Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Breath and Shadow
Volume 11, Number 2
The Grand Hoax
By Day Al-Mohamed
The first known insurance contract is from Genoa in 1347. And since that time, the insurance industry has grown and developed a variety of premiums, products, and processes for assessing life, and risks, and putting a value on them. In the 21st century, an insurance company created the first online “game” to let people look at factors that impacted their longevity, and less than thirty years later, Northern River Mutual created the first cell phone application for Predictive Human Lifetime Assessment, or as it was more commonly known, the “Lifeline” test. With only a simple questionnaire, a fun game-like interface, access to a few databases of on you, your family, your finances, medical information, genetics, and a few minutes of computations, the app would calculate your longevity. Since ancient times, gypsies and mystics, psychics and palmists have claimed such arcane knowledge. Now we could do it technologically; we take into account potential genetic flaws, socioeconomic concerns, and analyze lifestyles for risk; all from the palm of your hand. Perhaps it wasn’t so different from those gypsy palm readers after all.
Infallible machines that tell you when to get up in the morning, when to eat, when your appointments are, where to go, and now, an application that’d estimate how long you were going to live. It wasn’t so unusual. Northern River Mutual had just taken it to the next level – the Cloud. In hours, the app had gone viral; in days, it was all over the world; by the end of the first week, more than 5 million people had tried it; some several times. Now, the app was bundled with every cell phone, like Solitaire, or the Calculator, or Nearby Healthy Eats.
Our application, the Emotion Indicator Machine, or E.I.M, had started out as a joke. You know the story of most social media and technology startups; we weren’t so different, a bunch of rich-kid college students with too much free time and too little sense. I’m almost ashamed to admit it was my idea – an app to measure happiness. I came up with the concept and did the graphics, Doug had the programming know-how, and Harvey was our Psychology expert. Not that any of us were experts. Like I said, just a bunch of smart-ass undergrads. ,
“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” Harvey said, frowning.
“We’d never get away with it.”
He took a bite of pizza and pushed his glasses back up on his nose. Harvey had never been able to tolerate contact lenses and he still eschewed the corrective laser technology.
I wasn’t going to give up so easily.
“It’s so stupid, it’s brilliant.” I said,
“Come on! Have you seen half of what is available for cell phones? It’ll be great. What do you think, Doug?”
Doug sat in something that resembled an antique beanbag chair, a bottle of beer halfway to his lips. He looked more like a lumberjack than a college student; tall and broad-shouldered. Give him an ax and he could have passed as Paul Bunyan. Doug smiled and took a slow swig of beer before answering,
“It might be possible.”
He pulled out a stub of a pencil and began sketching on a napkin,
“We could run it as a piggy-back application, operating on top of Northern River Mutual’s Lifeline app.”
He paused, tapping the pencil against his teeth.
“But I’d need access to their code and databases to make sure it work-”
“I can do that,” I said quickly.
I’d interned at Northern River Mutual, and had more than a little knowledge about how their initial application operated. I was also still more than a little steamed at being let go right before they’d gone public with the app.
“And Harvey, you’ve got the—“
“Oh no you don’t. A cell phone app?”
Harvey shook his head.
“You can’t tell me that you’re not the least bit curious to see if we could actually do it. And technically, it is in your field. Psychology, emotional research, blah, blah, blah,” Doug added, once again scribbling on the napkin.
“You were looking for something big for your senior project.”
Doug was a godsend.
“Exactly,” I leapt in, “Think about it. This is just the sort of thing that would get grad schools begging for you to come to them! Hell, we could all write our own ticket!”
Or we’d get expelled, or go to jail, but I sure wasn’t going to tell Harvey that. He was wavering; I could see it on his face.
“Well, the Director of Harvard's Hedonic Psychology Laboratory, is working on a project regarding the nexus of psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics as related to the expectation and perception of simulated future events — and to emotional reactions to those events…”
Harvey mused, a smile growing on his face.
“What did he just say?” Doug said, not even looking up from the napkin, his mind still on what he was sketching.
I whooped, “That he’s in.”
It was a brilliant plan. Who cares how you’re going to die? What’s important is how you’re going to live. Of course, that theory makes a lot more sense when you’re twenty-one, than when you’re fifty-one.
It wasn’t difficult. Not really. Piggy-backing on the Lifeline app, we incorporated participant information from DNA databases, health records, finance records, credit reports, and even arrest records. Then, with a little bit of statistical help, when people received their Lifeline Report, our app would spit out a number from one to ten, rating the individual’s median lifetime happiness level. It wasn’t magic. It wasn’t infallible. Hell, it wasn’t even very good science. But we built it, and they came.
Doug added an end user license permission that allowed us to include a statistical collection function so we could follow what was happening with the app and the people who used it. It was great!
That first day, we watched for hours.
Harvey giggled, “Look at the numbers. They just keep growing. Do you think this is some sort of error?”
“Nope.” I answered.
“But it does make me sorry we didn’t charge more for it. How many so far?”
Harvey gazed down at his small handheld computer. He had become practically obsessive about recording all of the data.
“Over four thousand.”
My jaw dropped. The application had only been released 2 hours ago.
