Was I wrong to think an Apple Watch might improve my life? – Washington Post

It took me a while to persuade my new Apple Watch to stop calling me Ruth.

Whenever the watch thought I was in need of positive reinforcement, the words “Well done, Ruth!” would light up on its shiny, touch-sensitive face.

“Well done, Ruth!” it would announce when I’d walked 10,000 steps or stood up at my desk or breathed.

Ruth happens to be the name of My Lovely Wife and, in fact, the smartwatch was a Christmas gift from her.

I’m quite fond of analog things — cameras, drum sets, books — and a mechanical wristwatch is a great marvel of human engineering, all those gears and springs. But I’d been missing the fitness tracker that I wore, if ever so briefly, and I mentioned to Ruth that maybe an Apple Watch could serve that purpose, and more. With it, I would step my way to health, while also knowing the time, temperature and location of the nearest Starbucks.

And then the watch kept calling me Ruth.

Maybe, I thought, the watch preferred Ruth, wished it was on her wrist instead of mine. Maybe when I wasn’t wearing it — when I took it off at night to recharge (for battery life is the great Achilles’ heel of Apple’s anemic products) — Ruth was slipping it on, allowing the watch’s built-in accelerometer and gyroscope to become accustomed to her gait.

Was the watch like a cheating spouse, accidentally blurting the name of its lover? “Well done, Ruth! Er, John!”

The watch had other quirks, too. Every now and then the image on the display would get huge. The cuff of my sleeve would brush the face of the watch and a portion of the display would inflate to gargantuan size. Rather than show an entire analog clock face, with a delicate red second hand sweeping around majestically, it would show just one corner of a huge and queasily pixelated 4.

I would jab at the screen, then pinch my thumb and forefinger on it as if I was trying to pick up a dropped needle. Sometimes that would work and the old display would snap back. Other times I would have to push the digital crown of the watch repeatedly, cycling through various functions to return to the familiar display.

It turned out this sudden, unintended magnification was happening because the zoom function was enabled in the watch’s accessibility settings. I think the watch thought I was visually impaired.

Or maybe it wanted me to think I was visually impaired. My own watch was gaslighting me.

I disabled the zoom function then set about convincing the watch that it belonged to me, that whatever walks it was going on were courtesy of my legs, that whatever blood was coursing beneath its little light-sensitive, pulse-determining diodes was mine.

“Just what do you think you are doing, Ruth?” the watch said as I began poking around in its brain.

“I’m fixing you,” I said.

And I did. The problem was that the iPhone contacts list to which I had originally synced the watch had me listed as . . . Ruth. The conspiracy went deeper than I thought.

But once I’d corrected that I finally had the watch as Apple intended.

It is cool, so colorful and customizable. The display springs to life when I lift my wrist, then reverts to black when I’m not looking at the watch. I can read email on it and get directions, though of course I can do that with my phone, too, which is never more than three feet from my watch.

The watch does seem sincerely concerned for my well-being. It encourages me to breathe. Sure, I’ve been doing that on my own for years now, but at regular intervals the watch vibrates and, like a yoga instructor, exhorts, “Be still and bring your attention to your breath.”

It displays a little flower that blooms rhythmically, guiding me in my inhalations. When I’ve finished, it says, “Well done!”

The watch is worried about my sedentary lifestyle. “Time to stand!” it says hourly. I stop whatever I’m doing, rise and walk around the newsroom. “You did it!” the watch coos. “You’ve earned another hour toward your Stand goal.”

Who knew I even had a Stand goal? I didn’t, but my watch did.

I think the watch might be training me, getting me comfortable with following its gentle commands.

I’m worried, though, that one day it might vibrate and then say, “Take me off and step in front of a bus.”

Then the watch could be with Ruth forever.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.


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