Humans Are Developing an Always-On 'Sleep Mode'

Just like our computers.
January 22, 2016, 5:10pm

There was a time when we had two distinct states: we were asleep or awake, off or on. So, too, were our first computers—we turned them on to do work, and switched them off when we were done.

As computers evolved, however, low-power modes have eaten away at this binary, giving us devices that are always just a key press or swipe away from being on. And at the same time, capitalist society has eaten away at our state of rest, with longer working hours and connected devices bringing work into our homes.

We're facing a future in which our sense of the divide between sleep and wakefulness will fade along with the distinction between our devices' states of on and off.

Not everyone sees this as a bad thing. Those who believe in polyphasic sleep—which tries to eliminate "light sleep" and maximize REM (dreaming) and slow wave sleep by taking many short naps a day—have already begun to function in this twilight reality. Similarly, transhumanists who believe we'll soon be more robot than human might see sleep as something to happily optimize out of existence.

But others warn that giving up sleep is sacrificing our last uninterrupted time to capitalism. In his 2013 book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, author Jonathan Crary investigates the 21st century's demand that we and our devices be "always on," both metaphorically and literally, and argues that both have evolved as a way for capitalism to suck value from us for as much of the day as possible.

"It supersedes an off/on logic, so that nothing is ever fundamentally 'off' and there is never an actual state of rest."

"The notion of an apparatus in a state of low-power readiness remakes the larger sense of sleep into simply a deferred or diminished condition of operationality and access," Crary writes. "It supersedes an off/on logic, so that nothing is ever fundamentally 'off' and there is never an actual state of rest."

This isn't just theoretical; our increasingly compromised state of rest is apparent in how we live (and sleep) today. In 2016, Americans are worse at sleeping than we've ever been before. According to the Center for Disease Control, between 50 and 70 million Americans have a "sleep or wakefulness disorder." At least 1,550 people are killed in car accidents due to "drowsy driving" each year, and emergency room visits for sleeping pill overdoses are common, increasing steadily every year.

The increasing prevalence of screens in our lives is at least partially to blame for Americans' sleep problems. The blue light that emanates from our devices has been linked strongly to insomnia (and less convincingly to cancer). A study of 10,000 Norwegian teens found that those who spent more than four hours a day using screens had a 49 percent greater chance of taking longer than an hour to fall asleep. Though apps like f.lux, which adjusts the color of monitors' light over the course of the day to reflect circadian rhythms, have been helpful on this front, they don't work on iPhones or iPads (yet).

Today, we take for granted that our computers, smartphones and tablets are nearly always active. We can access our files, email, Facebook, Twitter, and practically anything else through the internet 24 hours a day. We close our laptops' lids without shutting them down, and open them to find ourselves exactly where we were before.

In an economy where roughly a third of the workforce is freelance, more people are working from home, which means the association of work and sleep is closer than ever. (How many of you can say you've never worked from bed?) Many of us sleep with our phones, never fully turning them off, just plugging them in as we close our eyes to make sure they can wake us in the morning.

We take "power naps," go on vacation to "disconnect," and speak of "recharging" more than "relaxing."

The state of our devices reflects our own dislocation in a world where it is normal be mentally in multiple places at once, where we take "power naps," go on vacation to "disconnect," and speak of "recharging" more than "relaxing." And, ironically enough, our devices' ability to be always on is at least in part because of their ability to "sleep"—to suspend their operations efficiently without completely shutting down.

How did we get here?


"I guess this sounds ridiculous now, but there was a time when monitors were not able to turn themselves off after a period of inactivity," says David Auerbach, a writer at Slate's Future Tense blog and former Microsoft programmer.

For many in my generation, born in the early 90s, the purpose of screen savers—other than as amusing graphics at which to stare—has always been obscure. Their history traces back to cathode ray tube monitors, which needed to keep displayed pixels moving lest they be burned into the monitor permanently. While the need for screen savers diminished as new monitor technology took hold, they set a precedent for a power state that was neither off nor on.

Leaving your computer on indefinitely, as we do now, wasn't really an option in the 90s. The reason for this, according to Auerbach, who worked at Microsoft during that period, was that the then-dominant Windows was unreliable. "How long could you leave a Windows machine up before it would crash or need to be rebooted for some reason? It was on the order of days and maybe weeks," he says.

Boot times were quick on simple machines in the 80s, but as Windows became more complicated, start up times became slower. With the advent of laptops, this was an even bigger hassle—booting takes energy, sapping precious battery life. The combination of a stable operating system that could be left on indefinitely and laptops that needed to save power set the stage for a low power mode to emerge.

At Microsoft, these experiments settled into two distinct low-power modes controlled by the user: sleep and hibernation. Sleep lowered the power usage by turning off the display and telling programs to cut down on all unnecessary functions while the computer remained "on." When you "wake up" a computer from this state, by either clicking your mouse or opening your laptop, the system is immediately back where you left off—it doesn't need to boot from scratch again.

Hibernation, on the other hand, is what your computer does when you want to leave it in a certain state without using any power at all in the meantime. When a computer hibernates, the contents of your computer's memory is written to your disk, recording the machine's current state. "If you have a gig of RAM, [hibernate] will write a gigabyte file to disk that is basically just a portrait of the memory of the computer, so when you push power, rather than booting up Windows it basically just takes the snapshot that was put to disk and puts your computer back into the state," Auerbach says.

