I Survey the Wreckage of Time Sitting in my Office Chair.

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER — Last winter a friend of mine slipped on ice and fell hard onto pavement. She was stunned, and might have lain there a while, but a passerby spotted her and, in spite of her protests, got her to an aid station, whence she was whisked to a hospital for treatment and evaluation. By chance, she has close friends who are into personal digital devices. After taking a long look at her, they persuaded her to get a digital watch that can sense a fall by its owner, ask whether they need help, and in the event of receiving no answer, will notify emergency services and give them a location.

I’m writing this on the eve of my birthday – I happen to share the date with Queen Victoria (remember Victoria Day?), Bob Dylan (just a kid; I knew him when he was still George Zimmerman in Manhattan), and my old prep school roommate – and as I survey the wreckage of time sitting in my office chair, I’m feeling grateful for my friend’s mishap and her friends’ advice.

The result of that combination lives on my left wrist from early morning, just after I’ve set my coffee-maker (M. Henri-Pierre Café) to work on the day’s ration, until just before bedtime, when I check my day’s physical accomplishments, helpfully displayed on a multi-colored watch face, and set her on her charger for the night.

I call her Cassie (this is complicated; bear with me), a nickname for her real name, Cassia, the feminine form of Cassius, whom Brutus asks, “Into what dangers would you lead me?” (See, I told you it was complicated.) This little thing upon my wrist performs prodigies of functions – for example, upon what I guess you’d call her chin she constantly displays my heart rate – but to me her most obvious function is to get me up from my desk and move around every so often. She’s quite cheerful and polite – “Time to get up and move around for a couple of minutes!” – but I’ve been told that somebody who knows how can change her chirpy little prod into the kind of thing Al Pacino might say. You can imagine what that might be. I’d love that, because I could answer her in the same language: “Hey! You talkin’ to me, pal?”

That’s probably the most amazing thing about her: We can talk! Raised on the fantasy of Dick Tracy’s wristwatch radio, I still never thought to see it. But, borne by an irresistible current, I’ve been swept from one marvel to another. A few years ago, after my wife died, I subscribed to a system by which I could call for help, with a pendant, a button in the shower, or a pin-on button to take on hikes. This was superseded by the iPhone, which performs the same function for about ninety bucks less a month. And now I can leave the clunky phone at home, because Cassie can do all of that. I have to be careful pretending to demonstrate it to friends because she hears everything I say! It helps to have a clear conscience and behave yourself.

 (This very minute she did her little burping thing against my wrist and, when I looked, issued her usual prompt. So I got up, hit the head, and had a banana, to be applauded with “You did it!” and an award toward my daily goal. “Well, duh!” I answered her. “Just because I have a Y chromosome doesn’t mean I can’t take advice.” It is a little embarrassing, though.)

 When computers first burst upon the academic scene in the early 1960s, Dartmouth College built the Kiewit Computation Center to house mainframe computers on which students and faculty could share time. Just a few years later, one of the center’s founders, John Kemeny, observed that the average Dartmouth student then carried in their pocket more computing power than existed in that whole building. It’s long gone now, and every student is armed with that enhanced power.

Who can help but wonder where this burgeoning technology will lead? I can hardly keep up with what’s happening and foresee the day when cranial implants will take the place of the clunky phenomenon on my wrist. That’s when we’ll really begin to behave ourselves! Meanwhile, my son, in one of my twice-weekly Zoom sessions with the kids in Arkansas, paid me a great compliment: He said that, confused as I profess to be, I’m in the one-percent category of my age group in staying with it. Meanwhile, I’m wondering whether Cassie in her artificial wisdom, will automatically adjust my daily goals downward on my birthday tomorrow. Would I be grateful or irritated?