Out of the Loop

Vijayan looked down in pain at his programmable forearm tattoo after finishing his last note. The microbots in his arm etched a new web of nodes, mirroring his notetaking system on a Roam graph. His mind had become a tangled graph since his father’s death, now reflected on his arm as a messy graph of interconnected lines for all to see. He gazed into his coffee and cursed under his breath while he thought about the decision to get the Roam microbots. He was now stuck living with nanotechnology that etched a continuously evolving tattoo on his arm.

Out of the Loop

Illustration by Justice.

It all goes back a few months. After five years of not asking anyone out, he finally asked out the barista at the local hipster cafe. On their first date, he quickly realized that they had nothing in common, but he liked her Roam microbot tattoo — a neat graph of interconnected lines, almost too neat for a natural note-taking system.

Was she airbrushing her notetaking system to improve the aesthetics of her tattoo? He knew it was something a lot of people were doing these days — they would only take notes that produced an aesthetic graph of interconnected thoughts on their tattoo. But Vijayan quickly deemed this thought unhelpful to his goal of getting laid. So he did what any sane 6/10 guy does, he started mirroring some of her behaviors, from her interest in woke nature conservatism (very different from actual nature conservation, less dirt involved) to eventually getting the Roam microbot tattoo.

He did not mind that she had an OnlyFans account that she made her thoughts Instagram friendly, who doesn’t these days? But there was one problem he could not wrap his head around. Five years since his father’s death, his mind was still this fast-racing, tangled mess that also reflected on his microbot inkwork, and although he tried to exert control over this side of him, his girlfriend, the hipster barista, was not thrilled to take a guy with the wrong kind of qi in his tattoo to meet her friends.

“I thought I was done dealing with this shit and then my asshole father had to go and fucking die,” he repeated to himself, as he lay in his bed every night.

He decided then that it was time for him to untangle this mess because no way he was getting laid without a neat graph of thoughts — manufactured or otherwise.

For a while he tried to see if he could do what his barista ex-girlfriend did — make his thoughts more Instagrammable — so he bottled up all that he felt and never wrote about it in his notes. Sure, sometimes he lay on the floor of his bathroom crying, but the tattoo did look neater.

He invested in a nice bucket from Home Depot so that he could put his face under the water when he wailed. It was a neat solution to prevent his community-conscious neighbors from complaining of noise. This worked for some time, that is until his tattoo dissolved into a set of unconnected dots. It was unbearable to second guess every thought as he wrote and eventually it became easier to not write at all.

In the meantime, Vijayan had managed to lose his job. For the third time in 5 years. He decided this was it, employment was not for him. Thankfully the state had him covered. Universal Basic Income provided everyone with USD 2,500 a month. It began during the pandemic years to quell riots as people struggled to put food on the table. But the provision kept expanding to cover other issues.

One of the most controversial expansions, the ignominiously titled the Joker Act, covered anyone, mostly men aged 18 to 35, who had become “not interested in pursuing employment in exchange for fair value.” The trigger for the act to be put in place was the murder of a popular pitch-fork feminist by a guy named Bryce from Arkansas who said he was inspired by “Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker to revolt against the oppression of the average male.”

Although someone soon found out that Bryce was just a 28-year-old addicted to porn and let go from his last six jobs, it did not stop the act from coming into place.

“Less reliable than a dog and a big mistake” was exactly how his father had described Vijayan, so taking advantage of this program felt ironically appropriate.

Part of the Joker Act was a rehabilitation program called Love the Land that Vijayan had to attend if he was to get the $2,500/mo UBI.

The program was started by a few tech executives with a guilty conscience and was funded by profits from online advertising.

Sell the problem and the cure, Vijayan had thought to himself the first time he saw an ad for it while he was on the 5th hour of an 8 hour TV binge. But there he was signing up for the mandatory program. Two days later the people from the LLE (Love the Land enforcement) picked Vijayan up in a van and had taken away all of his electronic devices, including his internet-connected implants, and put him on the road to a homestead in the West Texas desert.

