Why and for whom do we optimize our sleep?

Sleep takes up about a third of our life and is of biological importance. A common thought, however, is that people who sleep little are efficient, while people who sleep long are lazy (Khazan, 2014). But, researchers gain more and more insights of sleeping habits and the consequences of sleep deprivation, which range from lack of concentration to increased health issues. It seems like our society starts to appreciate sleep again. We can see this in the rise of the “sleep economy” (Goldman, 2017), which includes products such as mattresses, special lights and sleep tracking devices.

In this paper I will analyze the use and the effects of sleep tracking devices in more detail. However, I will not deal with health-related effects. Rather, as we live in a consumer-orientated society, I will investigate whether the Fitbit Versa actually benefits the consumer. That does not mean that I will do a qualitative analysis of sleep quality.

In the first part, I will use the work of the American philosopher Don Ihde (1990) to show how the different “human-technology relations” allow different usages of the Fitbit, which again change the user’s relation towards sleep, accordingly. In the second part, I will then discuss whether the user actually optimizes his sleep for himself or for the efficiency-orientated society. For this I will use the ideas of the French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul (1980), who defines technology as an autonomous growing organism.

I will conclude this paper with the fact that sleep tracking devices do not contribute to the optimization of sleep, but to the optimization of the technological system, as described by Ellul (1980). This discrepancy in the use of the Fitbit, which empowers the user but restrains him at the same time, can also be seen on an individual level through the descriptive analysis of Ihde. So, instead of using technologies to make sleep more efficient, the political framework must change.

Human Technology Relations

Don Ihde (1990) explains how subjects and objects interact with each other, more precisely, how humans perceive the world through different relations to technology. After all, we are connected to the world through technologies, “we might even say that our existence is technologically textured” (Ihde, 1990, p.1). This becomes clear when we consider writing as a technology, as Ihde (1990, p.82) does. So, not only do humans shape technologies, but also technologies shape what it means to be human (Verbeek, 2015, p.29). In order to describe these “human-technology relations” (Ihde, 1990), Ihde introduced four types, namely: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations and background relations. By defining multiple relations, he also shows that there cannot be one single Technology (Ihde, 1990, p.144), but rather different technologies.

In embodiment relations a technology becomes a kind of part of the user that allows him to experience the world through it in new ways, for example through glasses or a hearing aid. In hermeneutic relations a technology is a representation of the world. The user is able to interpret or read the world through that technology, such as a thermometer. When a technology – a quasi-other – captures the attention of the user through its fascination, as when watching a movie, we speak of alterity relations. Finally, if the technology embeds in the user’s environment without him having to consciously perceive it, we have a background relation; an example would be Wi-Fi.

These human-technology relations do not have to be one-dimensional, which means that the same technology can have multiple relations depending on the application. There is no guarantee that a technology is always used in the same way by different people, since each individual relates differently to it. Be it either, because the intended use of the technology is not clear, due to cultural context for example (Ihde, 1990, p.144), or because the user intentionally reinterpreted the use, such as a baseball bat being misused as a weapon. Apart from that, more complex technologies allow multiple relations per design, as they often bundle different technologies and therefore functions, giving the user a certain choice on how to use them. The ambiguity of perceiving the same technology in different ways is called multistability (Ihde, 1990, p.144).

Our relation to sleep

Within the sleep tracking technology available to the consumer, there are different technologies, such as wrist-worn devices, non-contact sleep sensors and even entire smart beds. Depending on which device we look at, the human-technology relation changes at first glance from an embodiment relation – the wristband as part of the user – to a background relation – the contactless sensor embedded in the user’s environment.

