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INDOpinion

Sleep: a modern subscription service?

Thursday, 25th July, 2019 10:47am

John Barry

I opened my eyes. And there I could see something through the darkness, glimmering in the night. It was a light, a beacon. Was it my salvation? Nope! It was my alarm clock. There it was, obnoxious and mocking. Every graduation of another minute was like a jagged elbow to the ribs. A constant prodding reminder that I needed sleep, now! Immediately! Hours ago!

Sleep issues are a growing problem in modern society. It’s becoming increasingly common for people to languish in the dark, suffering unnatural sleep patterns as the result of a progressively more instant and demanding lifestyle. Social media notifications, emails, phone calls, their social and professional currency is ever expanding. Can we afford to postpone an email response, or miss the chance for the first witty retort to a tweet? It’s hard to separate ourselves from these obligations and their perceived importance.

In the past a sleep issue was, well, just that, a sleep issue. And the commonly prescribed remedy ironically would be more sleep, ignorant of how difficult that might be to achieve.

We’ve all felt that frustration, lying in bed while our mind races aimlessly. Insomnia, caffeine, poor diet, over tiredness, lack of exercise, pregnancy, over working, exposure to computer and TV screens. These are many of the causes attributed to our missing out on the required six to eight hours a night. And there are just as many, if not more, remedies for such a problem.

Herbal, psychological, pharmaceutical, furniture and feng shui, there is no shortage of each.

One night before bed, while checking my social media (just for a minute!), I became aware of the gentle tones of a familiar voice. Soothing like a warm hug, the soft spoken syllables were unmistakable. The voice was none other than that of Stephen Fry. I soon realised that this was an advertisement for a sleep aid app called ‘Calm’.

Calm has famous voices reading dull stories as a way of lulling the listener into a quick and deep sleep. It seemed counter intuitive to me, to have an actor known for a theatrical demeanour instead reading mind-numbing narratives with the intention of boring somebody into a coma.

However the popularity of sleep aid apps is growing astronomically. According to a recent report by Techcrunch.com, Calm has garnered over 2 million paid subscriptions since the launch of its sleep stories feature last year. The subscription costs $69.99 (approximately €60) per year and the app has also clocked 50 million downloads. Despite a free feature, patrons seem enthusiastic to pay for the full subscription.

The full plan includes sleep stories narrated by Joanna Lumley, David Walliams and singer Leona Lewis. One recent addition to this snoozy family - with a heavy dose of irony - is John McEnroe, speaking about the rules of tennis in an uncharacteristically restrained and patient tone.

According to that same report by Techcrunch.com, Calm recently raised a whopping $27m to secure a thirty five minute bedtime story narrated by Oscar winning actor Matthew McConaughey. This is an unprecedented wild swing in the classification of lucrative popular entertainment. Perhaps ‘lucrative popular boredom’ would be a more appropriate designation.

Upon further research I discovered several other apps with similar or different methods of achieving the same goal. Headspace €9.99/per month, Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock €29.99/per year, Moshi Twilight $34.99/per year (approx €30) and Pzizz $69.99/per year (approx €59.99).

Is the concept of sleep being turned into a subscription service? Does a trip to the land of nod now require a passport with a visa attached? If this is truly the case, then the corporate conglomerates have won. They now own something that for millennia was a natural human right, like air (patent pending). The future will require us to delegate hard-earned money to pay for our sleep, a tax on rest.

Perhaps this is just lack of sleep talking. After all, the concept of the sleep aid isn’t exactly a new commodity.

Specially designed pillows, lavender sprays, essential oil diffusers, NASA technology memory foam mattresses, these are products that have existed for decades. Sleep assisting products have long been a billion dollar/euro industry. Sleep aid apps are merely a new subgenre in a well established trade. Sleep is an irrefutable daily necessity, but how many of these products do we really require? Should you be able to accomplish a night’s sleep regardless of whether your mattress has orbited the moon?

Throughout history, sleep has been improving. We’ve moved from stone caves to hay stuffed mattresses, from water beds (briefly in the eighties) to memory foam. We are always adding to the contingent of sleep enhancing products. These apps could just be another fad, or possibly the next step in sleep evolving to meet modern requirements.

The creator of the Calm app, Michael Acton Smith, says he was inspired to develop Calm as the result of his own stress, anxiety and sleepless nights.

He says this was a consequence of his demanding role running his app development company, Mind Candy, which developed Moshi Monsters, Moshi Twilight, and Calm.

When speaking about sleep, Smith stated “It’s free, we just need to educate, to make sure all parts of society understand its value."

An interesting statement considering he is the creator of an app that charges a fee for a luxury such as a regular nights rest. However he claims that his app is merely a way of delivering sleep while educating the listener on the importance of this often neglected daily requirement.

Nonetheless a yearly subscription pay plan would certainly suggest this service is intended for prolonged use, rather than a quick ‘how to’ course on getting a good nap. But if this app does deliver on the promise of consistent sleep, then conceivably the yearly fee is incidental to the end result.

In the long term, Calm could teach us to adapt our attitude to smart phones, reminding us to prioritise down-time over instant notifications. To separate us from the urgency of constant social updates and into a prompt and efficient sleep cycle that caters to our busy lifestyles.

The only way to be sure is to try it for ourselves. Calm offers a seven day free trial.

And yet there is something about the concept of supporting a service that requires paying and plugging-in to sleep that feels unnatural. Like just another seemingly essential cog in the capitalist wheel of commodity consumption. Is tiredness making me a communist? Maybe that’s why we drink so much coffee. Perhaps free sleep is a thing of the past, a nostalgic outdated concept that has no place in the modern world. Efficiency is everything, and the key to a good night’s sleep may now mean having a full phone battery, or a nearby plug socket.

As I slip into bed with the good intention of navigating a solid eight hours, my mind spins like a baffled compass. The likelihood of a restless night increases with every passing minute.

And as the minutes continue to go by, my mind tires and arguably misplaced principles fade, as I consider subscribing to sleep.

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