Technology & Science

Full Brightness

Photo Credit: arli design via Compfight. CC-BY-NC-ND.
Photo Credit: arli design via Compfight.
CC-BY-NC-ND.

“Up and down, up and down, /
I will lead them up and down.”
—Robin/Puck, Shakespeare,
A Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii.398-399

“I’m off his screen, apparently.”
—Hilton Als, White Girls

Sleep Cycle’s logo—a blocky, iconographized clock—looks like the icons for PHONE or ­TOILET on signs along highways, announcing the sleep-tracking service it offers as a basic need. The app debuted in 2012, and by 2013 it topped best-of lists. Sleep Cycle 5.0 came out November 12. It’s newly free.

Sleep Cycle works through the iPhone’s accelerometer, which feels the sleeper’s toss and turn. The app wakes users when they shift quickly, a tell for light sleep. Waveforms ebb and flow on the phone’s screen, resembling an hourglass figure or an ultrasound—like the evidence a sonogram offers for a fetus’s existence. Only unspeaking, unthinking things require such brute proof they’re there.

Every morning, the app shows sleepers their unconscious movements as crests and troughs. It operates on the assumption that one’s innermost functions—one’s rest, one’s dreams—are idiosyncratic. This flatters. Sleep Cycle promises sleepers they can be known, and it will know them better than they know themselves.

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In October, Sleep Cycle’s developer released another app called Who Stole Me?, which, rather than dealing in sleep, mimics the profitable game Candy Crush, except it presents orbs that trap “pets,” not jewel-like candies, for users to burst.

The title is false advertising. A welcome sequence solves who stole the pets. A robot on a mountain sends out shimmering threads that spread and open into prisons. So the object of the game is not to find out who stole the pets but to free them. Liberty, not identity, even though the title promised me I’d find someone.

Stuck in their semiopaque orbs, the pets frown suggestively. They close their eyes resignedly or leave them imploringly wide. When I swipe to burst the orbs, they erupt into white sparks. The pets then sprout wings and fly away up-screen, like insects quitting a chrysalis. Clues, I had thought, would trail to a meet-cute.

I set out to discover another being and end up orchestrating jailbreaks, wondering how I got there. I am sitting in a row of hard chairs at a laundromat, playing. Level 4 finds the pets frozen in ice, and by Level 6 the ice is thicker, no longer breaking on contact with a bursting orb but merely cracking. By the time I run out of moves, one little pet is still trapped in a cracked yet confining ice cube, curled with a sad face like a pro-life ad and like no ad for life that I’d devise. I’d have to buy the app’s “diamonds” with real money to keep playing. They’re 30 for $1.99. I don’t even know this pet.

Apps extend a promise of connection and retract it. There’s the pet, frozen, frowning. No one else sees him as I can. I have been socialized to care. I am sitting in a row of hard chairs. A buzz. I jump. I shift my stare from the screen to see my worldly possessions imprisoned behind a convex dome.

I open Sleep Cycle, and its initial instruction screens conduct me through a morality play similar to the narrative of Who Stole Me?—an alluring pantomime of control and fear. Fear prepares us to trust: One of the instruction paragraphs ends ominously: “It’s very difficult to wake a person in deep sleep. Incidentally, nightmares can occur during this time.” The app’s indigo background, a too-beautiful blue, is stylized night. It is not true to night; it is night as it appears to those who won’t see shades of gray. The screen reads “Welcome” in delicate white against the indigo, like a ticket to a secret club.

To use Sleep Cycle, you indicate a window when you would like to wake. During that span, light sleep will trip the alarm.

“A fixed alarm clock is a lottery,” the app reads. A lottery is a ripoff. Thus the app appeals to the male fear, humiliation, rather than the female fear, violence. It states that unchecked sleep leads to “irritability and emotional problems,” those noted ball breakers. In an article about sleep cycles, a blog called The Art of Manliness writes, “if you want to get bigger, stronger, leaner, and manlier, as well as smarter and more emotionally resilient, you’ll need to be as thoughtful about your sleep as you are about your deadlifting and paleo diet.”

Eventually the app’s welcome sequence presents a photo of an iPhone on a green-and-white sheet as purged of human detritus as the blue liquid in a tampon ad. “Science versus chance,” reads the app, as if science were a sure thing.

The app’s claims for itself sound labored, as if compensating. Scientists have written that it is simplistic. Its images, which negate the human, showing her sleep as merely empirical, her bed as less than messy, her body as schematic of hassle, attract that part of her that wants to rid of herself, the “emotionally resilient” part, even as the app vows close attention to its own idea of her.

It watches you when you might bore others. By you, it sets its watch. You were sleeping but, says Sleep Cycle, you were here. You mattered, at least to me.

