[Hypothetical Fables from Past Futures Pt. 4]
By Gregory JM Kasunich
In the Future every human being, man, woman and child, knows when they will die.
The technology had been a long time coming and, like most technology, evolved through a series of incremental innovations, becoming smaller, faster, and more socially accepted with every incarnation and update. Now, every new bouncing baby boy or girl is fitted with their very own, state-of-the-art, ineloquently named: Lifeline Predictive Bio-monitoring Unit. In most developed countries, this has become a legal requirement, similar to the public welfare and safety policies surrounding the legal implementation of seat belts, fluoridated water, and carbon monoxide detractors. The near ubiquitous nature of the unit is a result of law and common decency in an effort to reduce unhealthy lifestyles and suicides and increase lifespan and productivity.
The system consists of three parts: A thin film of silicon infused with flexible circuits grafted to the skin just behind the ear lobe that collects data points on UV radiation exposure, quality of sleep, stress levels, brain chemical ratios, and so on. A pellet, lodged next to the pancreas gathers information on enzyme releases, metabolic rates, internal organ function, and endless metrics related to diet and exercise. A wrist display attached to a powerful microcomputer processes the input from the sensors and comes with a customizable band that is available in several trendy colors and styles. Although the data can be sorted and filtered in any combination and rendered in beautiful, interactive, animated charts, most ignore the bulk of useful information collected on their bodies and instead focus on one, single, metric: the estimated elastic lifespan expectancy timeline, or as it has come to be known colloquially, “The Death Clock”.
Although the background computations handled by the processors are inscrutable, the concept of the Death Clock is seductively simple. Using the information on lifestyle and genetic makeup, barring unpredictable accidents and cellular anomalies, the computer calculates an estimated date and time of expiration. At first, this number was wildly inaccurate and was seen as little more than a digital bagatelle. Sundry complaints were lodged early on with users reporting that they had out outlived their clock by several years, while others, expecting a long and healthy life, where disappointed when met with an abrupt and unexpected stroke or heart attack or kindly failure. Then, of course, the requisite thought pieces appeared online with opinions on everything from privacy to reincarnation. Comedians mined the lack of precision for cheap amusement. A few people were inspired to finally take that vacation. Mostly, the clock was an afterthought, a half-baked beta feature tacked on to the ever trendy bio-monitoring gizmos that were becoming an increasingly common fashion accessory. Eventually, after years of user feedback, refinements, medical breakthroughs, and the formulation of an algorithm that in-andof-itself was a miracle of math and quantum computing, the clock went from a disregarded piece of cruft to an instrument that was so precise, so accurate, that it was able to zero in to a moment within minutes, sometimes seconds, of one’s demise.
There is one very important aspect to the Death Clock to understand. It does not simply spit out one, immutable, date and time of expected expiration. No, instead, the point of death is constantly shifting, adding and dropping days, years, minutes, and seconds like a capricious stock market ticker. In this way the Death Clock is more weathervane than timepiece. As changes occur to lifestyle and health, the clock adjusts to give the most accurate estimation as to when it is time to shuffle off this mortal coil. Perhaps a man turns forty and decides to resume that jogging routine, his time grows. Or perhaps a woman in Tacoma takes up smoking, the number pitches down sharply, slicing decades off the clock. An aging clerk in Munich quits that seething pool of cortisol and regret he calls a job, his number stretches over newly minted years. A pale teenage girl stands in the sun for too long, the number shrinks like a midday shadow. Every meal, every party, every sexual encounter, every vitamin, every sit up, snort of cocaine, meditation session, intramural sport, infection, illness and recovery all affect the clock. It is this mode of operation, this specific aspect of the functionality of the clock that has had an interesting effect on society. It turns out after a few generations of living and dying by the clock, people began to alter their lifestyle based on the clock and soon society divided up into a number of discernible groups with distinct and predictable traits. Sociologist have identified a few.