Two days later Vijayan was sweating through his eyes as he plowed land in a greenhouse in the middle of the desert. Although painful and extremely boring, Love the Land exposed Vijayan to the joys of doing something mundane and routine that made him sweat. He understood why rich people came here for a couple of months every spring to roleplay as carpenters or farmers. Chop wood, carry water, quite literally, Vijayan thought. The idea of being stuck with himself and his thoughts for the next four weeks nearly gave him an anxiety attack.

Every evening at Love the Land, Vijayan was subjected to what felt like the worst kind of sensory deprivation that a man can go through: they called it mandatory walks. No music, no AirPods, just walking along an oasis in the desert like a lunatic. He was also off any kind of substances, including coffee, which meant he could not induce euphoria the way he had for such a long time. He was left to figure out a way to deal with his thoughts.

The sky is big in West Texas and the other inmates usually gathered at the observatory situated within the 100-acre plot to watch the pinkish-red hues of the sky in the evening. Vijayan looked at the wind turbines lined across the horizon and wondered when his mind would cease to become an endless loop of the same thoughts going round and round. Late at night, he would stare at the wall in his room and the slight imperfections on the wall would remind him of life during the pandemic years.

Vijayan had spent most of the pandemic in his room, staring at the wall, imagining other places he could be, trying to disassociate from where was — his father’s home. Whenever his friends asked about it, he never referred to it as his home. His friends found this strange, but Vijayan found it strange that his friends had healthy relationships with their parents. He found himself unable to leave his room much that spring or summer.

His father had said that Vijayan should stay in his room at all times, which now meant all the fucking time. That’s apparently what happens when you are just a B student in school. He knew something was wrong with where he was and what was happening to him, but he could never put his finger on exactly what. His father was a well-respected man at work and among family, so clearly something must be horribly wrong with himself, Vijayan thought. He tried to pray on it, thinking of the immigrant kids in cages on the border. If he tried hard, he could empathize with them and even cry. This ended up being a fairly useful disassociation technique although he doubted if he actually cared about any of those kids.

In the evenings his parents would go for their daily walk, and Vijayan would emerge from his room, an old iPod in hand. His mom had secretly bought it for him when he was 11. He would grab it from a nook in the storeroom in the kitchen where he usually kept things that he wanted to hide from his father. And he headed to the second floor to stand by a window from which he could see the road along which his parents would return after their walk. He would watch the pinkish-red hues of the Houston sky and admire how the leaves of the trees rustled in the hot evening breeze. It was the quietest moment of his day. He did not like thinking back to those moments by the window anymore and now he hated the Texas evening sky. Do people come to this purgatory to relive high school over and over? Vijayan thought to himself as he glanced at the crowd at the observatory in Love the Land. He looked for familiar faces, as he often did when he became anxious, and his eyes stopped at the only man who could pull off a tweed hat in the middle of the desert. The man, Reggie, was waving toward him to join the small group conversation he had going in the northeast corner of the observatory.

Vijayan never really understood why Reggie was here. He walked the earth like he had a divine purpose and he made sure to put everyone around at ease. If someone committed murder they would most likely feel comfortable confessing to Reggie. Vijayan found this attractive and envied it at the same time.

This was their 4th and final week at Love the Land and Vijayan tried to muster the courage to ask Reggie why he was here. After making some lackadaisical conversation with the group, Vijayan turned to Reggie and went “So Reggie, why the fuck are you here?” and then mumbled the rest under his breath as he felt the energy of the group shifting “I mean… sorry for asking… but if you can talk about it,”

Reggie paused for less than a second and replied, “I tried to change the world and went too far.” Vijayan was unimpressed but the rest of the group seemed to be lapping it up.

“No, for real man,” Reggie focussed on Vijayan. “I sold my start-up about two years back and then started playing around with GPT-45, the autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. I was particularly interested in its applications for therapy since it was related to what my previous startup did. So I used the API to design an AI therapist.”

I can see the 100 ways this can go wrong, Vijayan thought to himself.

“Now granted, it was not perfect,” Reggie continued as he gauged the room. “It does make the occasional gaffe such as asking an incel if he has tried to have sex to solve his problems and suggesting that a 28-year-old woman kill her narcissistic parent… but it worked… 98% of the time.”

“Did the woman kill herself? Is that why you’re here?” someone in the group chimed.

