Behold the future of online stunt journalism.
This week's dispatch is about the mundane future that's unfolding while we're vaping at our desks, churning away at the content mill, updating our followers, and dithering away into filter bubbles so small that the real menace and truth of the world fades from view, until we discover—too late—that it's literally poisoning us.
— The Editors
As with all my journalistic stunts, the book began as a dare from my editor, affirmed by the polls and preorders of my shrinking—but dogged—mass of Followers.
"Look: you know that new list from the American Cancer Society? FOX verticals are gonna do a big—"
I cut him off with the wave of my hand, the tip of the vape between my fingers waiting to be pulled back to its little blue life.
"I already smell the stunt." I inhaled. This new flavor of artisanally mentholated raspberry worked some strange reciprocal mist out from my bronchial tubes and onto Terry's desk. He made that face that Beyoncé made in her last video—a sublime look halfway between "I smelled a fart" and "I am exquisitely rich and beautiful and therefore uncaring" that, crystallized as an endless gif sigil, had dominated my monofeed for the the last twelve hours. Terry reached for the probiotic-infused Purell. I could feel his disdain for the fleshy dangers of our annual in-person meeting.
"Well, you'll have to give that up." Terry pointed his gaze at my vape stick. I recovered from the cough long enough to laugh derisively and suck on my concentration's lifeline. Terry tapped his desk, enlightening me yet again to the wispy amount of cryptocurrency that my last book—Hammered: Working Through Alcoholism With The Amish—had grossed. The number hung reflected in Terry's faceless eyes as he whispered into the light, "The next book needs to be big. Needs to salvage your brand, okay? If not, then we're like Ahab and Ishmael, drowning together."
I swallowed. "Ishmael lives at the end."
Terry swiped away my little historicized slice of the company's live sales feed and leaned back. "Haven't read it."
As a content sharecropper working under the increasingly feverous lodestars of A. J. Jacobs, Timothy Ferris, and VICE, I would have to take up my editor's assignment, and therefore restructure my life for six months, tirelessly broadcasting its embellished difficulties and zany ramifications, before delivering to the scattered world a curated digital tale of this "experiment"—replete with an epiphanic yet safe What I, And By Extension: You!, Learned From It All ending. Most importantly, I'd have to do so for the price of a decades old, rough-ridden, and home-vamped 1st-gen Chevy Volt.
As Terry walked me down the street, I told myself that I would write a great book, a bird thought extinct, resplendent in its rigor and critique; I marched to this fugue of redemption as Terry took me out of the cosmopolis' permafrost cold and bought me a coffee and a plate of triple-whipped Dutch chocolate croignets.
I loaded the American Cancer Society's list that afternoon, and after gulping a quadruple espresso, began to scroll down the page. Sheila walked into my office, dragging a mittened and begging Zady behind her—"Momma: juice 'postors! juice 'postors!"—and said, "We're going to the subpark and then the grocery. Want anything?"
I turned around, my two scrolling fingers still twitching midair, and stared at my wife. She had a certain beauty that was there every time I cared to look. A post-cosmetics grace that we nonetheless paid for. She looked tired—we both always were, even with our aquaponic diets and ubiquitous stimulants, the city's recent jubilee of light and noise ordinances wasn't fucking helping—but she was patient, with me and with the kid, and for that I was immutably grateful. I tried to communicate this with my eyes as my fingers continued to flick up and down behind me, and I mumbled, "Careful about the UV down there—I just read something about some woman getting burnt from a tract of miscalibrated lamps—"
Sheila nodded and turned away. I heard Zady beg for an Impostorz box one more time —I missed real Honey Crisps more than anyone, but she didn't seem to mind the child-sized chemical ploys—and then the front door slam shut and lock itself. I turned back to the tablet. I was only a fifth of the way down the list. I stopped focusing and let every linked blue line blur into a kind of light rainfall, now unsure of what its water would make grow.
The child that the American Cancer Society conceived in the fallacious womb of Big Data was monstrous. This, the organization's first product of a "comprehensive effort to track and publicize all substances, environments, and activities correlated with the diagnoses of a cancer or multiple cancers," screamed and mewled, a horrible and rigorous document of everything notably human. Named potentially malignant by the list: EXPOSURE TO LED LIGHT (>60 MINS PER DAY); DAILY INHALATION OF "BAD SMELLS" (>2 HRS PER DAY); EMPLOYMENT IN SERVICE INDUSTRIES (READ MORE). I read more, gradually inserting into my open mouth more knuckles than I thought possible.
Adhering to the terms I'd digitally agreed to in Terry's Skype Office—something like: "CONTRACTOR shall attempt in good faith to avoid all 'substances, environments, and activities' as documented in APPENDIX B"—would be impossible. The only way I could begin to conquer the list would be to tackle a handful of its correlated risks at a time.
I did some rough math, generously guessing at my tolerance for omission, then wrote down a number. If I cut out five carcinogenic line items per week (including Amoxystatrig —a hyperbacterial infection, blood pressure, and erectile dysfunction combo-scrip that I ingested, via an oblong orange pill, nightly), I'd need 4695.2 weeks to complete the stunt. I put my head down on the cool glass of my desk and daydreamed methods by which I could fool the underwriters of my life insurance policy. I stared back at the screen and rejiggered a spreadsheet. After lumping together all the chemicals, I recalculated. Stared at the number. Grimaced, then divided by fifty.
Forty weeks it would take, or nearly a year. Ages longer than my expected lifespan-reducing six month turnaround.
I'd have to promise Terry triweekly Twinterviews.
