Updated: May 15, 2022
Q: What if you could prototype your life before you lived it?
This story was part of Modern Art Oxford's digital art project titled #branch 2022, created by Melanie Frances, a digital artist in collaboration with a group of Creative Consultants aged 18-25.
Fusing game design, interactive storytelling, speculative fiction and citizen science, the reader could enter a 'forest' on the www.modernartoxford.org.uk website to explore interactive stories written by a community.
Chapter one - Seijinshiki, ‘coming of age’
It was the day of the coming of age prototype ceremony. Presented by the Committee of Ancestors. Regulated by the Jury Collective. Drawn up by our parents.
They had scaffolded our early years, curling obstacles out of our way, waiting eagerly for our prefrontal cortexes to mature, when we could finally self-regulate the impulsive behaviours of our youth.
Since the pandemic and the resurrection of the Soviet Union, anxiety levels in the young had skyrocketed and suicide became the biggest killer of the under 18s. The Committee of Ancestors had to do something to protect future generations and developed the prototype system.
Each prototype was individual to us. The various life paths and their realistic outcomes were downloaded from Wikivia, an open source website. There were infinite possibilities with as many turns and twists as one wished, with some parents consciously including adversities for the betterment of their children’s growth. My parents never shared their intentions with me but I could hear them at night, whispering over the computer as it processed their latest prototype for me. It was like they were engrossed in a computer game; the tapping interspersed with deep intakes of breaths and sighs. I wished I could be a part of their game. Part of their obsession.
They hadn’t got it quite right with my brother so the stakes were high. He was paying the price for their choices in a distant rehabilitation unit, possibly never to return. They had another chance with me and they weren’t going to get it wrong this time.
Deep down, I did trust my parents. They had been successful in their chosen careers, had a variety of life experiences and were happy in their marriage. What more could you ask for? But sometimes I would notice their biases from their own familial indoctrination. Idealisations of the past and the simple acceptance of the status quo had fixed their mindsets on a number of subjects.
Such issues had been taken into consideration by the Jury Collective in the prototype algorithms. Each life path submitted went through their AI and was scanned for unconscious bias…well, as far as it could, bearing in mind the ones programming the AI in the first place were my parents’ generation. The Jury Collective, a committee made up of a diverse range of people of all ages, gender, nationalities, political parties and religions were there to regulate the AI and add a touch of human common sense to the whole process. Once submitted, a prototype could not be changed. How else could the system take into account everyone’s life plans? It was like a complicated air traffic control scheme. Individual lives moving around like pucks on a shuffle board.
Although our coming of age and subsequent lives appeared to be totally out of our control, we had one fundamental choice. We could choose to accept or reject the prototypes created by our parents at the coming of age ceremony.
If you chose to accept, you were destined to fulfil a considered life. Parents knew and wanted the best for their children. No parent would want their child to hate their life. In fact, this whole thing was for the child’s benefit after all. The majority accepted. There was a powerful marketing campaign in the lead up to the ceremony, programmed to ensure you made this correct choice.
Nevertheless, some chose to reject. The brave ones in my eyes. Those who were self-assured and unafraid of not conforming, of rejecting family. For in choosing this route, you were obliged to denounce them to save face and maintain their honour. You also became a second class citizen, having to create your own prototypes with little or no life experience. Of course the prototype choices were overseen by the Committee of Ancestors. They couldn’t risk too many going off piste. It had to be a guided piste. Many fell into a forever loop of constant revision and never actually got to live their lives.
Remember, most of us were high on anti-anxiety meds. Our brains may now be fully formed but we were dulling them with drugs. How were we to make such fundamental decisions under these conditions?
As I stood in my Seijinshiki kimono waiting to go on stage, my heart felt out of control. I had always been deferential towards my parents and enjoyed the calmness of our measured life. But my teenage years and the corresponding rollercoaster of hormones had given me a taste for an alternate way. A chaotic but thrilling feeling of uncertainty. A world full of possibilities and hope, where I could do or be anything. But could I? Whenever I had rebelled, the ache and guilt I would feel afterwards would overwhelm me and I would go crawling back to my parents in search of their loving arms. And here I was now, looking down at them as I walked up onto the stage wondering what the hell I was going to do. Everyone else before me was choosing acceptance. Except Gilly Wilder, the class renegade who had just rejected her parents but showed no remorse as they were being ushered out crying. My parents gave me a hesitant wave, trying to look calm and collected. Trying to look confident as I was about to make my choice.
My name was being called out. I felt the adrenaline. What was I going to do? Should I accept or reject my prototype?
Chapter two - The firs were standing to attention
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bear to disappoint them. It would break their hearts to have a second child taken away. It would break their souls to have me reject them. I had no choice. I accepted my parents’ prototype.
As I watched my pre-determined life unfurl on screen that night, I felt a heavy sadness. It was just so vanilla. So safe. No sprinkles or whipped cream for me. I was destined for a life full of assured happiness and predictable contentment. Where was the ambition, the risk, the jeopardy? It was as if they couldn’t believe that I would be able to handle it.
