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The Data Doesn’t Lie

“Imagine all we could do with the data we collected!” Debbie remembered hearing at one of their early project meetings. She had kept her cool, as she always did, yes, trying to imagine all the information one could obtain by comparing itself to that of a million others. They would probably be able to forecast health events, like a heart attack or a stroke, before they happen, and it would save lives and a lot of money in emergency services and hospital costs. They would probably be able to predict the outcome of marriages, saving people from the grief of breaking up, and even act as some kind of matchmaker assistant. But neither she nor her fellow team members could have thought it would end up telling people who they were.
They had controlled the questions, at first, to give (or rather sell) vital information to users, all derived from statistics also gathered from everyone. They saw it happening gradually, as users signed up on the system and volunteered their data gathered every day from devices they wore, correlated with medical analysis and diagnoses, that their App could predict life outcomes better than anyone else.
The explorer ants, as the team secretly called their early users, weren’t as lucky as the masses who had signed up in exchange for cheaper health insurance. It would take years for some diseases to manifest themselves, and the data gathered from the explorer ants would serve to guide new users away from what seemed to lead to the disease. More data from more people helped refine the predictions as well as the prevention advice. It was as if everyone participated in a continuous study, in which every new day of data confirmed or even informed new theories, and patterns could be automatically recognized. It was as if a know-it-all doctor followed people and guided them with new knowledge every day.
They weren’t popular with some food corporations, of course, but having understood that health conscious people who bought the services of the healthy app also bought more expensive food, the market self-adjusted and those corporations flourished. The cheaper food still sold well to masses of people who used smartphones not very smartly. At the end, it was a win-win situation because the corporations could now steer the consumers to healthier and costlier food based on their health data, directly from the App. Sure enough, they developed a market for wedding services by figuring out in advance who would get married with whom. Dogs and cats were placed in good, loving families even before they were abandoned.
The project had started with simple assumptions of measuring vital information directly from, say, a watch or a bra, and adding the user’s responses to questionnaires and surveys. Then they discovered that they could infer most of what the users ate by analyzing their grocery purchases and restaurant orders. They were only interested in the data, so privacy wasn’t really an issue, and recorded on the servers in Nevada were juicy items like who had sex with whom and for how long and was it good? One woman posted on Facebook that her phone had told her to get a pregnancy test, and sure enough they were expecting! Others were relieved that they no longer had to interrupt their excitement to ask questions about STDs before they went further into love making.
By now they were able to draw statistics showing their app had saved and prolonged lives. The data was used to help pharmaceutical companies design more focused drugs and other products that their Marketing Department had not envisioned. In fact they no longer needed to advertise drugs, or influence doctors, as long as they could be featured in the app itself, sometimes staging bidding wars against other companies.
The new turning point that now worried Debbie had been that they had opened the App to learn the trends directly from users’ daily reports rather than the team’s selection from focus groups and expert analysis. Were people happier at a particular theme park than another? The App learned that, and people entering the park saw symbols of happiness growing in their live diagram. The App showed them they were alcoholics after their binge drinking matched the patterns of other alcoholics before them. The project team discovered that they should develop a counseling arm to refer more sensitive people to therapists (matched to their personality) when the revelations from the App might be too difficult to accept.
A little-known and until then ignored disorder could now appear on someone’s diagram without anyone on the team programming it in. Only two people, out of millions, who shared similar vital and behavioral data, possibly combined with DNA information, could contribute to the discovery of a disease or disorder. One could confirm his doubts about being gay or bi, obtaining his precise position on the Kinsey scale of sexual preference. That had upset politicians and religious people who believed firmly in a more structured and binary gender. Power structures were threatened more than ever. The app and smartphones were now banned by some religious leaders, but secretly used by church members who couldn’t resist the other truth.
On Debbie’s diagram her Kinsey scale number had slowly tipped away from being straight and loving mostly men, which upset her because she and her boyfriend of 5 years had finally moved together into an expensive apartment in San Francisco. Even worse, Rob’s life diagram had started to show a trend towards being transgender. Rob, also a scientist at Debbie’s company, hypothesized that something could be happening to the data, not unlike the side effects of planetary collisions.
“And when you think about it,” he said, “if you’re becoming more of a lesbian and I more of a woman, it would seem that we’re perfectly synchronizing.”
“Don’t even joke about it, this is putting the whole project into question,” said Debbie. She did not feel like a lesbian, she was sure she never was interested in women, and she worried that if their App started questioning people’s gender, people would go crazy.
“I certainly don’t intend to change my sex,” said Rob jokingly, “but I like the challenge of finding how and why this information changed for both of us. Should I look at our respective data streams?”
“I think you should, because otherwise I might consider changing the app…” said Debbie, pausing to think. “I think I found a way to reconvert all those religious people!” The color of her watch changed to express her excited state.
“No, you can’t give them false information,” said Rob.
“I wouldn’t give them false information, just the information that they want to see,” said Debbie.
“Which is sometimes false. They just don’t know, and their religion, or their upbringing, tells them they shouldn’t know.”
“And because they’re religious, it is who they are, people who don’t want to know. So we’ll put filters in the App, softening the information when the person is not liking it, enhancing the information when they’re reacting positively to it.”
That night they had sex which the App reported as their best ever, and their respective gender identities slipped again. Even though they had plenty of information at their fingertips, they were in the habit of talking about it afterwards.
“Okay, so, I confess,” started Debbie, “I was imagining you as a woman.”
“And I gave you lesbian sex.”
“You’ve always had.”
“We could be confirming our data,” said Rob. “The data was always right.”
“I’m not doing this. I’m not telling anybody. I’m certainly not coming out. I think we both fantasized, following our discussion, and that just skewed the data.”
“Woah, woah, woah. I think our discussion about the data gave us permission to explore this thing. It’s not that the data influenced us, it was giving us a hint. Plus, why would we sacrifice our best sex ever for the sake of identifying ourselves as outside the norms?”
“I’m tempted to throw it all out,” said Debbie. “Go live on a farm, completely disconnected.”
“So you don’t think this is funny at all.”
“No. Not funny.”
“I think the data doesn’t lie. We’re human, however, and we’re not always ready to see the truth. We seem to believe in something we made up.” Rob turned to Debbie and invited her to come on top of him. “Anyway, you’re upset about it, so come here and rest assured that I love you more than anyone or anything on earth.”
“So I got it then,” Debbie said. “It’s the label that’s a problem.”
“Labels have always been a problem, and you can work to eliminate them.”
Their respective data showed extreme compatibility, but they were no longer watching.

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