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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.

“The result is so gentle and lovely it feels like being woken up by a mermaid stroking your hair or a unicorn nuzzling your toes.”

Is this some kind of joke? That was my thought while reading The Guardian’s review of Northcube’s Sleep Cycle app. Who on Earth would want to be woken up by a horned horse nosing their feet or a fish-girl petting their hair? It doesn’t sound pleasant or comforting at all.

I’ve always been cynical, but years of insomnia means reviews like these send me over the edge. Sure, being lulled back to consciousness by some glitterati mare would probably be more “gentle and lovely” than the usual alarm squawk. And yes, it could indeed be beneficial to use an app that not only promises to wake you up in your lightest phase of sleep, but also analyses your sleep patterns. All of these things sound great in theory, if only the actual act of sleeping itself wasn’t so difficult.

Google Sleep Cycle

These thoughts were reinforced further when talking to a friend who also suffers from insomnia. She’d installed a similar app some months before and had used it regularly for a period of weeks. The result? Reviewing her sleep cycle and seeing in graph form how little she was sleeping made her more anxious about going to bed. It actually made her insomnia worse, so she deleted it. I’ve avoided all sleep apps like the plague ever since.

However, demand for such health-improving, zen-boosting apps is on the rise. Apple named meditation app Calm its 2017 iPhone App of the Year. Calm has been downloaded more than 24 million times across platforms, and Headspace, another award-winning meditation app, this one co-founded by actual Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, was estimated to be worth around $250 million last year. And then there’s Fitbit, Strava, Pedometer, Runkeeper, MyFitnessPal, Apple’s Health, Sleep Cycle, Sweat: Kayla Itsines Fitness, Under Armour’s MapMyWalk — countless options that promise a fitter, happier, more productive, and healthier you.

But I don’t buy it. While I don’t doubt that these products were made with the best intentions, there’s something deeply, disturbingly ironic about escaping the stressful clutter of everyday life by spending more time with your phone. And I’m not alone.

Highsnobiety / Julien Tell

In 2017, a Wired article dove into this irony. Author Scott Rosenberg found that despite the window to tranquility offered by mindfulness apps, he was inundated with notifications and goal-prompts that made entire experience anything but blissful.

“Not more than five minutes [after installing the app], my phone vibrated, nagging me with a notification from Calm. ‘It’s time to meditate.’ Really?” Rosenberg wrote. “Headspace uses them, too; it’s less pushy than Calm, but it will, if you allow it, litter your lock screen with messages like, ‘Is it time for your daily meditation?’” I’m feeling calmer already.

A Calm representative told Highsnobiety that it’s possible to download the company’s Sleep Stories and meditations and play them in airplane mode to eliminate the alerts, but it seems to me that the general approach still peddles the same old buzzwords. Calm employs “reminders in hopes of interrupting someone who may be hooked on their Facebook feed,” which hopefully leads more people to meditate. Sorry, still not convinced.

Of course, it’s possible to turn off the notifications completely. But, to be honest, they’re only part of the problem. Constant reminders to pause whatever it is you’re doing and chill out are just another way for the makers to influence every decision you make. By doing this, and through tracking each entry on the app, from how often you use it to your logged incentives — for instance, selecting the insomnia series on Headspace or entering your goal weight on MyFitnessPal — the pursuit of health becomes gamified. It becomes a competition, as Rosenberg notes, “whether with others or yourself.”

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And that only plays into a “pics or it didn’t happen” mentality. When did sharing stats, competing against others, and allowing them to keep tabs on your wellness accomplishments equate to a clear mind? In my view, it can’t — it’s completely counterproductive. What’s more, in the same way people tend to only share positive and intensely curated pictures on social media, it turns the pursuit of mindfulness into something you do (partly) to prove to others that you’re doing it, that you’re doing it as much, if not more, than they are. And be real, sometimes you cheat: you walk around the block an extra time to beat your colleagues’ daily step target; you do two days of Headspace in one sitting to catch up with your partner’s progress; and so on.

The whole score-keeping thing is troubling. It’s also unhealthy. And the people who created the whole “like”-based system agree. Former Facebook president Sean Parker admitted that one of the company’s primary goals was to answer the question, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Perhaps obviously, that answer came in the shape of a white-gloved thumb. Facebook created “a social-validation feedback loop” built around giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever.” In turn, this would make users contribute more to the system in the hunt for more validation. This approach has become a staple of the tech industry ever since.

Highsnobiety / Eva Al Desnudo

Ex-Google product manager Tristan Harris explained the concept further during a TED Talk, saying that “there’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention. Because every news site, TED, elections, politicians, games, even meditation apps have to compete for one thing, which is our attention, and there’s only so much of it.”

In other words, our apps identify our emotional vulnerabilities, our thirst for social acceptance, our compulsive need to be the best version of ourselves, our quest for validation — and then prey on it.

And all this is without even really considering how much damage constantly looking at your phone screen has on your mental health. An article in Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail titled “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy. So why can’t you put it down?” noted how the constant distraction of notifications results in a loss of brain power, with workers at a British company who “multitasked on electronic media” being “found in a 2014 study to lose about the same quantity of IQ as people who had smoked cannabis or lost a night’s sleep.” Seems pretty counterproductive really, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. But that’s not the worst part. At the end of 2017, a Pew Research Center study found that among “smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers,” the ratio of GABA — “a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits or slows down brain signals” — to glutamate-glutamine — “a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited” — was significantly higher. In layman’s terms, GABA is the brake and glutamate-glutamine is the throttle. The correct balance of the two helps to ward off depression and anxiety. When their ratio is thrown off, it’s shitty news all round. So you can see why the idea of zapping anxiety via an anxiety-inducing implement might be a bit, well, dumb.

The developers of these apps are no doubt coming from a good place. A Sleep Cycle spokesperson, for example, told Highsnobiety that the company is aware of the issues surrounding screen time and stress, and is aiming to help people improve their sleep routine overall. And yet we’re no more peacefully connected with ourselves than before we started. This no myth, no chant, no bullshit vibe, for me at least, just hasn’t worked.

It also begs the question: Why do we even need cell phones to do this in the first place? Doesn’t meditation date back thousands of years? Didn’t Buddha find enlightenment 2,500 years ago? Do you think he was an iOS or Android kind of guy?

The more I think about it, the crazier the entire system seems. Or perhaps my cynical, rebellious reflex is just too easily provoked. Either way, I’ve just stumbled across an old Dilbert comic that summarizes everything here better than I ever could, so I’ll just leave you with that. And if you’re reading this article via your smartphone, don’t forget to take a minute to check in with yourself, okay? Because, to quote a recent Headspace notification, brilliant things happen in calm minds.

Next up; Virgil Abloh talks football, fashion, and the rappers he’d put in his OFF-WHITE XI.

Staff Writer
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