The wrist-worn Fitbit Versa 2 (2019a) monitors sleep by analyzing movement and heart rate. Paired with a smartphone app that processes the data with proprietary algorithms, it provides us with information which was previously unavailable to the general mass. However, the quality or accuracy of the data (Chen, 2019) compared to a sleep laboratory is not considered at this point. The same applies to privacy concerns regarding such personal and sensitive data, which should not be overlooked, though. In the following I will show that even a single technology can contain all four human-technology relations (Gertz, 2019) and how these change our relation to sleep accordingly. First, by becoming an extension of the body the Fitbit allows the user to improve his sleep. He achieves this improvement by studying the insights and following the suggestions of the device based on its analysis. So the user is now capable of something that he was not before – his “bodily power [is] enhanced and magnified” (Ihde, 1990, p.75). However, this embodiment relation also implies dependence on the device that shapes sleep behaviour. The more the user gets accustomed to the device, the more he may not feel able to sleep without it, since he thinks his sleep quality would decrease; similar to people who feel incomplete without their watch. The Fitbit becomes a kind of guarantee for the user to sleep well. Second, the Fitbit gives the user insights to understand and interpret his sleep – his inner world, so to speak. It does so through the hermeneutical relation by translating the heart rate and motion behavior into a language that the user can read, whether written or visual. But once again, we must trust the information the device provides since we do not know how the translation process – the algorithms – work. Besides, another problem arises through oversimplification and overgeneralization. We must bear in mind that this device targets a broad user group which means that it cannot deal with very specific sleep patterns. So, the sleep tracking device will not reveal a “perfect” representation of the inner world. But as already mentioned, the quality of the data is another research topic. Third, while the user interacts with the app to analyze the data, the Fitbit, more precisely the technology, becomes the center of the his attention. If this alterity relation happens before bedtime, it can be counterproductive as the same device distracts the user from sleep, which should improve his sleep instead. Furthermore, by personifying the Fitbit – the otherness – it could at some point even be blamed for bad sleep, much as we get angry at our smartphone for not functioning the way we want it to. However, this does not seem to be the case yet. Fourth, when we wear the wristband during the day, since the Fitbit is also a fitness tracking device, it integrates itself into our environment and reminds us, for example, when to go to sleep or how many more steps we have to take. So through the background relation the user gets pushed into a certain behavior. Even if he does not act accordingly, because he does not want the device to be in control, he will rather feel a sense of failure for not achieving “his” goal by the end of the day. In addition, the wristband collects and calculates all this data in the background without having the user to worry about it. This also demonstrates a certain degree of power that the Fitbit has over the user. So, on the one hand, the Fitbit empowers the user, gives him new insights, fascinates with its capabilities and functions carefree in the background. But, on the other hand, the user becomes dependent, does not understand how the device works, he gets distracted and is shaped by it.

By using Ihde’s descriptive analysis, we can see that different people relate to the Fitbit differently and therefore use it in one way or another. This is because the Fitbit incorporates all four human-technology relations, or in other words, it is a multistable device. However, the way we relate to sleep will certainly change with the use of a sleep tracking device, such as the Fitbit. Therefore, “technologies in use are non-neutral” (Ihde, 1990) as they transform human experience. The question then arises why we would like to track our sleep at all, if it can also have negative consequences, such as distraction or manipulation by the device.

Sleep as a process

The main reason to track our sleep seems to be improvement. Fitbit (2019b) advertises its tracking wristband on its website as follows:

Sleep affects every part of life—your health, your mood and more. It can help you perform at your best, stay productive, and fight weight gain and depression. So if you’re ready to make the most of your day, start by improving your night.

To understand how we sleep, we need to understand and analyze the process. Or as Hannah Arendt puts it: “the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes” (Arendt, 1998, p.296). With this knowledge we are then able to “improve” our sleep and ultimately ourselves.

By transforming sleep into a process through technology, however, it is “taking on a mechanical character” (Ellul, 1964, p.423). In contrast to Ihde (1990, p.144), Jacques Ellul (1980) describes technology as autonomous. By this he means that the technological system functions like an organism that grows independently and governs itself. The more technologies are intertwined, the more efficient each one becomes by functioning as a closed machine. Ellul (1980, p.7) describes this using the example of bureaucracy:

Bureaucracy employs more and more complex machines and must itself function like a machine. The ideal administration is one that runs and works like an engine, with each office as a component and each individual as a part.

The progress of efficiency in the form of technology, has political implications. In a society where technology is the driving force, people without a technological understanding cannot participate in decision-making (Ellul, 1980, p.58). Even if users want to apply certain values, such as privacy, to a technology, it is too late, since technology governs the way we think about these values. As a result, people adapt their lives more and more to technology and become more and more mechanical themselves – as “part” of the machine – in doing so. In the following I will show how this factor finally leads to the alienation from our sleep and thus from ourselves.

Alienation from sleep

There are various conditions that influence the quality of sleep, such as room temperature, light (Duffy and Czeisler, 2009; Okamoto-Mizuno and Mizuno, 2012) or noise, but also diet and exercise. So we can regard sleep, in Ellul’s words, as a system where each of the conditions is a process. With today’s technologies from Google Nest or Philips, for example we can monitor and control each of these areas. By integrating a sleep tracking device into that “system of sleep”, the Fitbit acts as a link between these sleep conditions. Besides, the Fitbit becomes more efficient by bundling them, as it depends on data and the more it can collect from other smart devices, the better.

