The Quiet Betrayal of Sleep TrackingReading Time: 4 minutes
I Thought I’d Found a Way to Hack My Sleep. Then, It Hacked Me., I thought I’d found a way to hack my sleep. Then, it hacked me., I tried to fix my faulty sleep tracking ring. What I learned was bigger than some bad data.
When my partner got me a sleep tracking ring for my birthday, I was ambivalent. I’d long resisted the siren song of the quantified, optimized self, and I was cynical about trading privacy and personal data for personalized insights. After a decade working at Bay Area startups, I knew too well that technologies are rarely inert tools. They shape our desires and behavior. They demand things of us—too much, sometimes.
At the same time, I needed to do something about my sleep. Even before I became a parent, slumber was never my strong suit. And now our 8-month-old was finally (mostly) sleeping through the night, but I still wasn’t. My body was trained to wake up for bottle feedings at 1 and 4 a.m., creating fertile ground for runaway thought trains. My partner had used the same sleep tracking ring for years and found it valuable, so I set my reservations aside, yearning for a REM renaissance.
The ring was a tad bulky but otherwise its shiny silver exterior gave no hint that it tracked movement, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels. The first time I slipped it onto my left index finger felt momentous. The only other jewelry or adornment I wear regularly is my wedding ring. Its new neighbor represented a different kind of relationship with a less reciprocal notion of intimacy. Now that we were committed, I would give this device unfettered access to my corporeal data stream. In exchange, I hoped, I would be seen, known, understood.
At night, I donned the ring. Each morning, I checked the companion app’s charts and metrics for insight and validation. But they often confronted me with an unrecognizably rosy account of my night.
One day, I rose at 5:50 a.m., having been awake since 4:30. Recalling long stretches of anxious sleeplessness, I guessed I’d slept no more than five hours. The app alleged that I’d slept for more than seven. On the graph that showed time awake or in various sleep stages during the night, I saw only brief hiccups of wakefulness when I’d gotten up to pee. My sleep score of 87 (out of 100) was deemed ‘optimal’ and adorned with a little crown. This was a jarring betrayal.
‘Feeling refreshed?’ the app asked with the chirpy enthusiasm of a well-rested camp counselor. ‘You got more restorative time than on average yesterday, good job! It may have helped you sleep soundly last night, too.’
The only thing worse than sleeping terribly, I realized, is sleeping terribly and then being assured that you actually slept quite well. The ring was gaslighting me.
This was not a scenario I’d contemplated at the outset of my sleep-tracking journey. I’d balked at the device’s invasiveness but never questioned its accuracy. I failed to anticipate the disquieting dissonance that arose when its intimate access yielded misunderstanding instead of insight. Now that the titanium band was in my life, I was surprised by how badly I wanted it to deliver on its creepy promise.
‘Does your ring think you’re asleep whenever you’re awake but lying still?’ I asked my partner, who has an older model.
‘Not really,’ she said. ‘Maybe yours is defective?’
She reviewed my sleep scores.
‘Wow. I wish I could get an 87.’
‘Me too,’ I said.
Knowing that her ring was reasonably accurate legitimized my expectation of a better experience. Eager to manifest such an experience, and aided by the shaky reasoning of my sleep-deprived mind, I performed a series of contortions in the ensuing weeks to attempt to close the maddening chasm between the ring’s reality and my own.
It probably needs more time to get calibrated and develop a baseline, I told myself. All relationships, after all, have a getting-to-know-you period. Concerned the ring was loose, I repeatedly pushed it down to the thickest part of my finger. I wore it during the day, hypothesizing that the additional data would help it distinguish sleep from horizontal wakefulness. When I was awake in bed, I sometimes wiggled my left hand so the ring wouldn’t mistake my stillness for sleep. I used the app’s sleep-editing feature to manually adjust when I woke up or fell asleep, hoping the feedback would hasten the day when I felt properly surveilled. Some of these tinkerings were absurd. And none of them helped.
Things came to a head when I tried acupuncture for the first time. I couldn’t relax—I was too aware of the forest of needles gently stabbing me. The ring, bless its sensors, recorded a nap.
I fired off a missive about its defects to customer service.
‘We have taken a look at your ring with our systems and found that it is working correctly,’ they insisted helpfully.
They eventually sent a replacement, but the new ring continued to equate lying still with blissful hibernation. Maybe I was the problem. Maybe some physical idiosyncrasy rendered my body immeasurable. Similar reports of inaccuracies in online forums soothed me somewhat, and I resolved to return it. Instead, I lost it. After a few days of fruitless searching, I accepted this as a sign about my sleep tracking prospects.
Then the ring reappeared. Grateful, I put it on. The next morning, I checked the app and saw a toggle for a new version of its sleep staging algorithm. I turned it on. My night instantly looked worse—which is to say, better. Less total sleep, more light sleep, longer wake-ups. I was delighted.
Many mediocre relationships, this one included, persist on the fumes of faith that things can improve. But the ring was working on itself. The new algorithm was a vow renewed, and I wanted to know how much better things could be.
The ring still exaggerated my proficiency at unconsciousness. But it narrowed the gap between my sleep scores and my recollection enough to justify keeping it. Could I improve my sleep hygiene without it? Sure. But over time, the ring came to embody my aspiration to improve my sleep, which complicated the possibility of severing ties.
The ring, on my finger as I write this, also carries more ambivalent symbolism about the vulnerability in our relationships with such products. Even while failing to fulfill its core promise, it kept others: It shifted my goals, shaped my behavior, and drew my attention, often in undesirable ways. But my awareness of that undesirable influence wasn’t sufficient to avoid it. Nor did it insulate me from the visceral disappointment and alienation of feeling misrepresented by a technology designed to observe.
When I peer into the ring’s mirrorlike surface, I see my face, distorted by its curvature. I see a self that is complicated to quantify.
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