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Sociologists and The End of Sleep

• January 23, 2013 • 9:44 AM

images-2The past week has seen a flurry of attention around the latest purported wonder drug, Modafinil, which claims to make sleeping basically optional, with no ill effects. Just pop one, and two hours of sleep is plenty—with no headaches, “sleep debt,” hangover feeling, withdrawal, post-dopamine crash (as with that other common sleep-avoidance drug, speed) and little addiction risk.

Stuff like this is the dry straw of punditry: There’s virtually nothing about Modafinil’s off-label use that doesn’t invite speculation, and no way to disprove that speculation in the short term. Will not having to sleep mean managers will work longer hours? Will lower-level workers? Will marriages crumble after doubling the amount of time you have to stay interesting to your partner? Will the bars ever close? Will our infrastructure be able to generate enough electricity to keep the lights on all night? Will people get so bored after a month of wide-awake 3 a.m.s, they do nothing but have sex, resulting in more babies, and thus more bills, and thus … working longer hours after all?

As it happens, the drug had been around as a narcolepsy treatment since its UK launch in 1998, and has already generated a fair amount of scholarship around those questions. Particularly in labor economics and sociology. A 2008 paper appearing in Sociology of Health and Illness, co-signed by five authors, argued that the drug represented a kind of final frontier:

Why precisely would society want to regulate or govern sleepiness and alertness in this way? Who benefits?

…One evocative or provocative answer to these questions comes in the shape of Agger’s (2004, 1989) musings on ‘Fast Capitalism’. Capitalism, Agger argues, has appreciably speeded up since Marx’s time, and even since the post World War II period…The rate of ‘communicating, writing, connecting, shopping, browsing, surfing, and working has increased’…particularly since the advent of communication technologies and the Internet.

Boundaries of all sorts, as a consequence, have become blurred or broken down. ‘Nothing today’, it seems, is ‘off limits to the culture industries and other industries that colonize not only our waking hours but also our dreaming’ (2004: 3)….Sleep or sleepiness, as such, becomes a ‘problem’, or at least a potential problem, in need of a solution in an increasingly time-hungry, incessant culture.

That does sound bad. What about good things?

UK sociologist Catherine Coveney interviewed students—who have taken to the drug as a procrastination aid—and night shift workers. The night shifters told The Sociological Imagination podcast that people thought they could use the medication as a safety mechanism, allowing night nurses to be more alert when measuring 3 a.m. dosages, or dockworkers to operate heavy machinery with fewer accidents. The students noted that the drug would interest them for holidays, allowing them more time to “see the sights.” The sights presumably being the bottom of a glass, or each other’s butts, in that case.

Coveney went on to explain that the pill suffered from its conceptualization, and presentation in media coverage, as firstly a medicine for narcolepsy that had been misused for other things. She suggested, rather, that it was likely to be viewed not as an off-label drug but as a chemical that did several things to the human body, all of which the culture had to grapple with, whether in public conversation or not.

How the substance was regulated or controlled, how it’s presented to the potential user, as either a medicine or a consumer product, and what this implies in relation to health benefits or safety and consumption were really important considerations in whether they thought Modafinil use was legitimate or not.

Despite the fact that this technology can be conceptualized in lots of different ways depending on who’s defining it and their specific social domain and the context in which it would be used, and these kinds of uses and users can be readily imagined. Modafinil doesn’t easily escape this cultural script as a medicine, as a medical product, so it’s ultimately bound to these ideas about health, about expert knowledge and medical authority.

Marc Herman
Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of The Shores of Tripoli.

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