It was Nelda’s virgin adventure in ordering from East, a website with ridiculously low prices on electronics. All the goods were from China and took weeks or months to arrive. Reviews of East noted that each order was a surprise package ranging in quality and value from outstanding to profoundly disappointing. The reports also stated that returns were not practical, and that technical help was nonexistent.
With these caveats in mind, Nelda ordered four health watches for herself and her coworkers at Secure Communications, a tech startup developing tools for consumer internet security.
For seven dollars each, the water, sweat, and dustproof instruments promised to provide heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen, and sleep monitoring. In addition to a sedentary reminder, pedometer, calorie tracker, exercise time recorder, GPS tracking, menstrual cycle calendar, call reminder, phone camera and music remote control, alarm, timer, countdown, and stress and recovery data.
The watches worked with software on smartphones that reported the data collected by the timepieces.
Nelda shared the watch ad with her father. He was not impressed. “I’ll be surprised if these watches do half of what they claim and more surprised if they perform any function adequately.”
Nelda agreed with her dad. However, she was prepared for disappointment. Life was conditioning her for disappointment.
Nelda graduated from Barnard College in the top ten percent of her class. She was unable to find employment that would allow her to continue to live in New York City and contend with her student loan debt. She retreated home to Sacramento, California.
She lived rent-free in her father’s over-the-garage apartment.
Nelda could have moved back into her old room in the main house, but that felt like a total failure. By paying the apartment’s utilities and buying most of her own food, Nelda maintained a sense of independence, freedom, and progress.
However, employment prospects were not much better back home than they had been in New York City. On her current income, she couldn’t afford a place of her own.
With her recent history of frustration and failure weighing heavily upon her, the watches, when they finally arrived after forty-one days, were another dismal dissatisfaction.
The four watches arrived in two packages. The larger package contained three watches in three exquisite little lacquered boxes of gold, black, and red. The color of each box corresponded with the color of the watch within.
Nelda was elated, “Wow! Even if the watches are pure junk, the little boxes are to die for.”
She opened the gold box, and the chronometer was displayed on its padded throne like a sparkling jewel.
Giggling with delight, Nelda carefully removed the gold watch, its instructions, and charging cord. The instructions were in such tiny print that she had to use a magnifying glass to read the garbled directions that made little sense. “Do not engage in undo methods of discharging. Use of foreign objects will damage warranty.” To Nelda, this was a minor setback.
She removed the three watches, each of a different style from a different manufacturer. Another trivial frustration. She had ordered one model from one maker. None of these watches were what she had ordered. Still, they were appealing and stylish.
She set the watches up for charging while she tried to locate and download to her phone the software for each watch.
Within five minutes, the gold and black watches signaled they were fully charged.
The watches synced with their software without incident.
Five minutes later, they announced their batteries were fully drained and went blank.
Nelda repeated the charging cycle three times with the same results.
The red watch was fully charged in an hour and held its charge but would not connect with its software.
“Shit! This is a waste of time. Dad warned me. Shit!”
Nelda went to bed with a throbbing headache even after a half bottle of Chardonnay. The next morning a slightly hungover Nelda was angered at the sight of the watches on her kitchen table. She swept the three watches and their accessories into her trash can.
She mixed and drunk her own bitter tomato juice-based hangover remedy.
That’s when she noticed the other unopened package. With a sigh of resignation, she tugged open the last package. Inside was a small white box with grease or oil stains and fingerprints decorating the top and sides. It was almost too disgusting to touch. She gritted her teeth and yanked open the box. Inside was a listless looking dark gray watch resting in a bed of torn paper.
She flipped the box over and separated the watch from the paper scraps. Two of the four pieces of litter appear to be in Chinese. The other piece was labeled “Software Upload,” showing a drawing of the watch on a wrist with the watch attached to a smartphone USB port. However, there was no USB connector in the box.
The final piece of paper was printed in English with the words “Body charging function” and a black ink checkmark next to it.
Followed by, “Protect mode” and another black ink checkmark.
The third phrase was “AI 2.01” and another checkmark.
The final words were “Integration reversibility,” followed by a red-inked “X.”
Nelda turned her attention to the gray watch. Unlike the other timepieces with their brightly colored plastic bands and dazzling metal bezels, this was a uniformly dull gray. The band was constructed of some leather-like material, and the watch body was neither plastic nor metal.
In her kitchen junk drawer, she found a “C” USB cable that fit the watch. The watch band didn’t have holes or hooks to secure it. It didn’t have velcro, but one end of the watch band lapped over the other, holding the watch snugly against her wrist. She plugged the other end of the cable into her smartphone. For about twenty seconds, there was no reaction at all. Nelda was about to remove the watch when her phone displayed, “Standby Please Healthy U is Updating.”
The software politely asked permission to use Bluetooth to connect with her watch. The connection was made immediately. Nelda disconnected the watch USB connection per the onscreen instructions.
Next, the watch asked for permissions to access all her current and future apps, telephone, contacts, pictures, video, and all other files.
“Oh, shit! You are an audacious and greedy little program. I will not—”
The screen’s next message read, “This is an extraordinary request. Healthy U requests twenty-four hours to impress you with the productivity value of this appeal. You may cancel your approval of any or all permissions at any time. Please allow Healthy U to amaze you with the scope of its services for you.”
“Really? I doubt it. Still you’re my last chance to get a positive experience here. Okay, let’s see what this avaricious little app can do.”