Reggie looked at them incredulously. “No man, what the fuck. OpenAI eventually revoked my access to the API since its usage was against their terms of not intending to cause harm to people, and part of the agreement with them was that I attend this purgatory so that I learn to value actual human life or whatever the fuck.”

The rest of the conversation felt kind of distant to Vijayan because his mind lingered on what Reggie had said and more than that on the reaction of the group to his story. He felt less of a man as he stood next to Reggie, this guy who looked like someone Vijayan’s girlfriend would cheat on with, if he had one, who was clearly a couple of years younger than him.

Great. Another thought to chew on for the next couple of days, Vijayan sighed as he stood gazing at the horizon.

For the next couple of weeks Vijayan felt like the opposite of one of those old dolls that shut their eyes when you laid them down. When his eyes were open he wanted them to be shut and when he wanted them to shut his mind was racing.

The first thing Vijayan did after getting back from Love the Land was google who Reggie was and how much he was worth. Reggie Laudrop was a millionaire, well, close to a billionaire, after he sold his start-up Perfect Father to Match.com. The app started as a platform where you could hire someone to be your father and then logically expand into other family members.

He had heard of the app a couple of times before but had dismissed it as some dystopian fetish that hipsters with premium mediocre money were into. That is, hipsters with more than enough money, but not enough to buy a yacht and fill it with women. He decided to give it a shot because he had no other plans, and, in the back of Vijayan’s mind, he couldn’t stop thinking about Reggie and his millions. The dude must know something that I don’t, Vijayan thought. Despite the Joker Act money, doing nothing was really hard, especially in a country where people’s idea of relaxing was doing more things.

Vijayan spent the next couple of days browsing profiles. They went into details from the relevant — has this person traumatized someone in the past — to the mundane such as did they share any annoying ticks as the user’s real parents. Vijayan eventually ended up matching with an older man with a slightly disappointed resting face to be his father. His profile simply read Mr. Vader and Vijayan knew right away this was the sadomasochistic experience he wanted to spend some government bucks on.

On their first family dinner together, and one of Vijayan’s first family dinners period, Mr. Vader asked, “what was your father like? I want to get a better understanding.”

“Usually grumpy, bought a lot of books that he never read, cynical about the world, and… oh… never forgot to tell me what a disappointing fuckface I am!” Vijayan retorted, not missing the irony of his cynicism.

“Is that what you want me to do? Tell you how disappointing you are,” Mr. Vader quipped back.

Vijayan scoffed and took a long moment to take a sip of whiskey, something he would never have done in front of his father, and replied, “No I actually want you to apologize, for that one time when I was 13 and you told me that I could not write, and never could write, that sports newsletter.”

Vijayan used to have fantasies of impressing his father. One day he would write the great American novel and then his father would be impressed and they would finally have a moment where they reconcile, maybe even hug. He put his grand plan to test during his 8th-grade summer. He had spent the first months of the year building an email newsletter about soccer stats and games, devouring hours of football games on YouTube, creating four two-hundred-page binders worth of notes. Most went unnoticed, but then in the summer one of his posts on Leeds United coach Marcelo Bielsa took off. It gathered enough views that a popular YouTube channel got in touch with him to use his content.

Soccer was the only thing he and his father connected on. One day while his father was having dinner, Vijayan gathered the courage to walk up to the table and showed his father the newsletter, the views, the email from the YouTube channel. His father took two minutes to read it and turned to him and in a deadpan voice said, “this is clearly not your writing, did you plagiarise this from somewhere?”

Vijayan did not write for the rest of the summer. He spent his days staring at the wall, noting the tiny imperfections and bumps, imagining them to be canyons in another white planet.

Mr. Vader caught onto the sarcasm and resentment of what Vijayan had just shared. Without missing a beat he replied, “I’m sorry for the time I said that. I don’t want you to ruin the rest of your life because of that.”

Vijayan could not parse whether this was a dream or a nightmare. He knew it was not real but for a moment he escaped reality and could almost feel catharsis rising from somewhere deep in his gut and exhaling through his nostrils. Although in appearance it looked like a disappointing sigh.

