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Alarm Clocks And Lost Productivity
(or How I Can't Get No Satisfaction)

alarm clock

The modern alarm clock, or more to the point, its confounded snooze button, has dramatically altered my personality and stolen countless hours of personal productivity. It seems that the point of the snooze button is to prolong the agony of having to untangle from your partner and slowly acclimate to the inevitable nip of the morning air. Apparently, the ideal interval between attempts to complete this taxing daily task is between four and nine minutes. Typically, at least seven calisthenic attempts will fail before an overwhelming sense of guilt goads you to grind and brew black water jolt juice — the bitterness tempered by two teaspoons of sugar and a shot of hot chocolate milk.

Stated simply: the snooze button has left me less than satisfied. Given this, I naturally wanted to find a place to lay blame. Who better than the inventor of the snooze button:

Lew Wallace.

It turns out that this very same Lew Wallace is the Lew Wallace who wrote Ben Hur. This amused me, since Ben Hur is nothing short of prolonged agony in its own right — hence not surprising that there's such a close link to snoozing.

However, this is a debatable point, according to a few articles on About.com. It could be argued that I need to direct my anger toward the Ancient Greeks who appeared to have invented a water-driven device that caused a mechanical bird to whistle. Or it could have been Levi Hutchins who, in 1787, invented a clock that would sound a bell at 4 A.M. There's a line to be drawn between useful feature and defect, and it's not clear on what side of that line Hutchins' device would fall. Or finally, it could be Seth Thomas, who got a patent for a clock with an adjustable alarm in 1876. Bully for adjustment. Anyway, it's hard to imagine that the first alarm clock patent came after the invention of the snooze button, if I've got my timeline right (or wrong?). So I leave the invention issue as an open question.

But it's enormously fun to direct my ire at the man who penned Ben Hur.

Anyway, there are plenty of ranty bits out there about the snooze button and the problems that it has caused all of humanity. The issue that I really want to investigate is what went wrong? What, that is, could have led us to the snooze button, and why have we stuck with it for so long?

Mind you, all of this is completely speculative, but I am, after all, a trained philosopher, so this is my business.


Somewhere in history, someone's alarm clock rang and this person thought, "Hey, I wish that I could sleep longer". This was not the novelty. No, the novelty was, "Hey, I could sleep longer if I reset the alarm." The obvious thing to do was to, well, reset the alarm for a later time, but this was far too much work. Hence, the auto-resetter. That's all that the snooze button really is: it's an auto-resetter. So why not either 1) get up when you intend to get up; 2) reset the alarm for real; 3) set the alarm later in the first place if you have so much time to kill pretending to sleep more.

That's the thing too: you don't actually sleep more. It has been claimed that "people with healthy sleep habits fall asleep in about 10 to 20 minutes." (about.com (again)) So what's the deal with the infamous nine minute snooze (or in my case, it's a four minute snooze)? This is up for tremendous debate as well — the links below have more about this point — but I think that the answer is obvious: that's just enough time to almost fall back to sleep. This means that the snooze button is actually a torture device. It is a mechanism of self-emotional-mutilation.

Furthermore, it is a mechanism that keeps you in bed longer, wasting time. Imagine all of the hours wasted not getting up when it would have been useful to get up? You could have written a giant boring novel, like Ben Hur perhaps.

What went wrong, then? Laziness. That's it. But it's the same with the auto-grind auto-drip auto-start coffee maker. Laziness. It's the same with the universal remote control: who remembers life prior to the remote? How ever did we survive?

Laziness is an easy answer, though. I think that there's something deeper at stake; it's irresponsible to just say "oh well, we're lazy" and drop it there. In a way, the snooze button is a convenience product, like the electric can opener, or the cellular telephone, or email, or remote car starters, or drive throughs, or any of host of other strange and indispensible products (and services). Like any of these things, the snooze button cuts down on 1) the effort we have to put forth to accomplish something; 2) the responsibility we have to take for our actions.

With respect to the first point and as noted, the snooze button is a compromised automatic alarm resetter. Tapping the button is equivalent to physically resetting the alarm for nine or so minutes later. Apparently, we're willing to accept the hardwired time so to prevent the laborious task of picking up the clock and pressing buttons or turning dials. With respect to the second point, I mean to emphasize that the alarm is set for some given time for some good reason — at least I'm assuming this to be the case. I set my alarm for 5:50 A.M. because I need to get up and get things done. with the snooze-crutch available, I can spend a couple of minutes justifying a quick reset and pretend that I'll magically be refreshed in under ten minutes. Hence, I don't have to take full responsibility for actually getting up nor for whatever I am supposed to be doing that made me set the alarm for that time in the first place.

Productivity & Convenience have been bred into us, in some sense. And it's scary how well we have listened and conditioned ourselves to give in when the going gets tough. Well, by tough, in this case, I mean when we have to actually move our limbs and make decisions.

Essentially, the snooze button, for my purposes, is a metaphor for all sorts of other so-called "conveniences" that supposedly enhance our "productivity" and are absolutely indispensible for modern life. I've been watching myself for a while now, and the more that I engage in these things, the more that I let myself absorb the marketing, the pace of the images and ideas that bombard me in the media, in the car, in films, in music, on the Internet... everywhere: the more I notice, the more desperately afraid I am that I cannot turn back. And the more I feel the strains of addiction, pulling, nagging, thirsting for another convenience-fix. Like a simple push of the button for another four to nine minutes of bedtime bliss.

But it's a lie.

Email, cell phones, freeways, coffee makers, microwaves, drive throughs, Krispy Kreme Donuts, Jack In The Box, Starbucks: they are all lies. No, this is not a "category mistake", as a philosopher would likely say: this is a modern notion of "lies". Our world's lies have been made manifest in this Capitalist Rainbow whose pot of gold is satisfaction.

There is no pot of gold. There is no satisfaction in what the lies offer. The snooze button is our daily training device: we learn to sleepwalk the path of least resistance that promises to lead to a digitized, technologized, commodified heaven.

Do you feel any closer to what the lies promise?


Neither do I.

Today I bought the last alarm clock I'll ever need. It's a rock solid wind up with an internal bell and no snooze button. I'm breaking the cycle starting tomorrow morning and continuing while I drive by the drive throughs and find my own pot of satisfaction.

References:

History Of The Alarm Clock
About.com's History Of The Alarm Clock (beware of the popups!)
Wake Up Call
The Free Dictionary Dot Com
The Catoctin 50K Trail Run
Why 9 Minutes?

© 2005 Sorrell
March