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The Tinkered Mind
A meditation app is forthcoming. Stay Tuned.
June 11th, 2023
This story is dedicated to Esther Perel. She is a psychotherapist known for her work on human relationships. Her writings, her theraputic work and her podcast have had an incredible influence on many people's lives and how we seek to connect with one another. You can connect with Esther Perel on twitter: @EstherPerel
Lucilius smiled sheepishly for the camera. He felt a little embarrassed to be getting credit. It was basically a wrapper, he thought to himself. And it was at that moment he realized how unnecessary the whole photo session was. He could easily train a model on every cover photo the magazine had ever published and generate a picture of himself in exactly the style these photographers would finagle his image into. He worried about their jobs. It was clear the person taking his photo really loved what they did. Lucilius imagined the bad news they might get in the next year or two. Going home to a loved one, sharing the news, and the tears that might follow. Probably arguments too. Couples fight ultimately fight about money issues more than anything, as the data clearly showed. Most arguments between loved ones were just proxies for a disagreement about resources.
“Could you smile a little more?” The photographer said.
Lucilius instantly realized he was wearing his thoughts on his face and he tried to cheer himself up. He made a mental note to give everyone in the studio a free trial account.
A corner door opened, and the woman who walked through seemed to have an aura larger than the room itself. Everyone was suddenly aware.
“We wrapping up Howie? I got an interview to do, and I probably need to buy this guy a drink for saving my marriage.”
“Last run!” The photographer announced as his half-hidden face scrunched up behind the old camera.
Lucilius felt a lot more comfortable after walking away from the bright light and the giant green sheet he’d been standing on.
The woman waiting for him had a strong smile. Almost devious. “Are you ready, or do you want to take a few minutes?”
“No, no, I’m ready” Lucilius said.
The woman lead him to another room where cameras were already set up, a crew waiting, and two arm chairs angled toward one another. Lucilius sat down and tried to get comfortable. The woman held a finger up to signal a crew member who, despite being weighed down by all the gear of a sound-technician, brought over a server tray with two drinks on it. The woman pulled from it a frosted martini glass, and the crew member lowered the tray for Lucilius where there was an old fashioned.
“I’ve never seen this in any of your interviews? Is this like a tactic that you do before hand?”
The woman laughed, “oh god no, never.”
“I bet you say that to everyone huh?”
She laughed more. “Ok, yes, I know, my reputation precedes me, and I can understand if you were wary about doing an interview with me, but I truly mean it. I never have a drink before interviews, and I certainly don’t try to get people drunk in order to loosen them up. Though..” She wiggled her head from side to side a little, her eyes cast high as though scanning memory, “that certainly doesn’t stop some people from getting lit before sitting down with me.” She chuckled a bit before regaining her composure. “No, for real, I’d like to start the interview with a cheers, if that’s ok with you? A little birdie told me what your favorite drink is, I hope it’s made to your liking.”
Lucilius looked at the glass of amber liquid and smiled. “I guess we’re about to find out.”
“Ready?” She said with a true smile.
“Let’s roll,” the woman said loudly. Her announcement was echoed by rattle of commands from the staff and then all went quiet.
“I have to begin this interview differently,” the woman said, suddenly pensive, reflective. “Though he will deny, out of humility, out of deference to the technology he’s harnessed, I have to thank the person I have in front of me for saving my marriage.”
Emotion welled up in the woman’s face, and it caught Lucilius off guard. Like everyone else, he’d seen many interviews this woman had done, and this kind of display was simply not in her wheelhouse.
“I do not speak as an interviewer right now, I do not speak as a professional. I speak as a woman, a human, a wife, and a lover. I raise my glass to you, to cheers you, and thank you. You truly did save my marriage, Lucilius.”
Lucilius was hot in the face, blinking back his own emotion, as he lifted his glass and the two leaned in across the space between them and clinked glasses. The two took a sip, and the woman, satisfied, breathed in once more.
“This is not my usual interview, as I’m sure everyone can tell,” she smiled slyly. “In fact, I don’t see this as an interview at all. It’s a celebration. A celebration of the last 14 months since Keeper was launched. And instead of my usual M.O. of wiggling my way into the secrets of those I interview, I first want to tell a story. A story of healing. I, of course, was skeptical. An App? Really? This has got to be a scheme. But friends I trust very much urged me to download Keeper, and..” She faltered as she a particularly memory filled her mind. Shades of anger, bitterness - tiny expressions Lucilius was well acquainted with flashed across her face. “..after a particularly ‘memorable’ argument, I finally downloaded Keeper. As everyone knows, Keeper is the relationship and communication app that is saving marriages and relationships by the millions. For the very few that aren’t familiar with how the app works - and I have it’s maker here to verify where I go wrong - but if you don’t mind, I’ll give it a go?” She motioned at Lucilius.
“Oh, please, of course.”
She nodded. “For those who are concerned with privacy, uh, it might be a bit of a pill to swallow, but it is a small price to pay when the bitter alternative is seriously considered. Keeper gets access to your most intimate conversations. All of those rumors about social media companies secretly listening so they can see you stuff? Well this one listens. Oh boy does it listen. My god. So you and your partner download Keeper and then it listens. It listens for weeks, and in fact, I completely forgot about the app. I did! I was going about my daily life, completely forgot about it, but then, it happens. Someone is tired, a string of miscommunications pile up, and boom. Before you know it your screaming at each other at 2 am.”
The woman nodded, looking at the camera. “I was ashamed to admit it. And like every couple out there, I always tried to hide it. I was determined to keep up the image of a perfect relationship, of happiness. But real life is far messier… and uglier than we like to admit. It’s what this whole industry is based on.”
