24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

The early war on sleep: Arkwright’s Cotton Mills By Night, 1782 by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Our beat on this blog has been appropriate technology, gardening and urban homesteading (whatever that means!). Ironically, Kelly and I have had to spend a lot of time in front of screens researching and writing about these very analog subjects that, for the most part, involve an off-line engagement with the natural world. We’ve done this at a time of the explosive growth of social media. Early on there was a line of thought that social media could be used for positive social movements. I think it’s safe to say that, at this point, only the most fervent Silicon Valley cultists still have any faith in garbage products like Facebook and Twitter.

My own ideas about the internet have whipsawed over the years from an enthusiastic optimism in the 1990s to, more recently, a gut feeling that we need to just burn it all down. Two books I’ve read in recent months fall into that burn it all down category. One, a collection of William Morris’ political writings, and the other, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Morris and Crary have much in common. Writing in the 19th century, Morris could see the brutal trajectory of industrial capitalism. Writing in our own century Crary itemizes the wreckage in a screed that the Los Angeles Review of Books described as, “a polemic as finely concentrated as a line of pure cocaine.”

24/7 takes, as its central metaphor, capitalism’s war on sleep. The book opens with a description of the U.S. military’s attempt to develop the means to eliminate the need for sleep as well as its use of sleep deprivation as torture. But we don’t need to reside in some CIA black site to find ourselves sleep deprived. Capitalism, ever seeking to extract value from the planet and from human life, seeks to eliminate, though keeping us glued to screens, the hours we sleep.

Central to Crary’s argument is capitalism’s “relentless capture and control of time and experience” through the use of addiction technologies that both keep us tied to our screen and control, narrow and channel the content of our communication. For Crary, the idea that these technologies are somehow neutral is absurd and, in the words of philosopher Giorgio Agamben, a “product of the media apparatus in which they are captured.”

Crary believes that the internet co-evolved with a particularly brutal stage of free-market capitalism that’s come to be called neo-liberalism. This isn’t a coincidence. Our communication technologies, Crary believes, are intertwined with our economic system.

Bowling Alone
I was particularly excited by a passage in the book where Crary mentions something that I’ve long noticed but never heard anyone else talk about, the media’s obsession with religious cults. It’s not that there aren’t such destructive groups, but the sheer number of documentaries about cults seems more about what Crary calls a “bourgeois horror of the crowd” that forecloses the possibility of communitarian forms of mutual support.

There are the countless narratives of cult-like communes of obedient converts ruled by homicidal madmen and cynical manipulators. Echoing bourgeois fears in the late nineteen century following 1871, the idea of a commune derived from any form of socialism remains systemically intolerable. The cooperative, as a lived set of relations, cannot actually be made visible–it can only be represented as a parodic replication of existing relations of domination. In many different ways, the attack on values of collectivity and cooperation is articulated through the notion that freedom is to be free of any dependence on other, while in fact we are experiencing a more comprehensive subjection to the “free” working of markets. As Harold Bloom has shown, the real American religion is “to be free of other selves.”

We get, in Crary’s words, “the elimination or the financialization of social arrangements that had previously supported many kinds of cooperative activity” through the false communitarianism of social media.

This brutal, every man for himself ethos intersects with the war on sleep in issues such as the way we deal with homelessness.

Public spaces are now comprehensively planned to deter sleeping, often including–with an intrinsic cruelty–the serrated design of benches and other elevated surfaces that prevent a human body from reclining on them. The pervasive but social disregarded phenomenon of urban homelessness entails many deprivations, yet few are more acute than the hazards and insecurities of unsheltered sleep.

Where do we go from here?
The book was written almost 10 years ago in 2013, but the only thing that dates this book is Crary’s attack on blogging which he calls a “one-way model of auto-chattering in which the possibility of ever having to wait and listen to someone else has been eliminated.” Guilty as charged, but blogging now seems quaint next to the horrors of social media which was only just gestating when Crary wrote 24/7.

Perhaps to update his argument a bit Crary’s has a new book, Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World which continues many of the themes developed in 24/7. To extract a personal strategy from either of these books is to miss the point. Pervasive, addictive technologies must be confronted in solidarity with other people. Nevertheless, books like these make me more inclined to pick up a garden spade or hand plane rather than a laptop and recognize how privileged I am to be able to make that choice.

Peter Kalmus Arrested in Climate Change Protest

I’ve taken a break from Twitter for a few weeks and so missed friend of the blog Peter Kalmus’ arrest this past week for locking himself to the JP Morgan Chase building in downtown Los Angeles. Peter, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, says in an editorial for the Guardian that he and other activists, part of Scientist Rebellion, chose Chase because the bank funds the most new fossil fuel projects.

Explaining his action Peter says,

Nothing has worked. It’s now the eleventh hour and I feel terrified for my kids, and terrified for humanity. I feel deep grief over the loss of forests and corals and diminishing biodiversity. But I’ll keep fighting as hard as I can for this Earth, no matter how bad it gets, because it can always get worse. And it will continue to get worse until we end the fossil fuel industry and the exponential quest for ever more profit at the expense of everything else. There is no way to fool physics.

As this protest took place during a week when temperatures here broke records you’d think that the local media would have said something but there wasn’t a peep about it with the exception of the excellent LA Podcast.

Peter was a guest on episodes 39 and 116 of our podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @ClimateHuman. There’s a fundraiser for his and other activist’s legal defense here.

iMac Drive Upgrade

The old drive covered in 12 years worth of dust.

I belong to a cult. In my cult we have different levels achieved at great expense. The leadership is authoritarian and opaque. We use technology to mediate our experiences. The headquarters is in California.