Hibernation was a great idea in the early days of laptops, when batteries died fast and booting was slow, but it was costly in other ways: "If you had a small hard drive you didn't necessarily want this gigantic file the size of your memory sort hanging around all the time," says Auerbach. "So there's a reason to say, 'I don't need it, just don't ever hibernate and give me my disk space back.'" As storage capacity increased, however, hibernation became more viable, allowing a machine to save precious power and still spring back to life when you needed it, restoring you to exactly where you were before you closed your laptop's lid.

Even ten years ago, hibernating was an appealing option for quick booting. This has changed with the proliferation of smartphones. Our phones are useless to us if they can't receive messages, so using hibernating isn't an option. The always-on mindset fostered by smartphones has spread back to our computers as well. "The idea of the computer as a thing you leave on all the time was not originally there," Auerbach says. "Once, the PC was something you turned on when you used it and turned off when you were done with it." Now, many of us leave our computers on for months at a time without rebooting.


The ubiquity of portable digital devices has, unsurprisingly, correlated with an increase in time the average person spends in front of a screen. Time spent online has doubled for the general population in the last decade, and tripled for teens, who now spend 27 hours a week online. The impact of smartphones is apparent here—2.5 of those online hours per week are spent "on the move," not at a computer. One of the most dramatic increases in screen time was in the last few years: people spent 3.5 more hours online every week in 2014 than they did even the year before.

This may mean that people now literally spend more time online than they do sleeping.

As technology becomes ever more integrated with our lives and even our bodies, what Ends of Sleep author Crary calls "24/7" culture (in which we are always available to create value for our jobs and networks) will move from metaphor to literal reality. The popularization of biomonitoring devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit means that we wear technology as part of our bodies, even when sleeping—and that technology is useless if it's turned off.

There are more extreme examples: If your brain is connected to your robotic prosthetic arm, you can't afford to have it turn off unexpectedly, and if heads-up displays like Google Glass become truly popular, our devices dying will cause a measurable change in our perception. It's not hard to imagine that in the future, our devices turning off will come to seem totally unacceptable. Does this mean that sleep modes will die out?

Auerbach doesn't think so. "There's a lingering problem, which is that battery technology does not progress at the rate of Moore's Law," he says. As long as battery charge is at a premium, engineers will try every trick they can think of to minimize power usage in devices, even more so as their functions become more vital to our lives.

"Sleep mode will die out as a distinct mode, but power management is increasing in importance," Matthew Gast, an author at O'Reilly and WiFi expert told me.

"Microcontrollers and SoCs (System on A Chip) now have sleep mode deeply buried into their core as part of their overall capabilities," agreed Jonathan Zufi of Cult of Mac, over a phone call. "This is a fine balance that developers need to work with—how do you put a wearable to sleep, but still have code running to respond to an incoming notification?"

Auerbach thinks that hibernation may die out entirely. "The classic hibernation mode will become rarer because it's more important that the device function in some way even at its absolute deepest sleep," he says.

In the future, sleep mode may no longer be a noticeable state in a computer, but instead a constant switching off of functions without our knowledge, the same way our brain makes decisions about which parts of the deluge of sensory data it collects makes it up to our conscious mind. "Many battery-powered devices will increasingly possess a fine-tuned continuum of states from nearly asleep to fully awake, using less or more power respectively," Auerbach says.

This twilight state may be valuable for computers, but while their life spans extend, our own sleep is suffering.

This twilight state may be valuable for computers, but while their life spans extend, our own sleep is suffering. A device that's always on means we must always be on too, at the ready to respond to a message from anywhere and anyone. This is wrecking havoc on the natural rhythms of our bodies.


Douglas Rushkoff, the author and media theorist whose upcoming book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus deals with the fallout of our always-on lifestyle, is wary of what constantly active devices mean for humanity.

"When we turned [computers] on and off, we rendered ourselves much more aware of the asynchronous nature of digital technology," he says. "Computer programs don't exist in real time; they are series of sequential steps. When we had to take steps, ourselves, in order to turn on, login, activate modem, and so on, we thought of 'online time' as a discrete period. When we turned the computer into an always-on medium, we simply [started to] respond to things as quickly as possible in order to get to the next one. It's not a matter of turning the computer on and off so much as living in a perpetual state of emergency interruption."

Like Crary, Rushkoff makes the point that we increasingly operate to a schedule dictated by technology, rather than using technology to expedite our own natural rhythms. This, he says, is a direct result of capitalism: "The object of the game is to extract as much value from people as possible," he says. "Any moment that a person is sleeping is a moment he or she is unavailable to the network and the market living off [that network]."

But his books also remind us of the fact that technology—in theory, at least—can enrich our lives as much as it can dictate them. He asks us to imagine an alternate society where technology helps us live healthier lives, rather than more "productive ones." In that utopia, he says, "Technology may or may not pretend to sleep, but it would certainly let us sleep. Today, that's not possible."

Perhaps getting rid of natural sleep, in lock-step with our devices, is the next natural step in our evolution. Crary's theory that sleep is the last frontier untouched by late capitalism may even already be outdated. Biomonitoring apps like SleepCycle and wearables like Jawbone have enabled corporations to draw data from us even when we're unconscious.

Giving up sleep in this way is dangerous to both our minds and spirits. If we give in to 24/7 monitoring and constant device usage, we will sacrifice one of the few human activities currently free from marketing and value-producing to capitalism. We risk creating a culture where humanity is entirely subjugated to the idea of constant productivity, where any rest is a form of rebellion. Think about that the next time you sleep till noon.

You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.