The whole Karate Kid vibe in the room infuriated Vijayan, but it also felt absurd and funny. Enough to pay for a couple more sessions.

More family dinners followed and although Vijayan called him “Dad” with the right tinge of cynicism and spite, Mr. Vader began to open up more to him, even breaking character to tell Vijayan about his research on patients of complex PTSD. Vijayan in return felt easier to vent about his past, the job he had lost, the barista. Then one day they even went on a walk, not mandatory this time. It was the perfect fall day — the first falling leaves, the rays of the sun through the trees casting patterns that swayed in the wind, girls in cute sweaters. After a long, nostalgic conversation about the time when people actually paid to watch soccer games in stadiums, Mr. Vader abruptly turned to Vijayan and said, “you know, I’m sorry your formative experience with me gave you an inner voice that is so harsh on yourself. I think your younger self deserves more love than I gave, that I… hope you can give yourself now.” Then Mr. Vader did this thing that felt weird and new to Vijayan, he paused and squeezed Vijayan’s right shoulder.

The fuck am I supposed to do with this feeling? Vijayan thought to himself and it probably reflected on his face too.

In the following weeks, Mr. Vader introduced Vijayan to the concept of reparenting. The act of imagining being a parent to your younger self, the way you would have liked to be parented and coached. For Vijayan, the whole thing had a chaotic energy to it. On some days he would feel like he was on the cusp of a breakthrough of some kind, be euphoric about it, and then forget what made him euphoric. On other days he would feel fragile and burst out in tears at the random high note of a song. Vijayan was also scared that he was rewiring his brain in ways that he did not understand — what does he do with all these memories of events he had forgotten? What if Mr. Vader’s incentive was to keep Vijayan as a client forever? Mr. Vader had a stoic disposition about him. Vijayan distrusted stoics, pussies who just want to cope with life and not live it, he thought to himself.

At the end of a session over apple strudel and cappuccino in the same cafe that Vijayan had met his ex-girlfriend, Mr. Vader reminded Vijayan that he had missed his last payment.

“It’s fine… I don’t want to sound salesy just thought I’d remind you,” he said.

Vijayan felt his body turn cold, like his body was not in the temperate fall of Austin anymore but somewhere in the Arctic Tundra. He realized he had not moved for about 20 seconds until Mr. Vader tapped on his shoulder as he usually did.

Vijayan flinched and said, “This is not a real relationship is it? It’s just another grand scam to make money out of people like me.” He willed his body and voice to be calming and assertive but he was shivering and shaking.

Mr. Vader replied, “I know it must be hard for you to trust people and their intentions…”

Vijayan did not remember most of what happened next, somehow he was in his car, gripping the steering wheel, and crying out loud. He wrestled with his thoughts, this must be a scam… maybe I’m just overthinking it as usual… maybe I should apologize… no, but it must be a scam… it’s all about money… but Mr. Vader had been a positive influence… or maybe not… maybe he just fooled me into believing that this reparenting bullshit is a good influence… no one wants me to get better.

Vijayan motioned to his head with his index and middle fingers stretched out to mimic a gun as he usually did when he broke down. He was aware of the irony that this was one way he connected with the rest of the world, they always shot themselves in the head, it was always the fucking head.

Bad days with Mr. Vader were not uncommon, but Vijayan found something still pulled him towards their sessions.

Is it some kind of dependency… is it because I don’t have anyone to talk to, he thought to himself at the end of every month when a new invoice came in. But he showed up and it helped that Mr. Vader’s presence felt unconditional, like he actually wanted to be there with Vijayan and not elsewhere.

Then at one family dinner, Mr. Vader broke it to him “I can’t see you anymore because I’m dying.”

“What?” said Vijayan, flicking some rice across the table with the chopsticks he was always struggling with.

Vader paused, then continued. “I’m kidding, I’m not dying, I mean we are all dying… but that’s not what I meant… I think we should reduce the number of sessions we do. The reparenting program was in beta and the company is pulling us out in the next couple of months.”

Vijayan did not have any caustic retorts or sarcastic wit to respond with. He felt at peace, he also hoped he had not become an optimist. He ended that conversation with “you should probably try to stay off telling jokes, not your thing apparently.”

