our collective insomnia

Arthur Winfree was a theoretical biologist whose work, among other things, focused on the connections between organisms and the "time-worlds" through which they navigate their "life-worlds." Considering, for example, mosquitoes, Winfree experimented with how certain “time shocks” were reacted to by the objects of the experiment. Manuel DeLanda, in his famous Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, writes the following in relation to Winfree’s research:

Winfree’s main result is, basically, that a singular, critical stimulus applied at a singular, sensitive moment has a destructive effect on the sleep-awake cycle of organisms, giving a population of mosquitoes, for example, permanent insomnia. (2013: 106-107)

In other words, Winfree’s results suggest that certain modifications in an organism’s life-world can rupture the internal relationship that organism has to itself (its rhythms, habits, and so on). This is not, in itself, surprising. Humans tend to obey circadian rhythms, it would seem, partially due to the fact that natural selection tends to “select” modifications that enable the continual development of organism-and-life-world (where the unit of evolutionary selection is not “the organism” but “the organism and its environment”). The human life-world is one experienced largely in terms of the temporal cycle of day-and-night. It makes sense, therefore, that the human-as-organism would come to regulate itself in relation to the life-world (of day-and-night) that it inhabits.

But this self-regulation of which humans (and all other effects of evolutionary processes) are capable of doesn’t always occur quickly. Sometimes there are historical developments or ruptures which off-set the balance and force new adaptations to the fore. Technological innovation and development has, in many – though by no means all – urban areas rendered the distinction between online and offline increasingly problematic or increasingly inapplicable. In sites where this permanent online-ness is operative, we see an expanse of strategies of surveillance, a more pervasive and individually targeted virtual landscape of advertisements to fend off, resist (and often submit to), and the permanent opportunity to be “working.” The erosion of the online/offline distinction bears the potential of eroding the labour/leisure distinction: one can always be consuming and one can always be producing. Indeed, the social injunction is that one ought to be doing precisely these two things, at all times.

When is there time to sleep? That contemporary labour relations wage a war on sleep – where sleep is only valued to the extent that it replenishes calorie-dependent, appetite-dependent, taste-dependent, and liquidity-dependent supplies of human capital, potential productivity and consumption – is no new thing. But let’s say that the “new digital landscape” wages war on sleep in a new way, and therefore commands new responses. The imbrication of neoliberal capitalism and advanced digital technologies tends towards a culture of permanent production, consumption, and, as such, permanent collective insomnia. Has the critical stimulus to produce this collective insomnia in us already been applied, like to the mosquitoes in Winfree’s experiments?


DeLanda, Manuel, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013)