Sometime in the summer of 2013, a New York City-based writer named Fiona Duncan began noticing an abundance of jeans, fleece and sneakers in the historically fashion-fanatic neighborhood known as Soho. To help explain the unnerving prevalence of "stylized blandness" and "dad-brand non-style" hanging about, she borrowed -- and subsequently popularized -- a term that's all but commonplace now: normcore.
The term is simple and concise, easily packaged next to a pound sign, ready to fall from the lips of a trendy teen. Adidas tennis shoes, "Seinfeld" and President Obama all became part and parcel of the normcore aesthetic, originally outlined as less a way of dressing and more a way of being. K-Hole, an ambiguously described "trend forecasting group," gave birth to the word, defined loosely as a move "away from a coolness that relies on difference to a post-authenticity coolness that opts in to sameness." Essentially, it separated a time of yore -- when punks tried with all their might to break free of their homogenous roots -- with the modes of today: now we're all born tiny snowflakes, itching to place ourselves into a comfy, khaki-clad community.
A few years after Duncan proselytized the ubiquity of ubiquitousness, sometime in the late winter and early spring of 2016, K-Hole member Sean Monahan slipped another two-syllable buzzword into Internet lexicon. Slowave, he posits, is not so much a descriptor of how things are, à la normcore. Slowave is a prescription for how things should be. And that prescription involves sleep.
"The Slowave movement is reframing sleep as an essential experience rather than a dead loss," he wrote in a manifesto online. "What’s the hidden potential of the unconscious third of our lives?"
Sleep, in today's 24/7 workplace, is either something we yearn for with little expectations or fight against in haughty displays of productivity. There are drugs to keep us from nodding off and drugs that force us into shoddy REM-less cycles. But sleep in its purest form, Monahan suggests, should not be seen either as "a luxury product" or "a necessary evil." Slowave says sleep should be viewed for what it is: an essential activity that takes up one-third of our human lives. "The future of sleep won’t be its absence," Monahan declares, "it will be a new class of people leveraging its creative potential."
It's no secret that the founder of The Huffington Post is a sleep evangelist. Her new book The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time speaks for itself. Other companies like Google and Casper (Monahan's partner for sleepsleepsleep.com) have jumped aboard the Slowave train too, expressing an interest in the radical side of sleep. It's tricky though, because class and race tend to correlate with sleep quality (or, as NPR put it, nobody sleeps better than white people). So Monahan has an eye toward economically underserved individuals, as he noted in our interview below, and Big Pharma and start-up culture and life hackers. Like normcore, Slowave is a term that seems to just so accurately encompass a long-throttling part of our culture, addressing both those who accept and reject the necessity of sleep.
Here's a brief primer on Slowave, the movement that wants to disrupt the way we think about sleep:
Why are you, in particular, focusing on sleep?
My background is in analyzing language and consumer behaviors, so the basis of my research was parsing the cultural innuendo of how we discuss and think about sleep. Why is it such a point of anxiety and struggle for so many people?
If you were to define Slowave in a sentence or two, how would you describe it?
Slowave is a rejection of the idea that sleep has to be understood as an economic input (to productivity) or output (i.e. the perverse idea that sleep itself is a luxury). Sleep has latent creative potential -- it’s more than just recharging our batteries for another round of tasks.
What does sleep as resistance mean?
Sleep has a proto-political potential. It’s literally the last thing you are encouraged to do. Our economy, culture, and media all encourage us to function on the same 24/7 timeframe as global capitalism. It’s easy to forget that there’s not a 1:1 relationship between our digital selves and our bodies. Sleep forces us to remember that we’re still just people with bodies at the end of the day.
In your Codes of Sleep table, you outline four different approaches to sleep: workaholics, life hackers, effective hedonists and Slowave. Can you summarize how they relate to each other? Do these four groups epitomize a progression of our attitude toward sleep, or do they coexist today?
We see a historical progression from workaholics to life hackers to effective hedonists to Slowave. Over the past century, we have seen diminishing returns on focusing on how to sleep less. Hence the shift from workaholics and life hackers' interest in sleeping less, to effective hedonists and Slowave’s interest in sleeping better. But all of these approaches co-exist in the present. Cultural shifts are slow and fragmentary.
In your writing, you ask: "Can we reject the awake/asleep binary, and plot sleeping and dreaming on an expanded spectrum of consciousness?" What would this spectrum look like?
In the beginning of the report, I joke that the actual poles on the spectrum of consciousness are omniscience and death: total knowledge and non-existence. They’re both impossible to contemplate, but maybe opening up what we mean by "being conscious" can help us have a more nuanced relationship to all the different states of consciousness we experience in our lives.
How does the Slowave movement seek to avoid fetishizing or commercializing sleep? Or, are these not inherently bad things?
Commercializing sleep isn’t inherently bad as long as we appreciate that, on a base level, sleep is a public good. I’m not so worried that we’ll suddenly begin fetishizing sleep -- after all, it’s pretty low on the totem pole of importance in 2016. Researchers have been arguing for later start times for high schools since I was a kid, and they’ve always been ignored due to scheduling conflicts with parent work schedules and intramural sports.
You mention that "people with the most privilege, power and money get the most sleep." How does privilege function in the Slowave movement?
There is an obvious divide across class and race when it comes to sleep quality. No one was surprised when the CDC released their study on healthy sleep duration -- it’s intrinsic knowledge that you need time and control to really sleep well, which are things that more marginalized communities don’t really have. Privilege has no place in Slowave. If normcore was an attempt to modulate our individual visibility, Slowave is an attempt to modulate the speed of our lives. It is about rejecting sleep as a means to an end, and embracing it as an integral and enjoyable part of a fulfilling life.
In your opinion, what is Big Pharma's relationship to Slowave?
Big Pharma is a big part of the problem. Amphetamines and eugeroics (wakefullness-promoting agents, like Provigil) are literally produced to keep us up and productive: Sleep as economic input. Hypnotic drugs like Ambien and benzodiazepines like Xanax, on the other hand, are designed to put us down. But sleeping on drugs like that is not “good sleep,” nor is it respectful toward sleep. Instead, it feels like you’re dead for a few hours, which leaves you on the wrong side of the spectrum. Slowave is about creativity. You can’t be creative when you’re dead.
If start-ups start embracing Slowave, how do you envision them functioning? Are there examples of companies today that are leveraging sleep's creative potential already, or pursuing active dreaming?
Studies have shown that when you first wake up you are more creative than later in the day. The hypnagogic effects of dreaming haven’t quite worn off, and you can still take advantage of sleep’s latent creativity. This is why many artists and writers like to work as soon as they wake up. Smart start-ups understand this, and the most successful ones take advantage of it.
I’m not sure most start-ups can actively embrace Slowave -- it is inherently anti-business. I could argue that the only start-up that actually embraces Slowave is Casper, as it's focused on fulfilling sleep and rest. Google has nap pods in their offices. David Radcliffe, vice president of Google's Real Estate & Workplace Services, once said that "no workplace is complete without a nap pod.” A company in San Francisco called Doze leases and rents nap pods to co-working spaces. But these are the types of things that happen when Harvard releases studies, like they did in 2009, that say that napping promotes productivity. It becomes an economic tool.
What does your partnership with Casper entail?
Casper originally reached out to me about moderating a panel for their Sleep Symposium (in New York, April 17), and I started to think more about the cultural shift in productivity and rest. We discussed the Slowave idea together, and they encouraged me to put pen to paper and unpack the societal changes that have led to sleep as a commodity. It's something we have all felt, but had not yet identified as a movement.