“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
– Lord Acton –
I remember speaking with a friend who served on a Board of Directors with me. As all of us got up during meeting breaks to plug various appliances into the limited number of outlets in the room, he pointedly observed the somewhat vampiric qualities of modern man as it applies to electricity. Sure enough, you walk into airports and find people camped out in the most unlikely places so long as there’s an outlet for their power-sucking device of choice. When I used to sit in my local Starbucks to work, I quickly learned which outlets actually supplied power and which merely tantalized the less frequent patrons with the promise of an illusory charge. However, as Hurricane Sandy bore down on Long Island last week I realized that keeping my iPhone, iPad, and laptop charged paled in comparison with a more fundamental need: my ability to walk.
The many recent advances in prosthetic technology all tend to have the same Achilles heel: they rely on electricity. I’m fortunate enough to use a knee component that requires charging, and thus, am at the mercy of the Long Island Power Authority to enjoy the benefits of basic human locomotion. While I operate under the assumption that, all things being equal, I will be able to access power someplace in the event of a blackout because human beings have a hard time justifying the primacy of the need to text over the need to walk, you can never be sure. (The harried mother of 3, upon hearing me announce that a battery-powered knee trumps the iPad that gives her 20 minutes of peace while her kids play Angry Birds, might slip a knife in my ribs.)
So the day before Hurricane Sandy crashed into the Northeast, I systematically rotated every possible powered device I could think of through power sources in my house as follows: (1) iPhone; (2) iPad; (3) work laptop; (4) knee batteries. The most challenging of these devices were the iPhone and knee batteries, because (a) I invariably unplugged the iPhone from the wall every time I had a call because I wanted to walk and talk, initiating the iPhone’s Rapid Energy Depletion (RED) feature, and (b) while wandering around my house during these phone calls, I simultaneously started draining my knee battery. In an effort to control the power loss in both devices, I would therefore keep returning to my bedroom to plug my phone back in as soon as I finished my telephonic perambulations, and at the same time switch from one 99% full battery to a fully charged one over and over again, convinced that this 1% difference would dramatically impact my post-blackout life.
As the winds picked up and our house started to shake from the force of the storm, I congratulated myself on this brilliant approach to constant power maximization. I popped the battery in my knee out of the prosthesis with one hand while extracting the fully juiced battery from the charger with the other, creating my own circular cyclone of battery-related movement. And I waited for the power to abandon us.
I sat on the couch with my wife and watched the latest episode of Homeland, positive that blackness would envelope us any minute. But we made it through the whole show. I went to bed knowing that when I awoke Sunday morning, my vortex of battery switching would pay off. But when I came to 8 hours later, the readout of my wife’s wall-powered digital clock still cast a red pall across the dark room.
As I looked out my back window to discover that the cheap metal shed I had assembled on Labor Day weekend had been blown onto its back despite my efforts to moor it to the ground with multiple metal stakes, I remained convinced that the electricity would fail. As I realized that my kids’ trampoline no longer was resting in its normal place in the back yard, but rather, was lying on its side against a wall of trees 20 feet from where it had started, I knew that our days under a warm halogen glow would end. But still, our power stubbornly held.
By the time the storm started to significantly decline Sunday afternoon, the thought occurred to me that all of that planning, all of the rotating of batteries and devices might have been for naught. As we realized the extent of the damage in almost every direction less than a quarter-mile from our house, we began to understand how lucky we were. We watched reports on our TV that 90% of Long Island was without power. We heard rumors that as LIPA tried to get power restored to damaged areas we would experience outages. Electricity continued to course through our house without interruption.
It is now more than a week after Sandy and somehow, remarkably, we still have power. As we talk to friends who have remained in the cold and dark for the last 10 days, I now realize how futile all my planning was. Even though, unlike many battery-powered prosthetic knees, mine has an on-off switch that can allow me to conserve power and extend the potential walking life of the joint dramatically, if I lived two blocks east I’d be non-functional right now. Once you start talking a week plus without electricity, managing the useful life of your batteries becomes a somewhat moot point.
The irony here is that the more sophisticated your prosthesis, the less likely you’ll be able to use it in the event of a major weather event. High tech comes with a price.
I comfort myself with the fact that I have a running leg I could always slap on in a pinch if I really needed to be mobile and my everyday prosthesis flickered out of useful existence. And I struggle with what I’ll do this Wednesday, when a second storm – a Nor’Easter – plows into Long Island on the heels of Sandy. More likely than not, I’ll replicate my actions of last weekend, convinced that the ritual of keeping everything at max power will somehow ward off the evil spirits of Blackout. But I’ll know that if things get bad, high-tech may end up being no-tech in relatively short order. 21st-Century technology is wonderful, but only if you’re actually in the 21st century.