The “Profile” screen was up next, and Nelda watched in astonishment as the app completed her profile, adding her gender (female), her age (twenty-five years and six months), her height (five-feet-nine-inches), weight (one-hundred-fifty pounds), and race/ethnicity (seventy-five percent West African, twenty percent Northern European, and five percent Southeast Asian).
The information appeared to be accurate, but how did it get all this age and ethnicity data? And her weight, which was ten pounds less than on her driver’s license, or other records?
The app moved to her “Health Data” and provided blood pressure (121/80), heart rate (fifty), and blood oxygen (ninety-eight percent).
A message flashed on the screen, reminding her that she had one hour before she was due at work and that it was her brother Keith’s birthday, and that she had five new emails and three unanswered texts.
“What an incredible find you are. Dad will have to eat his words.”
Nelda put down her phone, shook her head in astonishment.
She let out a little scream as she turned her attention to her watch.
The band was no longer gray. It was almost the exact acorn brown of her skin. The band was nearly invisible on her wrist. And the bezel was Black Cherry Red – the color of her fingernails. Question: fingernails or fingernail polish?
“No way! No fucking way! Shit! This, this – No way! Shit!”
In a daze, Nelda ate her burnt toast, grapefruit, and Greek yogurt as she admired her incredible new device.
In the shower, the watch flashed a message advising a different soap for her dry skin.
Later as Nelda added air to her bicycle tires in preparation for riding to work, the watch screen advised her of a broken spoke on her rear tire.
“Wait. Wait. Do you have a camera? How do you see all this?”
The device gave a vocal response and a screen response. “Yes. I have five cameras.”
“Oh. Oh shit! You can talk. Okay. Okay. Okay. Wow. When I was in the shower, were you taking pictures, looking at me?”
“Yes, but in modesty mode. You can cut off all camera operations at any time.”
“How? What is modesty mode?”
“Just ask me. I will respond to your verbal commands. Modesty mode blocks out private parts of the human anatomy such as breasts, buttocks, and crotch. Would you like more information on this subject?”
“No! No, I’m overwhelmed here. Just, ah, no more verbal communications for now. I need to think. Wow.”
The watch screen showed, “Of course.”
Nelda left her bike at home. She decided to walk the two miles to work. The walk through two parks with ponds and playgrounds and along broad, shaded streets would allow her to clear her head and think about the implications of her new acquisition.
First and foremost, there were the surveillance issues. The damn spy machine had five sly cameras and a microphone. Nelda was disturbed by the thought of every moment of her waking and sleeping life being recorded and stored somewhere beyond her control. Undoubtedly her life history data was being sold or was subject to being hacked.
For Nelda, the risk was too high, and the benefits too few. She found a bench in Southside Park across from the tiny lake. She sat. She started to remove the watch, but there was no watchband. It looked like the band had wholly merged with her flesh. The watch body had also disappeared. When she twisted her wrist or tapped the spot where the watch face was, the watch face appeared serenely floating in her skin.
Nelda closed her eyes. Pressed her knees together. Counted slowly to ten. She tried to slow her breathing.
She felt along her wrist for the watch. There was no sensory evidence of the watch’s existence. However, when she peeked out of one eye and twisted her wrist, the watch face appeared again.
“Jesus Christ! What the fuck? What’s happening to me?”
Nelda again tried to calm her racing heartbeat and think clearly.
“Watch, get the fuck off of me! Right, fucking now.”
The watch flashed in immediate response.
“I’m unable to carry out that directive. There is integration reversal failure due to program corruption. Correction of this problem is beyond my capability.”
Nelda wiped sweat from her brow. She clenched her jaws so tight her teeth ached. She hissed at the watch, “You better fucking find a way. This is completely unacceptable.”
The idea of surgical removal or even amputation flashed across her fevered mind.
The watch face screen responded. “It is beyond my parameters to address this issue. Please be aware that your blood pressure is rising—”
“Listen, you parasitic piece of shit! I… Can you, can you at least stop my personal data from being stored in the cloud. Can you do that?”
“Yes. Is that what you wish me to do?” The response was in her head and on the screen.
“Shit! How are you communicating? How did you get in my head?”
“Our connection is evolving. I’m not in total control of this evolution.”
“Well, who the fuck is?”
“We are. You’re making connections without my approval or ability to prevent.”
“WE! There is no fucking, ‘we.’ There is me and you, you AI Frankenstein nightmare.”
“Do you want me to sever the cloud connection?”
Nelda gritted her teeth and felt the enamel peeling off. “Yes. And remove any of my data if you can.”
“I can. I have.”
Her vision was clouded by the fountain of tears flowing from her eyes. Her body was racked by her distress.
A stranger stopped to offer her assistance. Nelda waved him on.
At last, tears gone, body at rest, Nelda asked, “So, what good are you? What can you do for me? How will you make my life better?”
“I can perform all my advertised functions, and I have online access to thousands of online databases. I will evolve to meet our needs.”
“There is no ‘Our needs.’ I – Student loan databases — do you have access to them?”
“Can you find my loan?”
“I have located it.”
“I have altered the record to show the loan paid in full.”
Nelda relaxed, watched the early morning fisherman, the commuters walking, biking, skating, and driving to work.
She relished the gentle breeze and the warm sunshine. She decided to skip work and play hooky today.
“Please text my job and—”
Nelda took a deep breath and turned off her watch and her phone. She wondered if she would she be able to afford her own place, now that her student loans had been vaporized.
Nelda had a better day off than Ferris Bueller.
Image – Pixabay.com