Lewis Rapkin, who produced a short film based on the journey, tells me in an email that the AI “was a bit unsettling at times.” Especially early on, they all closely watched the system’s output, guessing at its meaning, its process. “Is the machine associating this abandoned factory with the history of people coming from the countryside to the city for factory work?” Rapkin says. “Is it recognizing that this is just the first story of the country, and technology is going to be the second? Is it associating our urban blight with the Middle Ages because our country is falling apart and looks like something centuries old?”
Goodwin clearly views the four-day journey as a success, even a surprising one. “I thought there was a possibility that there would be an arc, that it would feel like a novel,” he tells me, “and that’s what happened. Aspects of it feel like a novel.” He says the fact that the car itself serves as a character gives it a sense of continuity that much AI-generated fiction lacks.
“I’ve read the whole thing, in case anyone’s curious,” Goodwin says, laughing. “Coherent prose is the holy grail of natural-language generation—feeling that I had somehow solved a small part of the problem was exhilarating. And I do think it makes a point about language in time that’s unexpected and interesting.” So do I, actually. I sat down to read the whole thing in one sitting, as Goodwin suggested I do, and more or less succeeded. I’m not sure there’s a cohesive arc in any classic narrative sense—but there is plenty of pixelated poetry in its ragtag assemblage of modern American imagery. And there are some striking and memorable lines—“the picnic showed a past that already had hair from the side of the track,” struck me, for one.
1 the Road reads as if a Google Street View car were narrating a cross-country journey to itself. This approach is compelling because it offers an opportunity to commune, for a few hours, with the vast network of data-collecting vehicles—drones, cars, devices—that now crawl our geography. “Much like the American literary road-trip books that inspired this project, it’s about capturing the time and place, and right now we’re in a time where we’re pretty confused and amazed by AI, so it captures that wonder and confusion,” Rapkin says. “Is it profound or is it nonsense? It’s both.”
It’s a tour of the built and noisy world, as interpreted by those machines. It’s surveillance-technology fiction, written by the same species of technology that is conducting the surveillance and processing the data. What might an AI author teach us about a world already so totally sculpted and impacted by the kind of data it’s gathering that a human writer can’t?
Goodwin seems committed to finding out. “This is very much an imperfect document, a rapid prototyping project. The output isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’s a human novel, or anywhere near it,” Goodwin says, but “there are characters in it, which is really strange.” A mysterious painter, for instance, appears in the third line to ask, “What is it?” It continues to show up throughout: “A body of water came down from the side of the street. The painter laughed and then said, I like that and I don’t want to see it.” Insofar as it’s tempting to locate the writer (or writer of the writer) in the work—as we inevitably do in road-trip fiction—the painter seems the most logical stand-in for Goodwin himself. “I could have made a big start off,” the machine-generated painter says at one point, making it easy imagine it’s talking about the project itself, nodding to new frontiers. “I want to go away from here, the time has come.”