirch kept coming across references to a ”first sleep” and “second sleep” in historical documents. Homer invoked the term “first sleep” in The Odyssey, as did Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.

Around the same time, psychiatrist and sleep researcher Thomas A. Wehr was researching the effects of artificial light on his patients. When deprived of light bulbs, televisions, computers and other bright sources of light, they slept soundly until midnight, when they would awake and then drift back to sleep. This seemed to be the signature of the first and second sleep tracked by Ekirch.

For millennia, human beings far from the equator went to sleep shortly after the descent of darkness. A night could extend to 10 hours or more, so it’s believed these preindustrial people regularly awakened around midnight, perhaps rising to converse with family members and even visit with neighbours, before returning to their beds and a “second sleep.”

“Remarkably, then, our pattern of consolidated sleep has been a relatively recent development, another product of the industrial age, while segmented sleep was long the natural form of our slumber, having a provenance as old as humankind,” wrote Ekirch in a 2006 editorial for The New York Times. 

Oil lamps were first in disrupting human sleep cycles, followed by electric light bulbs and televisions. Our handheld digital devices are latecomers to the after-hours party.

Ironically, we regularly put these devices into a metaphorical “sleep” they actually don’t require. As Artificial Intelligence begins to disrupt the economy and labour market, this may turn out to be one major evolutionary advantage of silicon-based networks over carbon-based life forms: their unblinking ability to weave a world beyond imagining while our eyes are shut tight.

These are the kind of thoughts that keep me awake at night. Mostly because I’m reading them on an LED screen.

As for Twitter, I’m still persona non grata.

The Vancouver Courier, May 7

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