Skip to main content
If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Cara Ellison on: #Fortune

You will pay him in gold.

Lying with my face on a hotel pillow reading IMs from Chris Donlan: 'It's time to go full gonzo.' Donlan is paying me a fee to take the free iPhone app #Fortune around the world with me to do a 2015 Dice Man. It's an app that uses Twitter to generate digital fortune cookies.

Don't get killed, Donlan says, and I sign off.

The maker of the strange #Fortune app is a man called Zach Gage. He makes games and lives in New York City and he only ever wears sandals everywhere. If I were a Male MFA Writer I'd say he's 'a drinking buddy' of mine. I don't feel particularly inclined to treat his game any better. My feelings are that if I savaged this guy's free app he'd still have had a hand in Ridiculous Fishing, one of the most successful iOS games on the store. Maybe he'd be angry on a barstool next to me next time I saw him. Who cares. Maybe this entire article should be about my ambivalent feelings about Zach and our grown up relationship that entails respecting each other's opinions.

In the starched white lines of the hotel in Lyon, France I download #Fortune, something Zach sent me with a note that says, 'I think you'll like it, it's pretty weird', which is what a lot of developers say about their work when they send it to me. People send me their weirdest stuff. Not the stuff they know will sell, or the stuff that people would describe as 'fun', though sometimes it both sells and is fun, but the stuff that they made by accident or the stuff that no one else would seek out because it's the mutant of the bunch.

#Fortune is very minimal, just an interface, just a little button in front of a printer that you can push three times to have the little printer print you out three fortunes. Depending on the time of day, it will say 'morning fortune', 'afternoon fortune' or 'evening fortune'. After it has printed your three fortunes, the button gets a little countdown of a varying number of hours before you can have another three fortunes. You can Tweet or Facebook your fortune if you like. If you wish to display your fate to others.

I press the fortune button at breakfast: "You will make a cup of hot chocolate." This isn't so bad, I think, if a little boring. In a symmetrical move I press the button on the hot drink dispenser in the hotel's lobby and am rewarded with a slightly disgruntled looking hot chocolate that makes me feel sleepy for the rest of the day.

"In your future I see a plane flying over head and you miss you."

The next day I get on a plane from Paris to San Francisco for the Game Developer's Conference and I miss the me that was surrounded by quiet office space and ate three kinds of cheese for breakfast, reminded that actually I am just a writer at the mercy of wherever the money is. I wonder whether I should look up the last person I was in love with in California, but #Fortune says:

"You will be your new addiction."

I abstain from calling, texting, or sending emails because the app seems to instruct me not to, and instead I make plans to find illegal and legal substances.

"You will pay him in gold."

I give someone at the San Francisco BART some yellow coins for a ticket instead of using the ticket machine. The man is polite and compliments the remainder of my Scottish accent.

It isn't so strange to live by app 'fortunes': I am a lost vagabond with no home and I can change my mind about who I am and what I am and within a few hours I can have a whole new wardrobe and be on a plane to somewhere new like a bedraggled Sydney Bristow. There's virtue in being under the radar: though the internet doesn't support me as loudly as it used to (sometimes I feel when I need it the most), it means the worst kind of people don't notice me as much. It makes for a quieter life where I don't punch holes like I used to, no one really pushes me, though the assholes still turn up as usual, waiting with a pickaxe made only for egos. So I can switch myself up and down as I like. There's no 'no' any more.

But the worst thing about #Fortune is that interspersed with the occasional garbled grammar it is obsessed with the idea of 'home': it supplies me with painful fortunes that imply that I might be in reach of one when I have no abode.

"You will go home, and then never leave your house again."

That last one is almost foreboding. Don't get killed, Donlan said, tongue in cheek.

I sit on my side in the warm sand by the Pacific Ocean with the traditional marijuana haar of San Francisco drifting over the dimples; I half close my eyes and remember the last time I saw sun like this. It was when I still owned sandals like Zach Gage and when I was still hopeful that something would change in my fate. I threw away the sandals when I left California for cold weather.