Doug grabbed my arm.
“Oh my God, is that the British news? It is!”
He could barely contain himself.
I was feeling smug by this time,
“What did I say? No way!”
Doug and I high-fived.
“This is the best thing ever!” said Harvey, the blue glare of the screen reflecting off his pale skin.
“Estimation of the hedonic consequences of any specific event, let alone a lifetime is not possible, not without impact bias. Individuals crave certainty, and now with the E.I.M we are simulating the provision of that certainty. The results are…amazing.”
Doug grinned, dragging his attention away from the many women in line.
“What did he just say?”
I figured Harvey was already planning his PhD dissertation.
“That we just might get rich, and we’re definitely going to be famous.”
I don’t remember exactly when things began to go wrong, maybe they always were wrong, but I do remember when we started to argue. It was the day Harvey tested himself using the E.I.M. He wouldn’t tell us what he got, but after…afterwards, he was changed somehow. It didn’t matter how much we talked to him about self-fulfilling prophesies or reminded him that anything out of our app was just the result of a few statistics and a sick sense of humor.
“For God’s sake, Harvey, let us in!”
Doug pounded on the door of Harvey’s small trailer. Dogs barked and somewhere in the trailer park a baby started to cry. It was after nine o’clock at night.
I wrapped my jacket around myself tighter.
“Are you sure he’s home?”
A deep sense of foreboding settled over me.
Doug half turned to me, the dim lighting from the neighbor’s windows illuminating the grey in his hair and showing the worry lines that now creased his face.
“The car’s here.”
He looked like he’d aged 20 years in the last week.
I glanced over at the ancient battered pickup. It was over twenty years old, the same pickup Harvey had driven when we all were in college. Sitting next to it was a large silver booth, an E.I.M. My eyes skittered away from it. Even kids played with it now.
“Harvey! Open the damn door or I’m going to break it down.”
Doug had had enough. Lowering his shoulder, he charged, burst through the door and crashed into something on the other side.
I scrambled in after Doug to find him sprawled in an armchair, staring at something that creaked as it swung ominously in the small confines of the trailer. I swallowed hard.
Doug only nodded, tears streaming down his face. His gaze fell upon two small, very wrinkled slips of paper on the end table next to him. His work-roughened hands picked them up delicately. We both knew what those were. One was from a Lifeline test machine; the other was from our very own E.I.M.
“This isn’t right.”
I searched around looking for something, anything, to explain what had happened, but it was clear. Right there in black and white. Both Doug and I had known this was coming,
I was crying now.
An envelope fluttered from the body to the floor. Doug and I stared for a moment before I leaned over to pick it up. It was addressed to us.
Doug looked at me, his voice very soft.
“What did he say?”
Thirty years later, and I’m the only one of us left: Harvey gone, Doug gone, and the world a very different place.
“What were we supposed to do? Say, Oops! We’re sorry. It’s just a joke that got out of hand?”
We tried to minimize the damage. After the first suicides, we reconfigured the machine. There would be no more Ones from the E.I.M. But it wasn’t enough; things moved too fast. Everyone wanted to know how happy their life would be and what did we know? We were just kids--Stupid, stupid kids. But we learned, we learned exactly what our machine, our hoax, could do.
The Lifeline tests dole out a sense of impending doom, Damocles Sword recreated in our time. Csi spy planes , drones, cloned sheep Our machine gave people hope: A sense that life is more than its ending. Hope is a strange and wonderful thing. It opens up possibilities and expands your dreams broader than you could ever imagine, but when you are the one who provides it, who creates it in people--or who takes it away, then hope is nothing more than a terrible, terrible burden.
And just when you think fiction is only fiction…
The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company has their very own “Longevity Game” available online. From their site: “How long can you expect to live?”
“We developed the Longevity Game to give you a peek into your future by identifying the factors that can lead to a healthier, more productive life…At Northwestern Mutual, we know a thing or two about longevity because we’ve been tracking statistics that impact life since 1857.”
You can try it out yourself at:
Note: The author of this story has no connection or relationship with Northwestern Mutual, their Longevity Game, or any employee or officer affiliated with the company; nor are the details within this fiction related to any product or process used by said company.
Day Al-Mohamed is co-editor for the upcoming anthology, Trust & Treachery from “DarkQuest Books” and her first novel, a steampunk version of "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," co-written with Danielle Ackley-McPhail will be released May 2014. In addition to speculative fiction, she also writes comics and film scripts. Her recent publications are available in Lacuna Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres anthology Oomph - A Little Super Goes a Long Way, and “GrayHaven Comics'” anti-bullying issue You Are Not Alone. She is an active member of the Cat Vacuuming Society of Northern Virginia Writing Group, a member of Women in Film and Video, and a graduate of the “VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.” When not working on fiction, Day is Senior Policy Advisor with the U.S. Department of Labor. She has also worked as a lobbyist and political analyst on issues relating to Health care, Education, Employment, Disability, and International Development. She loves action movies and drinks far too much tea. She lives in Washington, DC with her wife, N.R. Brown, in a house with too many swords, comic books, and political treatises. She can be found online at DayAlMohamed.com and @DayAlMohamed on twitter.