Photo courtesy Dayna Bateman
Every second of every day, we’re confronted with choices that test our apetite for risk. Should you eat that tasty – but fatty – dessert? How much time should you exercise every day? Do you really want to take that spacedive? It might, quite literally, be the trip of a lifetime.
Sometimes the calculation is easy, especially with high risk activities that come saddled with a known probability of death – but most of the time, we make decisions unconsciously, even though their cumulative impact may have more weight on our chances of living to a ripe old age than any single decision.
But what if you could measure and quantify those decisions immediately and directly? That’s what Mutual Assurance, a Melbourne-based insurance co-operative, aimed to do with their Lifeline bracelet in 2032. The bracelet was a slender band of plastic and metal that performed the usual biometric functions of tracking blood pressure, heart beat, and basic metabolic panel tests, but it also hooked into the wearer’s glasses and other technology to determine, in short, what they were doing and how risky it was.
All of this data would be aggregated and converted into a single value – the micromort. A micromort is a unit of risk, measuring a one-in-a-million chance of death; so, for example, drinking a couple of glasses of wine would accumulate a single micromort, whereas spending an hour canoeing would accumulate a whole ten micromorts. In theory, the Lifeline would be able to detect and record all of these activities, from washing hands to working at a fission reactor, and their associated risks.
Before the Lifeline, micromorts were used by larger organisations and insurance companies for decision analysis, but Mutual Assurance’s aim was to help individuals make more informed choices about the risks they took in everyday life; and, of course, to better assess insurance premiums. Initially, Mutual Assurance had planned to make the bracelets available solely to their customers, but the massive demand quickly encouraged them to ramp up production.
No doubt much of the appeal of the Lifeline came from its novelty value – plenty of people were intrigued to see their micromort count gradually ratchet up as they ate a beefburger or went swimming. But a great deal came from how it played upon the fears of the ageing baby boomers of the time. In an interview a decade after the Lifeline’s introduction, the CEO, Julia Hobbes, admitted that, “it didn’t escape our notice that there was an entire generation who were very, very anxious about their mortality, and that we could try and address that by quantifying it in a way that they understood.”
The Lifeline didn’t alleviate anxiety, though – it accentuated it. Wearers frequently became obsessed with checking their micromort readings, worrying over statistically insignificant increases, and become paralysed with indecision. In a sad turn, this anxiety sometimes resulted in increase blood pressure, further increasing their micromorts for the day.
There were other serious problems with the Lifeline. One was that the basic data was rarely accurate – most of the risks had been calculated on an aggregate basis, with no regard for the actual circumstances or individuals involved. Another was the inconvenient tendency for humans to be contrary; some users deliberately tried to increase their micromorts as much as possible without harming their health, regularly embarking on risky sports activities and venturing into dangerous areas, just to see what might happen.
Ian Kyd, a noted antigamification academic, suggests that by the early 30s, people were beginning to tire of simplified metrics: “The fashion of trying to measure and quantify more or less everything in the universe, from health and happiness to intelligence and inspiration, had its roots in the 90s and 2000s, where networks were becoming widespread and the dominant economics of the time rewarded people for thinking in strictly numerical terms. Those who had grown up in those periods carried forward their ideals of quantification and the ‘gamification’ of life up to the 30s – and no further, as we gained a more complex and subtle understanding.”
As a result, the Lifeline became decreasingly useful as a tool to help people improve their health by managing risk. However, it did inspire a new range of mostly ridiculous but occasionally thought-provoking bracelets that purported to measure tiny, incremental amounts of change, such as the ‘Microfun detector’, the ‘Microsmarts detector’, the ‘Micromorals detector’ and so on.
And that’s perhaps the most useful thing that the Lifelife did. Those trying to use its simple metrics to guide their behaviour were frequently stymied, but that very effort often elicited a fleeting understanding of mortality – and caused more subtle changes in outlook. It wasn’t a magical device that made people wiser – it was a memento mori.