The first week was surprisingly easy. Its work mostly consisted of me lying to everyone—including my dearest Followers and Subscribers—about the chemicals that Sheila, Zady, and I had already and unknowingly been consuming. Being the imagined object of many a stint in parental hell or purgatory was worth the project's soft start, and Sheila agreed, or maybe resigned, to it all.
One night, after I put Zady down via tapping through the soothing tailored blues of Slumber Stories—"Your child asleep in thirty minutes or less. Faster soothing available via in-app purchases."—I walked in on Sheila reading by candlelight.
I laughed, but quickly realized I had the vape in my hand. I jammed it in my back pocket; had she seen? Sheila smiled; she'd seen. "Come sit," she said. The candlelight, the kindness in her voice, the lack of Netflix's stream of ambiently-aware movie clips: this was my cue to gulp. Divorce was imminent, or my tender murder.
But I sat next to her on the couch and we kissed. And kissed again, making out in a way in which neither of us had made out with someone since, what, high school? Early marriage? It was strange, and I felt like a teenager in thrall to a strum of chemical signals that weren't prototypically horny, but instead awkward, blissful. We laughed, laughing at nothing together. Sheila, her hands somehow always warm, cupped my face and said, "You know you can quit doing this."
I looked down. Nodded. Silence in the room, save for the smart humidifier justifying its placement with short hissing bursts.
"You like the lighting?" I looked up at her smile. She looked out at the tiny living room. "Figured I'd get in the mood. Get used to getting used to lacking...stuff." She squeezed my hand, having said what was acutely painful to me with the most benign delivery imaginable. I laughed—benign.
"Nothing. Bad joke." I shifted on the couch, the vape stick jammed into my butt.
We talked for a few hours, connecting in a manner totally alien. Most of the time she ran Zady to school with their FaceTime stream in my monofeed, me at the tablet, writing shitty hyperbolical drafts and posting snippets to the eighteen social networks that I knew more intimately than our re-ARM'ed apartment—but this connection, with the eyes and the words through our lips, felt potent and rectifying enough for seasons upon seasons.
Before we got in bed, I turned off my phone—click and hold, swipe, Do you want to turn off ALL notifications?, tap yes, insert four digit pin, then thumbprint verification—for the first time in years.
Two months in and I was faltering.
I had cut out almost all of the chemicals on the list. Miraculously, or perhaps just naturally, my blood pressure and intestinal flora and fauna were better without the statins and anti-hyperbac. In our last push of spring, we jumped ship from powerful household cleaners and washed ashore onto a new existence on waves of vinegar and elderflower oil. We were pungent and earthy and we were still together. Zady, of course, didn't mind the changes.
"What's this, daddy?" she'd ask.
"Oh, that's a new kind of juice, Zade. A real kind of juice."
Zady stared at the glass bottle, its orange liquid.
"Does it hoit?" Frowning, looking from the juice to me.
I added the monthly cost of the juice—and it being cold-air packed and shipped— together with the mandatory carbon offset.
"It doesn't hurt at all, sweetpea."
I could've written: Two months in and I was faltering, spiritually and financially. But today's city is a long-built cathedral testifying to a unified body, separable only by equivocation.
"How are ya, brés?" Terry, in his Skype Office.
For a moment, I forgot the term. Then its origin and deployment came surging back to me—that dumb hyper-condensed music video with the conic sections, bats, and skyscraper-sized jewelry—a meme, like so many other memes, that every night I prayed to forget.
"Fine. Fine." I bit the tip of an old schoolhouse-style graphite pencil that I had to poach on eBay. Kicking the vape had been rough, but it was sacrificing coffee that I most regretted. "Look, Terry: I've got two minutes left on this and then I'll only have seventy-five seconds per social media update if I wanna keep under the risk thresh—"
"Stop." Terry looked impatient, and not in the way that all of us, monofeeds a tap away, were impatient while making eye contact with another person. "The project needs to be modified a bit."
I bit down on the pencil. What did this mean? Did they snare a grip of interns to handle my social media? Could I stop donning a falsely non-starched button-up and organic virgin wool sports coat above my underwear and hole-spotted socks just to Skype Arena with my fans? Could I cheat even more, maybe even ignoring that dreaded line item: TIME ALONE (>3 HRS PER DAY - READ MORE)?
Then my stomach cratered.
I stammered: "Am I being replaced?" In an age in which the infinite ocean of freelancers willing to work for slave wages (i.e. none)—some with fan bases greater and growing faster than the population of 19th century metropolises—buoyed every corporation's ability to eke out profit during the global and necessarily draconian wind-down of the profit motive itself, it was a pathetic question. So I asked it again: "Am I being replaced, Terry?"
I waited—staring at the screen, at Terry's replicated image, at nothing at all. Asking myself: why was I pained by the idea of having to abandon a St. Antony-like existence, free of all but the prime and still-harmless facts of my wife, my child, kale, and electronically-boiled water?
Terry spoke, briefly snagged by a glitch in the stream, canines glinting below his mustached upper lip: "No, you're not being replaced. Your followers want to reverse the premise, is all."
My office, a tiny node in a vast network, was somehow quiet.
Terry rummaged in a desk drawer. "You were avoiding all the cancerous stuff, right? Now you just have to...embrace it all." Terry raised to his lips a vape, its tip suddenly glowing hellfire red.
I laughed at him, at what no longer appeared to be a person: here was a skittering bundle of memes that couldn't even curate its way out of cliché.
I stared at the screen and pressed hard on the tablet's power button. Terry didn't seem to notice as his image blurred and then disappeared into a patient, lithic darkness.
This dispatch is part of Terraform, our online home for future fiction.