Insomnia is exactly what the movers and shakers of our society want for us. The buzz-term used by advertisers and corporate honchos for the monetary windfall of our 24/7 lifestyle is the "attention economy," and there's a perceived need to increase it, which means finding ever-growing numbers of people (consumers) awake and aware of the proliferating Internet-mediated information sources (the "product") popping up on their screens, and ultimately buying something, somewhere, from someone. "The winners will be those who succeed in maximizing the number of Ôeyeballs' they can consistently control," writes Columbia art historian and social critic Jonathan Crary in the essay "On the Edge of Sleep." According to Crary's dystopian view of the 21st century, in a nonstop globalized economy where night never falls, sleep is a passive, useless occupation taking up precious time that might better be spent producing, circulating, buying, and selling. This is the kind of world that demands an endless supply of insomniacs for its economic lifeblood.
But never doubt capitalism's fiendish ability to take advantage of a market opportunity, whatever its origin. Even as massive entrepreneurial energies are expended on keeping people awake and entertained, countervailing commercial efforts are put forth to lull them to sleep. Besides the blockbuster sales of sleeping pills with soothing names like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata, the well-heeled spend more than $20 billion a year on an astonishing array of sleep paraphernalia, including herbal supplements, aromatherapy massage, reflexology, calming soaps and lotions, massage pillows and buckwheat-seed body wraps, Hungarian goose-down duvets, white-noise machines, and specialty mattresses that can cost from $5,000 up to $60,000 (yes, you read right—the $60-grand number is Swedish, filled partly with hand-selected horsehair, and takes 160 hours to make).
The Need for Sleep
Still, it's doubtful that any of these expenditures make much difference in sleep quality to the truly dedicated insomniac—he or she will just have spent more money on greater luxury in which to thrash around all night. Yet even the most desperate of us will fall asleep eventually because our bodies will make us. You can refrain voluntarily from eating until you literally starve yourself to death, but you can't willfully keep awake beyond a certain point on your own any more than you can command your blood to stop flowing. Even the few competitive "athletes" of voluntary sleeplessness who force themselves to stay technically "awake" for more than a couple of days (the Guinness record holder is an Englishwoman, Maureen Weston, who apparently went without sleep for 14 days and 13 hours in 1977), involuntarily fall into "microsleeps" of a few seconds to a few minutes without being aware of it.
If chronic insomnia causes intense suffering, enforced insomnia can be unbearable, which is why sleep deprivation has been a staple of torture probably as long as torture has been a staple of interrogation. The Greeks and the Romans purportedly used it, as did medieval interrogators—the latter called it tormentum vigiliae, or waking torture, and employed it, among more famously grotesque methods, to get confessions from alleged witches. The English used it during the 17th century for the same reason—they named it "waking the witch."