The Methuselites: The Methuselites approach the inevitable march into the sunset not as a foregone conclusion but rather as a challenge. Although they know that in the end Death will come to collect the debt all life owes from the moment of conception, they refuse to go quietly into that good night. Many Methuselites have a predilection for competition. They have an inane desire to achieve, to excel in the face of absurd, and seemingly unassailable odds. Within each Methuselite, there is a need to press up against the boundaries of the universe and leave an impression, proof of their existence. Several athletes become Methuselites, training their bodies to prevail in the face of the unrelenting, life-long, challenge of existence. Ex-Military, disciplined and driven, turn their attention to defeating the enemy of time. Wealthy iconoclasts, captains of industry, use their wealth to employ other to keep them floating above the unknowable depths of the great beyond, shielding them from any danger that might diminish their remaining time, the one commodity they cannot purchase or create. The Methuselites have lashed themselves to the prowl of time and have made outliving and outlasting all others their singular ambition in life. There even exists a record book containing the names of those who have lived the longest as well as a gold and emerald cup held by the most senior human of the lot. The unfortunate reality of living this way is that, most report, in the very final defeating moments, that it is not much fun. All the time spent staying alive, they had forgotten to truly live, to dance, to drink, to fall and rise again, to love others deeply, to sacrifice for a friend, to sleep in on a rain filled morning, to stay out way too late, to allow spontaneity and joy to seep into their tightly wound routines. They lingered the longest, filled with a sense of regret and victory as they watched others around them perish. But not them, not them, not them, until it was their turn, and then as they finally relent and take the first and last step across the great divide, they recognized the small glint of victory in the eyes of young Methuselites attending their bedside.
The Attenuates: The Death Clock has also been used as a barometer in ascertaining ones value in matters of vocation and heart. Applicants seeking a profession that requires specialized training are, legally, required to reveal the current readout of their clock during interviews. The justification being that a company cannot possibly be asked to invest time and money in a person who will not provide a decent return on investment. Those with a disappointing amount of time remaining are given simple, menial, jobs like scrubbing the perennially reappearing profanity laden graffito from the concrete facades of downtown high-rises or extremely dangerous jobs like installing seasonal decorations outside the top-floor balconies of said high rises. The Death Clock has also become an important instrument on the dating scene. One of the most attractive qualities in a mate is a huge set of digits on the readout display. That and of course wealth. Those lacking the longevity to see a relationship though to full term, but still desire love and physical intimacy, are relegated to certain clubs and online dating forums where causal hookups are permissible and generously available. So for those seeking to have it all, a decent job, a stable family, and a loving and committed partner, a significant amount of adolescence and formative years must be invested into building a good looking clock. Unfortunately, the strain and expectation of maintaining such an attractive timepiece causes many to become Attenuates later in life. The Attenuates numbers begin to decline once they have obtained the family, the job, and the life they wanted. They settle into a happy and fulfilling routine spending less time checking their clock and worrying about finding love or a decent job. They take pleasure in their frequent and filling meals. They exercise less, and in some instances begin to seek escape and release in clock-draining drugs and alcohol. Of course their numbers deteriorate, but they don’t seem to care, taking consolation in their achievements. When their diminished numbers are noticed, at work or at home, threats are made, arguments are had, and ultimatums are issued. For some, there just is no turning back, no way to reach down and find the motivation or change. For others, too much damage has been done to return to form. In this very common situation, Attenuates hire skilled forgers to generate a fraudulent display clock to falsify the numbers and allow The Attenuates to continue with the routine to which they have become accustomed. The ruse is rather advanced and generally avoids detection entirely. It is only when, after a light game of catch, a man unexpectedly falls to the ground clutching his chest in agony and dies, or, a seemingly healthy woman slips into a diabetic coma shortly after a round of sampling gelato that the sham is exposed. When questioned about their deception, most claim they just couldn’t chew and swallow the enormous bite of life the had bitten off when they young and hungry and wanted it all. But then they smile and do find solace in those all too fleeting, very-good years.
The Orpheuns: Most people spend a good deal of their lives avoiding death. This is not the intention of The Orpheuns. The Orpheuns seek out a high in the face of death. They look for Death in the corners of their homes, in frayed wired and sharp utensils. They search for it on the edge of cliffs, in cocktails of homemade narcotics, and on the rails of the subway. Whereas others attempt to curate a reasonable collection of decades, The Orpheuns derive their rush from watching their numbers plummet, careen towards zero, then at the last possible moment, joyfully wrenching themselves back onto the plateau of existence just out reach from the reapers boney grasp. Since the Orpheuns know they will die, they taunt the ferryman and find elation in riding the line between the warm light of life and the eternal night. What could be more exhilarating that staring into the visage of death and denying him, peaking for a moment into the prohibited oblivion without falling into the abyss? Of course, when one pushes into the abyss, the abyss pushes back, and many Orpheuns have met an anachronistically untimely death in the pursuit of their high. They miscalculate when to throttle back and end up incinerated, squashed, dismembered, deceased. All too often, Orpheuns witness their compatriots in carelessness suddenly depart and swear off their reckless behavior, only to find hours later with a purloined set of defibrillator paddles or a Percocet Pimm’s Cup attempting to scratch the incessant itch. For The Orpheuns the larger the number on their clock the more they feel trapped by the tyranny of possibility. With time comes expectation, disappointment, decision and responsibility. With life comes grief and hardship and compromise and boredom. By living in the moment, pressed against the now and the hereafter, The Orpheuns fill their days with excitement and elation, avoiding the useless business of societies expectations and regulations. What The Orpheuns failed to discover is that in their attempt to feel something, anything, and avoid the true stuff of life, they miss out on the joy of ice cold water in mid-July, the smell of their newborn in their arms, the soaring tones of a Stradivarius, the serenity of an undisturbed hammock. They have traded away a lifetime of joys, a sum greater than its parts, for temporary and fleeting moment of manufactured enlightenment. That being said, they do seem to enjoy it.