I had dreams and hopes. An amalgamation of teen movies and latent intention. My reason for being. Suddenly all destroyed in an instant. I felt a flash of anger, mottled with disdain. How dare they take all that away from me? How dare they underestimate me? I ran upstairs to my room and cried. Cried for my pointless life.
Nothing they could say could make me feel better. They held me as they tried to reassure that all they were trying to do was to protect me from anguish and sorrow. They had my best interests at heart. They just wanted me to be happy. But what was happiness without the suffering, I cried? They held me tighter. Life wasn’t that simple, they said. Look at your brother.
I hadn’t thought about him for ages. After his depressive episode brought on by his over-ambitious prototype, he had been sent away to rehab to work on his self-esteem. He had sounded so broken whenever I had spoken to him that after a while I couldn’t bear to call him.
I knew I couldn’t keep avoiding him. It was time to be strong and embrace the awkward feelings that churned within. He had gone through this process. He would understand how I was grieving, how I was lamenting for what could have been. He was my ally.
I decided then and there to run away. I needed to do something drastic or I would make myself crazy. I had to flee from my prototype, get away from my parents. It was finally time to do something for myself. I couldn’t risk losing myself as my brother had once done. I was worth more than that.
I crept out in the middle of the night with a small bag and my phone. That was all I needed. And some brotherly reassurance.
The address for his rehab centre was in the middle of nowhere. Far north, by the boundary lines, where a tech company was rumoured to have built one of their research facilities. The firs were standing to attention, as if awaiting my presence as I approached. I saw a circular building at the centre of multi-coloured geometric shape-like structures spiralling out in all directions. What kind of rehab centre was this? It looked more like a child’s toy.
A couple stood outside one of the outlying buildings. They saw me and immediately shared unspoken words with their eyes. One withdrew and strode towards the central construction. Within minutes my brother came running out to me, arms open wide, a smile on his face. He looked so different from how I remembered him. He looked happy.
He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close. I’ve missed you so much, he said. I’ve been waiting for you. I knew you would come when your time came. We’ve all been waiting for you. He grabbed my hand and led me towards the main building. Let me show you around, he said. Let me tell you what we are about.
The ‘rehab’ centre was a haven for those who had rejected their parents’ prototypes but wanted to shield them from the shame. It allowed the protection of their parents from societal judgement by letting people think their child was away at rehab, when in fact, they were living with other like-minded people, following their own prototypes. Daily prototypes. Individually chosen…where mistakes were made…and learnt from. WTF.
I don’t understand, I stuttered. What do you mean daily prototypes? Individually chosen? Not by you, can’t be. You mean the Committee of Ancestors but you pretend you’ve chosen them for yourself, right? I thought I heard my brother smother a laugh. I paused, aware that I was sounding like a jabbering idiot. He smiled and took my hand. It’s ok, he said, I was just like you when I first arrived. I mean, this shit is crazy! He span me round and the colours of the buildings swirled together like a psychedelic kaleidoscope. We both tumbled to the ground laughing. My head was dizzy but I couldn’t wait to know more. My brother sensed my impatience. He continued. We’ve always been brought up to believe that we only have one prototype, right? Decided by our parents. Pre-approved by the Committee. But no. There’s another way. A better way. Marvellous mistakes. Have you heard of them? I shook my head. Mistakes that make you better, he said. Mistakes that are there to be made, that help our development. Mistakes that are proof that we are trying, evolving, growing. He pointed to a sign that said ‘Welcome to Paradigm’. This is how we should really be living our lives, he said.
Speechess, I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I needed time to take it all in. Digest. Comprehend. It was The Matrix moment and I wasn’t quite sure how to react.
So I went personal. Perhaps the irritation from his overly happy demeanour was subconsciously interpreted as smugness, perhaps there was underlying hurt from his abandonment of us that I was yet to deal with. Whatever it was, I went low.
So you’ve actually been ok all this time, I asked? Not depressed, or ready to top yourself? Do you know how badly we’ve all felt for you? Do you realise the guilt that Mum and Dad have been going through since they submitted your prototype? How can you say that you were trying to protect them when all you’ve done is broken their hearts?
My brother enveloped me with his big arms and hugged me. I didn’t pull away. I wanted him to take away all my turbulent feelings. I’m sorry, he said. It was the only way. I couldn’t live the life they wanted me to live. It wasn’t for me. I thought I was doing the right thing by shielding them from the shame. They would be happy for me if they knew. I’m sure of it, he whispered.
Why haven’t you told them then, I asked? Tell them that you’re ok. Tell them about Paradigm. They would be so relieved. In fact, why haven’t you told everyone? Shouted it out from the roof tops. Told them that there’s a better way to live. That we can all have our own choices, that we don’t have to give up our hopes and dreams.
We can't tell anyone, he said firmly. The Committee of Ancestors would shut us down. They would try to regulate us. It’s not in their interest to give us all free will, he said with a darkness to his voice. I suddenly felt small again. He had quashed my burst of optimism.