Can we pass up such a faithful companion for the road toward self-perfection? The Art of Manliness exhorts readers toward “a life of excellence.” Once I lay in bed beside a boyfriend and watched the light at the navel of my closed computer, the bright one beside the trackpad. “I love,” I said, “the way it glows bright, then fades, then bright, as if the computer were breathing, like an animal.”

“You already told me that,” he said irritably.

 

I learned of Sleep Cycle from this boyfriend, who used it out of an urge to correct his unconscious mind, as if it were only a misbehaving version of his waking one. I wished he hadn’t told me he used Sleep Cycle. We hold no one’s interest when we speak of our own dreams.

Diamond advertisements assign premiums to timelessness. He and I were on the clock. People like to think their loves are pre-industrial, not another function of the Tinder age. The heroine wakes in a stranger’s bed at 2 p.m., he makes her breakfast, and the day is gone. Partnered sleep—time in bed with a lover—proposes an alternate understanding of time to that of the sleep-tracking app.

I don’t think he used the app when we slept together.

Did he regret not sleeping as well as he might have?

A revelation dawned on me that when we were apart, he did not vanish but carried on private projects, such as this one to optimize his sleep. We assume the solitudes of others are less structured than our own.

It must come as a relief to users of Sleep Cycle when the app sees them at their most secret, its feed passing for the reading of an EEG, without their having to share. We once used to share only with objects. Now we use the verb without them, as if naming were sharing, too. We keep [ ] to ourselves or we keep [ ] for ourselves; we are polite or monstrous.

What’s the difference between privacy and secrecy? Should people in couples keep “something to hide”? Does the dream self get a free pass—freedom to think what it likes—or are we offended when a boyfriend tells us he dreamed a terrible fate befell us, as if it were funny? Care to share?

I was glad he never showed me the waveforms the app made of his sleep movements, their supple curves the souvenir of a part of him I could not read, resembling the graphic residue of neuron fire.

“Oh, I know those,” said a new friend at a bar. “There was one of those sleep-tracking apps, I forget which one, Yale grads or something, a startup, and I forget which app, but it would catch fire.” IPhones exploded. He took out his and scrolled, glow glazing his face. “It’s in my Gmail somewhere, but I have like two thousand e-mails with this person, sorry.”

Though I’d downloaded Sleep Cycle, I never put it to use.

 

A friend of mine, an artist who suffers from seizures, made music from the patterns of her brain in free fall. I put off listening to it, out of a superstition that the currents of her brain might induce matching ones in mine. Or maybe it was a reflex of respect for her privacy. She is older, a mentor, and as a child I learned it was rude to pry.

Also as a child, I read Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories From Wayside School. In one story, as I remember it, ice cream is made of the taste each pupil experiences while the mouth is empty. The ice-cream flavor the kids like best turns out to be the one that matches the mouth-taste neutral to the most popular girl in school, but she doesn’t like it at all. I liked to imagine the children, assessed, anxiously awaiting their ice cream flavors like the results of a test. Will the privately experienced taste, which she hadn’t had means before to share, impress?

I did listen to Brain Songs one recent afternoon, drinking seltzer and sitting on the floor. Some stylized electronic sounds resemble the sounds of apps and could be iPhone clock alarms.

Sleep Cycle has its own especially gentle wakeup sounds, resembling best-of yoga soundtracks: “Warm breeze,” “Forest glade,” “Distant memories,” “December moon,” “Still remain,” “Dreaming near the sea,” and “Gymnopédie,” with its dulcet flute. Brain Songs (the work of the Cabinet de Fumisterie Appliquée) is much better. Still, it sounds as if it could be music off a different prompt—”colors,” say, or “the singularity.” The activity of the human brain cannot be that abstract.

I listened to the CD repeatedly while watching a doorjamb cast a strip of shadow on the adjacent wall, observing tiny planes seek JFK and thinking, the object of the project doesn’t matter, only the fact of attempting a long project as a young adult to train one’s brain. I’ve never been a fighter or a flighter and soon felt unaccountably sleepy.

 

All light is waves. The captured patterns of my friend’s brain, like the waveforms Sleep Cycle produces, gracefully categorize the human output as varieties of light. These range from infrared to ultraviolet. Currents lead to fields. Electricity magnetically attracts or repels. We get on each other’s wavelengths or we don’t.

In an iTunes store review of Sleep Cycle, the awesome mystery:

This app works as intended, no problems there… HOWEVER! If you’re using this app at night, and if for any reason you need to pick up your phone from your bed and check anything, be prepared for an onslaught of light. I’m talking full-brightness blinding light. I don’t understand why this needs to be on full brightness.

When I moved to New York, I brought from my dad’s house an alarm clock I used as a child. It makes an awful sound. The button that trips this is labeled “Birds.” One, a toucan maybe, belts out an arpeggio of squawks while others warble discordantly. The two-second loop lends my life constancy. The oldest sound in my life, I think, after the rumbling of my stomach. I believe in things bigger than me.


Thanks to The New Inquiry.