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'Microserfs' author Coupland talks tech

In his latest novel, "Generation A," Douglas Coupland digs deeper into the "retribalizing" effects of electronic technologies.

4 min read

In an interview with CNET News sister site Silicon.com, Canadian author Douglas Coupland reveals his attitudes toward technology and its influence on his zeitgeist-defining books.

Douglas Coupland has been a keen observer of technology's impact on society for almost two decades. Through novels such as "Microserfs," which charts the progress of Microsoft employees during the mid-1990s, and "JPod," which tells a parallel tale of computer game developers in thrall to Google a decade later, he has consistently associated the development of technology with the progress of society.

1995's "Microserfs" paints a picture of people adjusting to the new technology-driven world, having seemingly desirable and well paid jobs at Microsoft but struggling to find anything meaningful in their lives.

"JPod," published in 2006, updates technology's story via a cast of characters working as developers for a computer game company. The developers are constantly asked to stifle their creativity by marketing staff, and exist in an increasingly digital world where people are becoming less able to focus on the task at hand.

Yet for an author of books in which technology regularly takes center stage, Coupland isn't particularly interested in it from a practical point of view. "I'm a so-so user of technology. Mac user since 1988. Hate phones. Kind of hate email. Use [TV service] TiVo, not real-time broadcasts. Nothing too unusual," he tells Silicon.com.

Coupland describes his attitude towards technology as "McLuhanesque" after Canadian thinker, Marshall McLuhan, who came up with the view that communication technology is merely an extension of the human senses, body and mind, rather than something separate.

It's a view Coupland demonstrates in his 1998 novel "Girlfriend in a Coma," in which one character tells a friend who has just emerged from a 17-year coma to the world of 1996: "It's not up for debate. We lost. Machines won."

Coupland says the very point of this line is to demonstrate that the idea is essentially wrong: the character in question, Hamilton, is what Coupland describes as a "very corrosive" individual who often makes bold claims to create a reaction rather than actually providing a real insight.

"How can technology only ever be anything except an extension of our own bodies?" Coupland asks. "To say the machines have won over people is like saying people won over people, because they're one and the same."

Nevertheless, in the decade between "Microserfs" and "JPod," a shift in the characters' relationship with technology is evident.

In "Microserfs," characters bond through their efforts to find a meaningful purpose in life beyond the realms of Microsoft, while the characters if "JPod" immerse themselves in their technology-focused jobs to escape the reality of their lives in which they struggle to communicate their feelings and deal with their pasts.

Coupland says the "JPod" gang are "one decade further down the line of electronic technology causing a retribalizing effect in Western man."

This "retribalizing" trend is another McLuhan concept that suggests as people gravitate towards new technologies--whether print in McLuhan's case, or today's modern equivalent, the Internet--the way they receive information becomes more homogenized, creating a situation in which people increasingly identify with each other and feel they are experiencing the same issues in their life.

Retribalizing with "Generation A"
It's a concept Coupland examines further in his latest novel, "Generation A." "It's an extension of what was explored in 'jPod,' an extrapolation into the future of what even more retribalizing electronic technologies will do to us," he said.

Coupland's own Web site says of "Generation A" that it "champions the act of reading and storytelling as one of the few defenses we still have against the constant bombardment of the senses in a digital world."

Asked if he views technology's effects on society and culture as positive or negative, Coupland tells Silicon.com: "It's neither. It's inevitable and unstoppable so the better question is how are we going to handle it--hide in a cave and bitch, or go out there and try to use it to make the world a better place? Sitting in a cave and bitching is neither noble nor romantic. It's ignorant and pointless."

And what of the latest round of Web 2.0 upstarts, Facebook, Twitter, et al.? Can they have an effect on society and morals? "You're trying to impose morals on something not on a moral scale. That's like getting mad at the weather. You're going to stop these things? Good luck. It's not about you. So instead of bitching we need to analyze impact and try and figure out what happens next."

The question of what's coming next is particularly pertinent for Web companies such as Twitter--after all, the faddish nature of Internet popularity has seen sites attract massive user numbers and VC interest for a number of years before once loyal users eventually begun to drift away to find the next big thing.

"Twitter's actually kind of fun, but it's a hula hoop, and who knows what'll kill it," Coupland said.

There's no doubt the technology moves on quickly--today's social networking must-join often ends up tomorrow's GeoCities. So, having written on a subject so fast-moving, how does Coupland feel his books will age?

"When they came out, some naysayers said they'd date. Wrong. They became time capsules. And if you look at any book that's still in print after 20 years, you'll see that they're also time capsules. It seems to be a prerequisite for endurance--the need to be very specifically rooted in a place and time."

Tim Ferguson of Silicon.com reported from London.