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  • Stéphane HUGON

The Waking Dream and the Economy of Attention

We invited Stéphane HUGON, sociologist and co-founder of ERANOS, to write an article for our magazine 'Asleep', to talk about the impact of digital technology on Sleep in contemporary society.

As digital demands infiltrate our daily lives, consuming almost all of our mental availability, sleep time remains possibly the last reservoir of tranquility and peace for the human mind. Perhaps not for much longer.

Sleep, this other world

Sleep is a mystery; it evokes a strange feeling, both terrifying and alluring. A realm of liberation or panic of abandonment, the promise of sleep holds a unique place in our lives, reflecting the transformation of our societies. The thrill of this strange attraction, almost voluptuous, or on the contrary, the apprehension tinged with anxiety, are remnants of childhood fears or more adult insomnia-related troubles. There is a kind of correspondence in our imagination between sleep and death. Our work and performance-oriented societies have worked tirelessly to conquer this little death. New York is called the city that never sleeps, seen here as proof of vitality. Sleep is seen as a lazy posture, revealing weakness to some. Many cultures attribute credit and power to those who sleep little and isn't it said that "the early bird catches the worm"?

To sleep is to surrender

Nurtured by this promise, we have fostered the belief that sleep is a wasted moment. Our narratives of performance forbid us from wasting time and banish - at least in appearance - these obvious experiences of non-production. In many societies, taking a nap is inconceivable at work, while it is desirable for others. The average sleep time in Europe has been reduced by over an hour and a half in less than two generations. In 2017, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) revealed that nearly two out of ten people under the age of forty-five consider sleep "a waste of time." A struggle against this wasted time is a daily concern among Europeans. The increasing consumption of coffee is a fight for vitality over the dark embrace of sleep. Not to mention the growing use of medications (vitamin C, energy drinks, alcohol...), especially in France. It is in this context that the digital presence introduces a completely new element.

Wide awake

The last ten years have brought a volume of digital demands that has multiplied by a hundred! The flow of messages, and notifications, whether useful or unnecessary, wanted or unwelcome, has far exceeded our capacities for reception and perception. Only 3 to 11% of emails are opened, and even fewer are read. A mobile phone is checked several hundred times a day by young French people. The most viewed videos reach trillions of views and represent a massive energy cost. In 2018, the average American's day already lasted 30 hours due to multitasking and overlapping moments of attention. This means that the mental availability time for messages is already compressed by a third in a large data collision. The flow of digital communications far exceeds the attention that anyone can give them. We are in a phenomenon of incredible message inflation, leading to a drastic reduction in the efficiency of these messages. This vicious circle is based on the belief that mental availability is elastic and can be extended. But it's an illusion.

Never Sleep

A significant portion of our social models, organizations, media, and advertising models are built on the ability to capture the attention of Internet users. Back in 2004, Patrick Le Lay, then CEO of the TF1 Group, stated that the television industry's job was to "sell available brain time to advertisers." This statement was criticized, probably because it was so accurate, revealing the nature of an emerging economy at the turn of the 2000s: the attention economy. Furthermore, physiological phenomena support this attraction to messages. The blue light from screens, which some manufacturers now want to regulate, significantly delays sleep. Scrolling through messages stimulates curiosity and attention hormones. Dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins—these are the lovely names of the hormones that sustain, motivate, and reward our diligence in consuming digital messages. There is also the fear of missing out on something important (FOMO), which is a sign of a sense of disconnection from society. If solicitations have increased exponentially, it is because advertisers and digital operators believed that human cognitive capacity was limitless. But that was a mistake.

The Hidden Dimension

In his white paper on the attention economy, sociologist Anthony Mahé, from the Eranos consulting firm, also reminds us that this cognitive constraint, i.e., the fact that we cannot properly do two things at the same time, had already been identified in the late 1990s. Mark Weiser, the inventor of ubiquitous computing since 1996, warned, "The rare resource of the 21st century will not be technology; it will be attention." So, if in 2020, the French spend five hours looking at a screen, in addition to their professional activities, it also means that the quality of attention is significantly diminished. This leads to a drastic reduction in the cognitive efficiency of messages. This represents a double threat—both a likely failure of economic models and communication objects, and a real health risk to the quality of sleep. Anthony Mahé shows in his study that "information economy players exploit attention as one exploits the Earth's natural resources." A predatory dynamic over our sleep time is thus underway. This data inflation would sooner or later have economic, ecological, and, what interests us here, health consequences. Because much of this incredible economy will depend on the timing, quality, and nature of sleep.

The Nocturnal Reserve

The dangerous links between attention and sleep were immediately identified as a new source of experience. Since sleep is considered a waste of time, it can become a target for new demands. Digital technology, especially mobile, initially benefited from residual attention moments, short periods, transportation times, idle moments, and waiting rooms, as well as all the moments not dedicated to ritualized times in a work culture, family, or community. While all media and communication formats largely followed cultural frameworks from older media (books, theater, television), mobile screens have far surpassed traditional codes of narration, legibility, and dramaturgical rhythms to mobilize attention triggers that are both more penetrating and less informative. Online videos can create dramatic tension in seconds, while our entire culture of theater and cinema has constructed much subtler and more complex models. Patience, duration, and rhetorics of slowness have disappeared. An entire cinematic and literary imagination is running out of breath. In his white paper, Anthony Mahé reminds us that there are four major registers of attention, and digital technology primarily overinvests in one of them: urgency and intrusion. And this produces the inflation we have mentioned.