The Purgers: As with any technology there will be those who distrust it, who will level accusations of surreptitious government espionage, of insidious societal undermining, of unknown serpentine corporate interests, and want no part of it. These are The Purgers. It would be fair to say that although not unified by cause they do agree on outcome; the eradication of technology from the body. Some cite religious reasons, believing that their god or their selected coterie of deities never intended for humans to enhance their given vessels with technology. Commentators have questioned weather or not it was hypocritical to get tattoos, piercings, and cosmetic surgery, to which the religious detractors often reference some selected scripture or psalm to justify their contradictory behavior. Some are burdened by anxiety. The precognitive knowledge of their own death is enough to cripple individuals of a certain constitution. Still others feel they never were given opportunity to opt out as an infant and do not want to be saddled with the decisions of their parents. This type of revelation usually comes about around the time they leave for university. People have objected to the The Estimated Elastic Lifespan Expectancy Timeline on the grounds of woman’s rights, human rights, information overload, techno-slavery, fear of cancer, fear of surveillance, genetic injustice, denial, and many, many others. Ultimately, The Purgers all come to the same conclusion: the Death Clock and all of it’s components must be purged from the body and destroyed. Several illegal clinics have cropped up, housed inconspicuously inside false storefronts, abandoned shipping centers, and a myriad of other brick, steel, and mortar hosts where they can operate unmolested by the government. These clinics vary in cleanliness and quality and many are fly by night operations taking advantage of those without the means of legal repercussion. The better ones often end up getting uncovered and shut down for attracting too much positive word of mouth. Some Purgers attempt back yard procedures, dubbed Autotechnodectomy on themselves. These amateur internet-taught surgeons generally end up doing more harm than good to themselves and are ostracized for their crude and highly visible scarring. But, for the most part, barring any unfortunate infections or mishaps during the procedures, Purgers go on to lead fairly normal lives. They do tend to end up in the hospitals a bit more often, they do perish unexpectedly, and they do admit that if they had just known about this cyst or that blood disease they might have enjoyed a little bit more time in the body they suffered to reclaim.
The Glancers: Then there are the Glancers; a somewhat marginalized group of people who elect to focus their energy on quality, rather than quantity, of time. So named for their tendency to lazily glance at their clocks with an infuriating indifference. They are viewed as a feckless and voluntarily ignorant bunch, interested more in allowing their attention to dwell on the salty-sweet fragrance of a late dawn marine layer than the annoying reality of reduced visibility impeding the rest of the world’s morning commute. While others pull their weight, toiling to serve the community at large and build a better future, The Glancers remain intentionally myopic. Their vision shortened to the immediate present. They float through society, avoiding politics, competition, and arguments, achieving nothing of significance, refusing to wear any of the various shades of need and desire that consume the more driven elements of modern life. When they are sick, they seek medical council. When struck with hunger, they eat. When amorous, they make love. They meet their needs but do not exceed them. In times of suffering and joy it is common to witness them checking their wrist more frequently. When hurting, perhaps they are hoping the number will mercifully drop. In times of joy, their faces betray their astonishment and despair at how little time remains. There is a resignation about these people, an acceptance of what cannot be stopped and a quiet celebration of what remains. Their names cannot be found in history books. Their faces will never be rendered in marble or steel. Their stories are only told to each other. Their lives small and simple and mostly serene. They have been accused of missing out, and in many, many, the accusations ring true, The Glancers do miss out. They never feel the pride and election of crossing the finish line first, or winning the heart and hand of someone out of their league. They never retire home, full of sweet soreness after a long day worked at a hard-won vocation. They never get the rush or thrill of testing the limits of life. They never know the freedom of being devoid of technology or information.
For all the things The Glancers miss out on, they do gain one thing; a special kind of peace, a happiness derived not from what is missed but from what is gained by making friends with persistent specter of death. A calm and fulfillment only felt after inviting him in for tea, calling Death your friend, and allowing him to sweeten the bitter root of life.