Bright sun sits over Moscone Center, yellow straps of GDC passes hang like ribbons from necks and as the sun beams blink over the square roofs and onto the table I sit at I realise a friend of mine is telling me that our big plans lie broken. Later I press the button.

"You will never be happy and when you are it only lasts for 5 minutes."

I go back to my crash space and face-plant into a duvet and refuse to get up until the next morning. No more fortunes, I think.

Sometimes dire situations require drastic measures: the next day I buy the most expensive headphones I have ever bought, put Drake's 0 to 100 / Catch Up on: the 6 ain't friendly, but it's where I lay up. I open #Fortune again, determined that my life is not just sadness and hostile internet and 'sorry you were too late' all the time. This f***ing 'game', I think. It's no machine from Tom Hanks' Big, it is just some impish confirmation bias in search engine clothing, it's got hooks and crampons on the heart, prickly. I already thought very little of myself, you contemptuous virtual slip of paper. Is fate just how you squint at it, over the dimples of sand and through the weed clouds? F***ing thing. I mash the button on #Fortune's little button with the countdown on it, knowing there are no fortunes left today, but it comes up with a message: Watch a video to get two more fortunes. It's some video for a generic free-to-play tap the button game on the app store. Which I guess is what #Fortune is?

But #Fortune has that magic of the ouija board, a kind of sacred fear that the supernatural is just yourself. There's something reverent in how long the button on #Fortune takes to press and pop back up. There's something in how long the paper takes to 'print' so that you can read it. There's haptic pleasure in that button and the crisp click sound, and there's something in the anticipation of that paper slowly feeding into visibility to tell you how you feel today.

Just a button with some cryptic words. Like those weird fibreglass mouths and LED-pocked things you get at service stations off motorways. They must make money? Why?

"In your future I see a live human heart this morning."

I put my hand through my hair and feel an awful dread.

This night I'm DJing at the Wild Rumpus / Venus Patrol party with my friend Alice before Qrion. Later Richard Lemarchand and I close the party, and perhaps I can see a few human hearts beating in the crowd, luminous, if I try. Before I go on and play Kanye West's Monster, I check #Fortune. It says

"You will make a new original song."

If that's what you call DJing, sure, followed by

"You will make him yours."


"You will go wild."

Now look at what you just saw, I think this is what you live for

AH I'm a motherf***ing monster

I never stand but jump, have covered myself in pink fluorescent paint, and the glow-sticked crowd is there but it isn't there because it doesn't even matter: I'm a motherf***ing monster. At some point it is time to leave, but there's some question, late at night, as to which man I make 'mine'. I check #Fortune.

"You will go find cell service and try again."

I tap it over and over uselessly, but the wifi in the building isn't working. I don't have enough money to switch on 3G in the US.

There's a weird moment where I suddenly contemplate that I have to make my own choices, and then I remember that most of the time the app has confirmed my thoughts about myself rather than challenging them, at one point there was even a fortune that read:

"You will be homesick for sure. Cuz you've stays at home too long."

Which makes no sense, sure, but the reality is that I am homesick because, paradoxically, I have no home, and I've been craving a home for an entire year now without one, and goddamn why is this app so obsessed with homes?

"Zach," I tweet, "How does this thing work zach is it scraping my tweets or something?"

"It looks at some tweets from strangers," Zach says. "It's not calibrating itself to you in any way."

If #Fortune randomly assigns you fortunes made from strangers' tweets, does this just mean that human beings are reliably obsessed with homes (and romantic entanglements)? I think back to the thing Kieron Gillen once wrote about The Sims merely being a mirror of the player's interests, and about how horoscopes are really just ambiguous language that give a particular generality that almost everyone can read into consistently. But these things persist because humans are fascinated by themselves. 'Yes, that's me,' we think, looking into the mirror.

Sometimes I look at #Fortune and I am spectacularly unsurprised by my fate, because it's really everyone else's fate.

"You will be 'barely employed'."

Bein' humble don't work as well as bein' aware, as Canadian soap-opera rapper Drake would say. The next morning, as I clean pink paint from my face and remove the UV heart sticker from my clothes, I think: Maybe the heart wasn't in the room after all.

Read this next