Fitbit offers apps through which it is able to connect to and control the Philips Hue Lights and, until recently, the Google Nest thermostat. Since the Fitbit is also a fitness tracking device, it can not only adjust the external conditions, but also draw conclusions about the relation between exercise during the day and sleep at night. The next step one could imagine would be to be able to connect the sleep tracking device to the smart fridge so that the user’s diet is also taken into account; so far it is only possible to connect to the oven and the coffee machine. Ultimately, these processes are adjusted to the user’s sleep cycle. This also transforms sleep into a process that can be again adapted to the external factors. It seems that in order to improve our sleep, the Fitbit determines what exercises we do, what we eat and how warm and lit the room should be. Similar to other services, such as Amazon or Netflix which suggest what we should buy or watch. But does the Fitbit tell us when to get up, because we have to do our exercises or the coffee machine is ready? One improvement in one area leads to an improvement in another area, that develops into an endless cycle. In the end we are increasingly adapting our sleep and thus our lives to the technological system, that the Fitbit created by connecting all the different devices. Even if the technology is not that sophisticated yet, the technological system becomes more and more a background relation, without the user having to worry about his sleep and the things related to it. As a result, he automatically gives up a part of his autonomy and by doing so becomes alienated from himself. Jacques Ellul (1980, p.17) points out this fact very clearly:

It [the machine] does certainly not try to victimize or alienate man; it simply does so in order to exist.

Besides the user becoming a mechanical part in “his own” technological system, he also becomes a part in the “system of sleep”. In order to improve the algorithms of the Fitbit and thus the overall technology, not only personal data, but also data about the behaviour of other users are helpful. This means the more people use the Fitbit, the more detailed assumptions it can make about sleep. Again, people become, similar to Ellul’s example of the bureaucracy, part of the machine.

In the end the questions arise, as to how exactly and for whom we improve our sleep. Is it for ourselves by increasing sleep time and improving sleep quality, which would contradict with our understanding of efficiency? Or is it by reducing sleep time while maintaining a similar sleep quality? This uncertainty is based on Ihde’s hermeneutical relation. Since we do not know how the algorithms work, we do not know what they optimize. This means that users are subject to the decisions of the technicians, who embody the technological system (Ellul, 1980, p.126). But the more data the algorithms process, the less even the technicians know of how they make certain assumptions. Moreover, even if we “inefficiently increase” our sleep time or do not sleep well at all, the algorithms still become more efficient as we produce more and more data. So, the autonomous system is growing either way as we use the Fitbit sleep tracking device. Therefore, it does not seem, that we are improving our sleep but rather the technological system.

Conclusion

Don Ihde offers a descriptive model of human-technology relations that allows us to understand how sleep tracking devices like the Fitbit affect our sleep by changing the way we relate to it. The Fitbit empowers us with new insights but at the same time we become dependent on it while we do not understand how it functions. With the work of Ihde, however, it is only possible to see how one person relates to a certain technology in a certain context. To better understand why society would like to use a Fitbit, we have to turn to Jacques Ellul. He describes how technology is the dominating force in society, since people strive for efficiency – something which is attributed to technology.

As Fitbit (2019b) sells its product as an improvement for sleep, it implies at the same time that we are not sleeping good enough. The question is why this is the case and why we have to “fight weight gain and depression” in the first place. Is it not the same quest for efficiency that actually creates these problems? As we can see in the existence of shift work and the acknowledgement of working extra hours. Is the Fitbit not the reason why we are in a bad “mood” and are not living a “healthy” life since it alienates us from ourselves and only lets us fulfill the needs of the technological system? In our capitalistic and efficient-optimized society sleep becomes more and more a sacred “commodity” but the Fitbit invades it. We must ask ourselves whether we actually optimize our sleep for ourselves or for the algorithms. So we should consider sleep as a political concern, as Hannah Arendt would have suggested, rather than use technology to address it individually. In a society where we would not have to “perform at [our] best, [and] stay productive” there would also be no need for any sleep tracking devices. Perhaps, after all, in order to sleep better and thus become more efficient, we need to tackle the matter more inefficiently.

References

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