He had always thought of himself as the son his father never wanted, but oddly enough Mr. Vader had made him realize that this aggrandizing, hypercritical inner self he had acquired during his formative years was kind of a drag. He was still angry at his dead father.

Three months later, Vijayan was taking to this whole walking thing. Whenever he caught himself thinking in circles, he would go on long walks to clear his head. One of the novel moments on his walk was the crosswalk announcement voiced over by Matthew McConaughey. It had been around Austin pre-pandemic, but the kicker was the new update. The crosswalk voiceover was powered by GPT-51, the latest and greatest neural network for unrestricted natural language generation, and there were cameras and LIDAR sensors on the traffic pole.

The idea was that crosswalk would say nice things to you while you waited for the signal, some free emotional support on your way to do one of those jobs that still had to be done at a physical workplace. But people of the city had evolved to become extremely conflict-averse and found the crosswalk to be a nice outlet to let their true feelings about the state of things known.

Yelling and cursing at the Matthew McConaughey crosswalk became a tradition honored by pedestrians in Austin. On one of his walks where he was trying to defuse the anger at his dead father, it struck Vijayan, why not use GPT-51 to recreate his father’s voice? And why not let other people recreate the voice of people they are angry at? Kind of like an escape room for relationships. He knew the perfect man to help him out with this.

Reggie and Vijayan set to work by feeding the memories from Vijayan and his father’s iRemember, an account that collected artifacts from his life, and Vijayan’s Roam graph to GPT-51. The goal was to recreate his father’s voice. This proved almost close to impossible as the actual events of Vijayan and his father’s lives and their thoughts about them were so disconnected that their first prototype felt almost too real. Vijayan felt sympathetic to this version of his father.

They doubted their idea and punched walls over it. Getting angry at an almost actual person who was helpless physically and disabled cognitively relative to a human was not going to help anyone’s cause. They settled down on an 80/20 solution. They would use the memories specific to incidents from Vijayan’s past that he flashbacked to often to create his father’s critical voice. This critical voice would act as exposure therapy for Vijayan. Programmed to happen at planned intervals to start with and then to happen at times when Vijayan is least suspecting it.

When his heart rate is up from being stressed to when he is extremely relaxed, his father’s critical voice would surprise him and the health censors on his watch would quantify Vijayan’s reaction to it. The goal was for Vijayan to take note of what he felt and then go on with whatever he was doing despite the rage he felt. The quantified version of Vijayan’s response looked like a dance — two steps forward, one step backward.

One day he overheard a conversation between a mom and her little son while he was at his local coffee shop. The kid looked about three and the mother was helping him with his jacket and talking to him calmly but with a sense of deep-seated anger that was unlikely that her 3-year-old’s mind could comprehend. “There is no Halloween for you, not after what you did at the grocery store, I told you to behave and you did not, so no more Halloween.” The kid whined back, with a surprised “why, mama?” “Because you did not do what I wanted you to do, that’s how this works.”

Vijayan flashed back to all the times this happened to him with his father, then realized there must have been a hundred other times this had happened that his memory did not even have access to. The kid did not seem bothered by what his mom was saying. Was he not picking up on her anger? Maybe he was just insulated from it because it did not compute. He just kept saying, “mama, I like Halloween,” and did not appear to care about her canceling Halloween. And it suddenly seemed so obvious to Vijayan, maybe he didn’t have to take all his thoughts so seriously and maybe that’s what he was training himself to do all these months with GPT-51.

Today, a year later, Vijayan is at the hipster coffee shop and finally able to make eye contact with his ex-girlfriend barista. For a split second, his mind momentarily leaves and he feels like he is inhabiting the body of his self from a year ago. Weirdly enough, Vijayan recognizes him.

He pulled to refresh the top listings page on the app store. GPT-51 Pre-Fab Dad had done well since their last update which gave users the option to add voice filters to their critical parent voice. The most popular filter these days was the high-pitched voice of Brian’s mother from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The page updated and there it was — undeniable proof that they had hit a goldmine of first-world problems, GPT-51 Pre-Fab Dad was the #1 paid app.

He looked down at his forearm tattoo which right now resembled the beautiful constellations he had observed on that dreadful Love the Land escapade.