Sleep is Building

This regime of attention is one of alertness, found in all phenomena of intrusive notifications, which often disrupt workflows, conversations, or reading time. It has been analyzed for several years by Dominique Boulier, who notes that other registers are available but rarely used. Thus, an entire culture of work and entertainment invades the mental availability of the public and modifies the quality of their life, their sleep, and their concentration. For nearly a century, it has been known that the quality of rest and sleep is not just wasted time; it is also a necessary time for recovery, organization, and enhancement of activities during wakefulness. Experiments involving sleep deprivation or delayed sleep have shown that wakefulness and sleep are concurrent activities necessary for human balance. A disproportion in either has dramatic consequences for the quality of life. More recently, with the mass adoption of digital technology, it has become evident how excessive screen use, especially when it encroaches on sleep time, directly impacts concentration, learning, memory, or spatial orientation.

One Thing at a Time

Cognitive sciences remind us that the quality of attention can be better understood by likening information stimuli to a "bottleneck" effect, meaning sharing signals on bandwidth and a roughly fixed neural grip. It's a traffic jam situation. This means concretely that mental availability is limited. It is solicited by incoming tasks, and alerts - mainly digital - while also being engaged by other, slower-paced requests. "Prospective memory" is the term used to describe tasks to be done in the near future, which diminishes the capacity to process immediate loads. Your work concentration will be reduced if other events capture part of your vigilance. That's why you can't use a phone while driving a car or cook while writing an email. All these flows occupy limited mental space. Reducing this mental load by externalizing tasks, simply by noting them down, frees up mental availability. A significant part of sleep quality comes from organizing tasks and thereby releasing prospective memory. Checking your phone before bedtime is, therefore, a bad idea. Liberating our vigilance allows us to live a digital or other solicitation all the more intensely.

The Great Disorder

The health crisis has deeply affected the traditional frameworks of social life. Work, public space, family life. While life, activity, and rest cycles have been anthropologically sedimented for very long periods, a balance was abruptly disrupted. Beyond cultural differences and in the long term, the repetition of cycles and rituals has framed social life like invisible, often induced rules. The differentiation of private and public spaces, which Hannah Arendt tells us is structuring for the West, has been largely modified. Digital technology had already created a sort of porosity between these spaces, but the COVID crisis reshuffled the cards and disorganized what was probably a structural balance in our societies. Remote work, the transformation of home schedules and spaces, and the versatility of new places and objects. All of this profoundly disturbed the rhythms and cycles of day and night, activity and rest, and the social roles associated with situations. Paradoxically, burnout phenomena were observed in telecommuting situations. Excessive online consumption has also been noted. With the reshaping of schedules during the health crisis, sleep has also been, once again, undermined.

The Inner Matrix

In both the imaginary realm of sleep and that of digital technology, there is the idea of a parallel world, a sort of immersive matrix in which we experience things that are both plausible and effective while being on a second level of reality. Early research on correspondences between dreams and reality shows that there is an almost analogical psychic energy between dreams and digital imagery. If we observe that screen time has now expanded to moments when our vigilance, our critical thinking are weakened, primarily due to fatigue, then we realize that each of us experiences a daily modified reality. Digital technology, even in its early years, largely exploited this register and promise. As early as the 1980s, Gibson made a distinction between the meat space, the real world, which was idle and sad, and the cyberspace, a re-enchanted world liberated from the constraints of the body and money. Similarly, after numerous experiments, the metaverse seems to be gaining new substance. An almost hypnotic space is potentially at play. It can open up promises of socialization, leisure, and new learning, but it can also pose an additional risk to sleep quality. There is certainly a responsibility that lies before us.

A major challenge presents itself to us. The society that is emerging cannot indefinitely expand its reach without threatening its efficiency - economically, but also on a relational and health level. Sleep is probably the weak signal of a major transformation in our world. For a long time, we have produced extractive organizations, objects, and economic models. They have ultimately depleted not only natural resources but also and especially the men and women within their ecosystem. We now must implement contributory organizations, ones that generate and fuel circulation. The circulation of time, consideration, speech, and even silence. A society without sleep does not exist. Goya said three centuries ago that the sleep of reason produces monsters.


- Dominique Boullier, Comment sortir de l'emprise des réseaux sociaux, Paris, Le Passeur

éditeur, 2020.

- Do=inique Boullier, Sociologie du Numérique, Paris, Armand Colin, 2016 (2nde édition


- Yves Citton, Pour une écologie de l'attention, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, coll. « Le temps

des idées », 2014

- Emmanuel Kessous, Kevin Mellet, Moustafa Zouinar, L’Économie de l’attention : Entre

protection des ressources cognitives et extraction de la valeur, Sociologie du Travail,

Elsevier Masson, 2010, 52 (3), pp359-373

- Anthony Mahé, Le livre blanc de l’économie de l’attention, Groupe La poste, 2021

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