She wasn’t looking at Lucilius at this point. She was leaning into the camera focused on her. “We show off these artificial lives because we have some messed up psychology that makes us act as though happiness is something that exists in the eyes of other people when they look at us, and we optimize our entire psychologies for that dumb little goal.”
She leaned back and gracefully picked up her martini glass. She took a long satisfied sip. She wiggled her her seat a little. Clearly in a groove. And then her face softened.
“Keeper helped me see all this, and it allowed me to explore something I haven’t felt in a long time, because Keeper is optimized for something unusual. It’s optimized for happiness. Real happiness.”
Lucilius didn’t exactly agree, but he didn’t interrupt. Clearly the woman was orchestrating an experience that was, for herself, very important.
“After listening for weeks, it finally happened. We got into one of our fights. Classic stuff. Always the same old shit. As we are all aware of, those of us who have ever been in any kind of committed relationship. It was horrible. Like it always is, and when I was alone in the bedroom later, and reflexively reached for my phone, I saw a notification from Keeper. I clicked on it, and then I had a truly unique experience. I read a play-by-play analysis of our fight, and at each point, Keeper showed me - not how I was wrong, or he was wrong - but how our…” she shook her head slightly, searching for the words.”
“Contexts,” Lucilius said.
Her eyes alighted and she reached in his direction. “Yes, how our contexts had gone astray, and how as the argument went on, we kept switching what we were really talking about to avoid what was - at heart - going on. It was perhaps the most insightful thing I’ve ever read. Not because there was anything particularly new there, but because it was so incisively tailored to my experience. It remembered everything I said, exactly, word-for-word, and it showed me how particularly words, and phrases my husband and I used are slightly misinterpreted by each of us, and how these misalignments create emotions that compound, and how this becomes fuel for a fire. A fire that destroys the things we try so hard to nurture and end up….” She was shaking her head at this point, lost for words.
“What happened the next day?” Lucilius asked.
She looked at him, as though surprised that he was there, that he’d been listening. And she smiled, nodding, and took another sip.
“I’ve got to slow down with this thing,” she laughed, and then she sobered up. “Well that’s the thing: Keeper asked me what I thought should happen. How I thought things should resolve. And then it did the most obnoxious thing!”
Lucilius was smiling. It was really the only prompt that he’d basically hardcoded into the app.
“It asked me if my opinion about how things should resolve had changed since before reading the analysis. So way to go!” She announced, annoyed. “Talk about nailing down a user. Geez.” She laughed. “But yes, the next day was very… different, than past experiences. Because he was also on Keeper after our fight, and for that first experience, I guess we both read the same thing, but after that Keeper changes, and it tailors for each side of the relationship. And I have to say, the time since then? I feel like I’ve been living in a dream. And it’s all thanks to you.”
Lucilius’ smile hung high to a side and he shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I have to give credit where credit is due. Keeper is really just a wrapper for an advanced LLM that’s been trained on countless dialogues and conversations between couples and all of the writing that we’ve done on this topic. It’s essentially an interactive, crowdsourced guid to happiness between couples.”
“It’s the ultimate therapist!” The woman said.
But Lucilius wiggled his head in mild disagreement. “Yes and no. It’s more like having 3 therapists. One for you. One for your partner, and a third that synthesizes both of those two. But most importantly, it improves by learning about you and your partner. And not just the small stuff, like… this person likes lavender soap and the other likes salt & vinegar chips and football on Sundays, but deeper, more abstract aspects of the relationship. It’s really geared toward - and Stienbeck said it better than I ever will: when two people meet you get two new people. It’s like each couple is a unique… cocktail” he said, lifting the old fashioned and taking a sip. “And Keeper learns what makes up the unique mixture, and then it can gently suggest in ways that really optimize for that mixture that two people make up.”
“Now,” the woman said. “I’m sure all the women in the audience are wide-eyed, but really, the hurdle here is selling it on the guys, and while I never do plugs for products, I’m making an exception today,” she said. She turned and faced the camera. “Men, listen to me. Download Keeper, sign up for the free trial, and then prompt the app to tell you exactly how you should ask for something in the bedroom that you’ve always wanted to do.”
Lucilius was uneasy. “Ok, well that just makes it sound like a gaslighting app.”
The woman’s eyes went wide and she shook her head. “Ok, I totally see that - you’re right. Clearly you built an app that detects for context congruences! Ha.” And looking back at the camera. “Just do it, because the answer you get almost certainly will not be what you think it is. I promise, just do it. Try it, you won’t regret it, and neither will this entrepreneur,” she motioned at Lucilius who laughed, but then she leaned in, suddenly serious. A trade mark of her professional genius was to switch modes like this. Lucilius was familiar with it, and he’d been using an advanced version of Keeper to prep himself for the interview.
“So. I hear rumors about next steps for Keeper. Tell me. Are the rumors true?”
“Well what have you heard?”
“Improving communication beyond romantic relationships. What else can we do here? As a people, with this technology. How far can we go?”
“Even though Keeper’s success rate is climbing, and is already very high, we can’t guarantee anything, of course.”
“Well. Yes, the rumors are true. We have been training keeper-models on specific combinations of world leaders and cultures and we are tentatively exploring how Keeper could be used to improve relations between different political parties, and even countries.”
The woman held up her martini glass, looking straight at the camera. “Ladies and gentlemen, you heard it here first.” Then she turned to Lucilius, holding out her drink for him to clink with his own. He sheepishly smiled and lifted it to meet hers.
“To world peace,” she said.
Lucilius breathed deeply and sighed.