What if Intelligence is Overrated?

Douglas Coupland’s fiction is somewhat difficult to classify, he is certainly more of a “literary” writer, but he has, occasionally, delved into the realm of genre, dealing with the post-apocalypse in Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) and Player One (2010) as well as the near-future in speculative novels like Generation A (2009). Other novels, like Microserfs (1995) and jPod (2006) have Sci-Fi-like flourishes and a difficult, almost paranoid relationship with technology. His textual art is equally difficult to class. Take Slogans, the concept of the project itself is at least somewhat clear—in Coupland’s (2020) words, “What could I tell myself 10 years ago that would make no sense to that old ‘me’?”—a flipping of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms (1978-1987) which she described as “[her] Reader’s Digest version of Western and Eastern thought.” But in terms of their genre… it’s tough to classify. Most are likely simple maxims… but others appear to delve into the realm of memoir… some look like news article headlines… some are simply absurd… and a handful are eerily prophetic.

In a piece for Image Journal called “Search Results: The Real-Life Douglas Coupland,” Mary McCampbell, a professor at Lee University and a scholar of Douglas Coupland’s work wrote that “the more [she] read Coupland’s work… the more [she] saw his writing as prophetically exposing the sins and longings of contemporary capitalist North America.” Typically, perhaps with the exception of religious writing, prophecy would not be considered a “genre” per se; but, there is something interesting about looking at his work through that lens… he did, after all, write a book called Hey Nostradamus! (2004). With regards to his Slogans, Coupland (2020) himself noticed a fascinating development upon the advent of the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020, he said in his article for The Guardian, “Signs of the Times”:

“Overnight the inventory of once-esoteric slogans somehow magically came to life in a way at once menacing, unexpected, deadpan, activating and prescient. Slogans such as hoard anything you can’t download, or, healthy people are bad for capitalism or the present and the future are now the same thing unexpectedly chimed with our experience of the plague: the 1%, the left, the right, the middle class, the disenfranchised, the globe, the young, the old, the you and the me.”

Douglas Coupland (2020)

It’s not exactly prophecy… but it’s certainly… weird, one might say uncanny, that Slogans created up to a decade ago would only become more relevant to the artist’s culture overtime. In the year since, Douglas Coupland embarked on a new project, Slogans for the Class of 2030, a project that actually might be a genuine attempt at prophecy, albeit with a more Sci-Fi rather than religious flourish. In order to create this new batch of Slogans, Coupland worked with Google’s Nick Frosst, and together they fed Coupland’s written words into a machine learning system that then recombined his language and created new sentences and phrases. The end result of this is the handful of new Slogans that make up Slogans for the Class of 2030, a work that Coupland hopes will serve as inspirations for young people who will graduate from university in 2030.

I keep thinking of the assigned blogpost that Ted Underwood, a professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, wrote titled “Science Fiction hasn’t Prepared us to Imagine Machine Learning” in the context of Douglas Coupland’s newest Slogans project. His blogpost notes the unexpected shift that Machine Learning has taken in recent years, one that is a step away from the self-reasoning AI often depicted in Sci-Fi and a step towards “deep learning,” or, the extreme ability to find correlations between words. Underwood describes this as an unintelligent system with the ability to add to collective symbolic systems (like culture) … he describes this as a tool that could, perhaps, be more interesting than AI, stating:

“After all, people are already very good at having desires and making plans. We don’t especially need a system that will do those things for us. But we’re not great at imagining the latent space.”

Ted Underwood (2021)

Douglas Coupland (2021) described the process of reading outputs from Google’s machine learning system as feeling “like [he] was encountering a parallel universe Doug.” Essentially, he was doing exactly what Ted Underwood described in his blog, collaboratively exploring the latent space of possibility. Underwood mentions Jorge Borge’s sort story “Library of Babel” to sort of illustrate the concept of an author’s latent space… and thinking about Borge’s story, and Coupland’s collaboration with Google’s Machine Learning System I am wondering… why stop at Slogans? What would a truly collaborative novel work between a machine learning system and an author look like? Are there infinite numbers of works resting in author’s minds?

A part of me thinks that the answer to these questions is essentially “no.” After all, authors, and artists of all kinds often find a point in their careers when they feel they’ve “said all they can say.” In a sense, silence… or that “latent space” is a statement, too, and sometimes it hold more meaning than words ever could.

Works Cited:

Coupland, Douglas. 2020. “Signs of the Times: How Douglas Coupland’s Art Came to Life under Coronavirus.” The Guardian, May 29, 2020, sec. Books. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/29/i-miss-my-pre-internet-brain-slogans-coronavirus-douglas-coupland.

———. n.d. “Slogans for the Class of 2030 by Douglas Coupland.” Google Arts & Culture. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://artsandculture.google.com/story/slogans-for-the-class-of-2030-by-douglas-coupland/vQURjwPHHpa5uw.

Holzer, Jenny. n.d. “Jenny Holzer. Truisms. 1978–87 | MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/63755.

McCampbell, Mary. n.d. “Search Results: The Real-Life Douglas Coupland.” Image Journal. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://imagejournal.org/article/search-results-the/.

Underwood, Ted. 2021. “Science Fiction Hasn’t Prepared Us to Imagine Machine Learning.” The Stone and the Shell (blog). February 2, 2021. https://tedunderwood.com/2021/02/02/why-sf-hasnt-prepared-us-to-imagine-machine-learning/.

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