The cult is called Apple and I’m in deep and have been for a long time. Since 2010, most of the thousands of posts on this blog have their origins on the dusty drive you see above.

I always think of the way Umberto Eco described the Apple cult and its main competitor,

Indeed, the Macintosh is counterreformist and has been influenced by the “ratio studiorum” of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

Over the last year I’ve set out on a project to demystify Apple’s closed system by popping open its sleek minimalist objects to peer inside, to fix and prolong the life of a motley set of Apple junk I’ve come into possession of. I repaired an iPod and a iPad. Last week I revived my 2010 iMac.

In order to upgrade that iMac with a new solid state drive, I had to find an identification number. The i.d. number I needed was printed on the bottom of the “foot” that holds the heavy screen in a microscopic type printed gray on a gray background. Apple has a fetishistic design aesthetic that I’ve come to see as getting in the way of the functioning of the machine. The USB ports, for instance are placed in an awkward to access rear portion of the screen so as not to interfere with the sleek look of the damned thing.

To peak under the foot of the iMac I had to lean it back and use my iPhone camera to magnify the type. As I leaned the heavy iMac I inadvertently tipped over a small statue of the Egyptian god Anubis that had been banished to the windowsill of the walk in closet above my computer. Anubis fell and struck my iPhone, shattering the screen. So I had to add a new iPhone screen to my computer parts order (!).

In a technological realm designed for easy repair, which is not the capitalist world we live in, you’ be able to easily access all the interior parts of your computer. Such is not the case, of course, with an iMac. It’s not the worst repair project I’ve ever tackled but I wouldn’t call it easy either. You have to carefully lift the heavy screen out of the case and detach a bunch of delicate cables in order to access the old drive.

Once you put the iMac back together you have to install new system software. I’ll spare you the details but just say that Apple makes it difficult to install legacy software on old machines. In order to do it I needed another old machine and some arcane commands in the terminal application to get the iMac working again.

The end result is a remarkably fast and new seeming computer. The old drive in my circa 2010 iMac could not keep up with system and program demands and became so slow as to be unusable. The new solid state drive I installed makes for a new computer good enough for most of the tasks I use it for. You can do this same upgrade with old mac laptops.

Still, the arduous process of ugrading this machine made me want to deprogram myself from the Apple cult and join up with the Linux folks and some more user-configurable machine.

If you want to try this iMac upgrade for yourself here’s how to do it.

Is it Cake?

Could of read, watched something good or just taken a walk but no, had to waste a precious hour of my life on the new Netflix show Is it Cake? which turns the pandemic trend of similacrum cake art into yet another competitive, “reality” TV show.

Is it Cake? is hyperactive, annoying and unfunny while constantly reminding you that it’s hyperactive, annoying and unfunny. It could just be the show at the end of history that portends the imminent eclipse of civilization. Watch just one episode and you’re ready to return to the pre-dawn of human consciousness, foraging tubers with your bare hands, unaware of your own mortality.

And yet you’ll be tempted to skip to the last two episodes which will plunge you into the extremes of post-modern skepticism. In the penultimate show, you’ll find out that the final bake-off involves making a cake that is a simulation of cake, which leads the contestants in the show to question if everything is, in fact, made of cake, that we’re living in a vast cake simulation.

In the the last episode the losing contestants, angry at missing out on the $10,000 prize and driven mad with their epistemological cake crisis, set out to slice the meta-obnoxious host in half with a Katana sword to see if he is, in fact, cake. They then stumble out of the studio, armed with more swords, machetes and knives, to slice open everything and everyone in sight to test their thesis that reality itself is make of cake. We the viewers, caught up in the cake or not cake question smash up our smart TVs to find out if they are made of cake only to discover that they are not cake and the cycle ends.

But then, too distracted to read a book, we open our laptops to this very blog post which concludes with the revelation that someone paid, via Cameo, the famous for being famous (rappers? unususual hair dudes?) Island Boy twins to read a passage from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

And the cycle begins again.

Community Power! Elect Hugo Soto-Martinez!

I live in the most corrupt city in the United States, Los Angeles. A quarter of our city council is either in prison or under investigation. The way you get elected to the city council here is to take money from developers and real estate financiers. Once you get in office you serve those interests. Between elections you fix the occasional pothole and show up for photo ops when there’s a new star on the Walk of Fame. Meanwhile, income inequality, unafordable housing, homelessness, and traffic deaths have increased.

Nobody epitomizes this status quo and lack of vision more than my city current councilman Mitch O’Farrell. In the nine years he’s sat on the city council he’s failed to advocate for housing and services for the homeless and instead has pursued a discredited policy of criminalizing poverty. Instead of pushing for safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists he’s failed to implement even modest improvements and, as a result, our streets are grim, high speed traffic sewers. He and his staff fill their hours by serving the interests of a parasitic class of real estate investors, bloated non-profits and lobbyists who are his patrons.

Thankfully we have a chance to change things for the better by electing Hugo Soto-Martinez for council district 13. Hugo is the son of street vendors and has spent the last fifteen years as an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 11, a union of hotel, warehouse and food service workers. Once elected Hugo will represent the interests of ordinary working people. He supports building social housing, jobs programs and making our streets safer for everyone. You can read more about his platform on his website.

Electing Hugo is just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to do to turn this city around. Thankfully, more people are starting to pay attention to local elections. You can help out by going to my fundraising page for Hugo and chipping in a few dollars.

Wherever you are you can be a part of change at the local level. I believe that Hugo is a great model for community power. Let’s take Los Angeles back by electing Hugo in June!