Research Blog

In the beginning

In March this year it was my turn to find material for my weekly Zoom reading group. We usually read books but this time we wanted to break things up with something shorter. I trawled some favourite online magazines and came up with this:

Being underslept and out of sync is a political injustice, by Jonathan White, published in Aeon, 22 March 2022.

Screenshot: Aeon magazine

As I messaged the other group members:

It’s a little left field but fascinating and a great model of connecting the dots between politics and various bits of life.

To summarise, Prof Jonathan White argues that contemporary capitalism steals people’s sleep, and steals it unequally, so that some people benefit from others’ deprivation. This is a radical change from the dominant narrative which frames poor sleep as an individual issue to be addressed on an individual basis: I’m anxious, so I need to take sleeping pills; I stay up too late, so I should practice better sleep hygiene habits. Underneath this lies the assumption that poor sleep is the result of unwise choices by lazy, weak-willed individuals unsuited to thriving (or even surviving) under capitalism. Instead, White argues that sleep loss is the direct result of capitalism’s efforts to extract ever increasing value from people’s working hours: shift work, the gig-economy, remote work, etc.

The article sparked something. As I (rather gushingly) emailed the author a couple of weeks later:

It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything as eye-opening and genuinely thought provoking… I so enjoyed the way you systematically and sympathetically drew out the threads of a wicked problem that I hadn’t realised existed.

In his Aeon piece, which was based on a longer more scholarly article in the Journal of Political Philosophy, White reframes poor sleep as a political issue, a social justice issue and – crucially for me – a design issue. As he puts it:

Holding individuals responsible for collective problems is generally a bad idea… More promising is to ask whether existing societies might be redesigned in ways that serve circadian justice… [my bold].

Now there’s a question!

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