I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with him. This was huge. Why shouldn’t the world know the truth? Why did only a few get to enjoy it on their own, covertly? Shouldn’t we be sharing the knowledge, even if there was a risk of it being taken away from us? I didn’t know what was right from wrong any more. What was I to do? Share the truth and risk it or enjoy it in secret with the others?
Chapter three - The blue room
A tinkling of laughter, clinking of glasses, a low bass of animated discussion; it was a different world out here at Paradigm. Looking on, it was like a carefully curated reality show - How the privileged few live - no cares in the world, living their best lives, free from the shackles of a pre-determined prototype. It made me feel salty, when it should’ve been sweet.
Why should an elite few get the benefits of Paradigm? Why shouldn’t everyone enjoy it? The more I thought about it, the more it incensed me.
My brother kept telling me to chill, to give in to the vibe but all I could think of was the look on everyone’s faces at the coming of age ceremony. Dread. As if they knew that their lives were never going to be the same again. I wanted to reassure them that there was another way. I wanted them to know about Paradigm.
The powers that be, however, wanted to preserve their secret. Cell phones had to be handed over on arrival and calls were monitored. Movement was restricted. No one left the compound. Exposing Paradigm wasn’t going to be easy.
That wasn’t all that I had to worry about. Rumours were swirling around that any dissent was severely disciplined. Perpetrators were taken away for ‘self-reflection’, only to return as shells of themselves. Many said they were brainwashed, others said they were lobotomised. Whatever it was, it worked. Gilly Wilder had turned up at Paradigm not long after I had and voiced strong opinions at one of the town halls. A few days later, she could barely speak.
I had to do something. I needed an outside line without detection. Did one even exist? My brother inadvertently confirmed one day that there was one in the central building. He had let it slip that he had been speaking with his girlfriend on the outside from within the ‘blue room’, reserved for committee members. He had recently been invited to join this super-elite subsidiary due to his resolute loyalty for Paradigm.
That night, I crept into the central building. It was the first time I had set foot in it but I knew immediately it was a Tech Three building. It’s elegant confidence was easily recognisable. Why was it here? Was Tech Three behind Paradigm?
As I stepped into the atrium, the lights flashed on. Blinded by the piercing brightness, I shielded my eyes. A dark outline of a figure came into focus. A woman, standing by a black door. They’re waiting for you, she said, urging me on with her eyes. I didn’t question her. I simply complied.
Five men sat in a row, cloaked, hidden. One motioned for me to sit on a chair in front of them. Welcome, said the one closest to me. I recognised his voice from the coming of age ceremony. Alarm bells started ringing. A member of the Committee of Ancestors, here, at Paradigm? What did it all mean?
We’ve been keen to meet you, the man said. We wanted to ask you something. I felt my skin go cold. Here at Paradigm, he continued, we’ve been working closely with our friends to test the benefits of free will versus fixed prototypes. Trying to determine which brings more productivity to society. You are clearly an outlier in our experiment. You rejected the fixed and refused the free will. Will you tell us why?
I sat there, silent, unable to respond. Numb to these revelations. Thoughts reeled through my head. Our lives were all one big prototype for the powers that be? We were merely lab rats to test their hypotheses? It sounded like 1984 meets The Truman Show. I couldn’t quite compute.
Tell us why, the man repeated, slightly firmer in tone. The feels and confusions of the past few weeks swirled within me. The fear, the elation, the anticipation, the climax, the reveal, the anti-climax. I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea why I did things. I just did. My silence further displeased him. If you won’t co-operate, he said, we have ways.
I wondered why they were so desperate for me to answer. Why they were so afraid of me being an outlier. An outlier! That was it! The answer was staring me in the face. I was an anomaly. A deviation from the rule. Unfathomable. Undetermined. Unpredictable. I scared them as they couldn’t define me. I scared them as I could disrupt.
Your generation think they know better, he said. You think you can change the status quo, mould conventions to fit into your own world order. What do you know? We’ve been doing this for centuries. We’ll be doing it forever.
I remained silent. I could feel his frustration growing. Why won’t you co-operate, he yelled, his face wavering close to mine. I felt something press hard against my temples. I winced. A gun. This was it. This was my end. I recoiled in fear and screwed my eyes shut. In that moment of possible death, with the adrenaline pumping around me, I suddenly knew what I had to do. l needed to challenge more. Stop accepting blindly. Think more, question more, reject more. I wasn’t talking anarchy, just telling shits like the ones in front of me where to go. It was time to reject the prototype.
I stood up, moving myself out of the gun’s way, arms akimbo and faced them with everything I had. Go on, I said, do it. He hesitated. That was my moment to turn around and stride towards the door. I mustered all the confidence I had and carried on walking. I walked out of the room and then I saw it. The blue room. As soon as I closed the door behind me, I ran for my life. I heard the gun go off but I carried on running. I ran as fast as I could until I was safe. Safe in the blue room.
📷: Joel Filipe