Get a (digital) life..


From New Statesman & Society (November 10, 1995)

by Peter Jukes

MICROSERFS Douglas Coupland
HARPERCOLLINS, pounds 9.99

HODDER & STOUGHTON, pounds 17.99

The digital revolution has brought its prophets and mystics--the breathless theorising of Wired, or William Gibson's disembodied cyberspace--but what it has so far lacked is a sober, wry realism. It is as though the Late Gothic Age were to be remembered solely through Aquinas' theology or the visions of Dante, without a Chaucer or a Rabelais to chronicle the carnal irreverence of everyday life.

Douglas Coupland has taken us a step closer with his new book Microserfs- -perhaps the first great work of cyberrealism. Where others are obsessed by pixels and bits, Coupland's subject is the "biomass" squeezed between the silicon, the "carbon-based forms" that still sweat, flake away, love, grieve and fail.

The novel takes the form of a diary: a young Microsoft programmer called Daniel leaves Bill Gates' "campus" and moves to Silicon Valley to form a multimedia company with a group of friends. One might suspect- -from the author of Generation X--that this is just a case of trend- spotting, an attempt to keep his finger on the pulse. But Microserfs is a much more unlikely and impressive feat. It begins to do for the modern information worker what Gogol's Diary of a Madman did for the poor white-collar clerks of Tsarist Russia. This is the bizarre, compelling" Diary of a Geek".

The acuity of Coupland's insights can be checked against a journalistic account of the same subject. Frank Moody's I Sing the Body Electronic is the fruit of several years at Microsoft, following the designers and developers working on a children's encyclopedia--codenamed Sendak- -as a follow-up to the best-selling Encarta CD-ROM. The narrative follows the story of project management and mismanagement, vaulting ambitions and missed deadlines, It reveals the deliberate, pressurized "chaos" that has made Microsoft the most successful corporation of the past decade, and Bill Gates the richest man in the US.

Read in succession, real and fictitious people and incidents merge or overlap. Both books capture the strange disconnected hothouse of Microsoft's Redmond HQ, in which employees seem to spend their entire waking hours working, checking "Winquote" for the latest share price and awaiting the next "vesting party", when the lucky stock holders cash in and leave.

But money hardly seems to be their main motivation. By far the most vivid character in Moody's book--the programmer Kevin Gammill--is straight from the pages of Coupland, playing loud grunge music, living on a diet of adrenaline and as part time. He spends weeks locked in a dark room, looking for an errant bug some disaffected programmer has hidden in a piece of software--"Slayer sucks like a vacuum".

Though Gammill has earned enough in stock options to retire, this just seems to drive him to spend longer at his PC, engaged in some endless quest to translate himself into binary code, mortally afraid of becoming "nonlinear" or "random". Behind Gaminill floats the bespectacled prototype of Bill, the master Geek.

If Moody often reads like Fiction and Coupland like journalism, it is a tribute to both books. But while I Sing the Body Electronic is an essential guide for anyone interested in the new forms of production, Microserfs is indispensable to everyone involved in modern life.

The novel is more than just a study of geekonomics and geekology. The title refers to the more profound theme of how, at the micro level, we are all slaves to the information that bombards us: the codes, bugs and logic bombs that are soft-wired daily into our brains. Daniel proposes calling his start-up company "Interiority" and as the group sets about rendering the whole world in a kind of virtual Lego, the hero finds his unconscious filled with Ikea furniture, Gap clothes, snatches of Bewitched, Star Trek and Roadrunner cartoons. Coupland fleshes out the theory, first posited by Richard Dawkins, that cultural artefacts may use Our minds in the same way genes use our bodies. The book is a hymn to the "meme", the catch songs, TV programmes, brand names and slogans that colonise our inner lives.

This is not an entirely new thought, but no one has yet applied it with such rich amusing detail to the information revolution. And where as a cultural critic would probably dwell on the subject with Orwellian gloom, Coupland's is a wiser, saner view of a two-way process.

Whether it is a brilliantly dramatised "Venture Capital" meeting, or the story of two bodybuilders who become Marxists (for a month), or the executive who falls in love with a she entity of the Net, Coupland shows his characters absorbing and subverting the codes that try to swamp them. Often, he combines an essayist's flair for ideas with a dramatist's gift for people and situations.

Microserfs is a book of coding and forgetting, sustained by the deeper, more painful memories almost overwritten by the buzz and flux. For Daniel, this is primarily the memory of his younger brother, who died at the age of 12. The boy is only mentioned a couple of times in the diary, but his absence informs everything, right down to Daniel's secret password--Hello Jed.

If, as a character, code is the architecture of the 1990s, then Coupland shows it can be made into startling monuments, and sometimes moving cenotaphs. Obsessed by their obsession with work; his characters constantly wonder if they should "get a life". But they soon return from their forays into the real world, back to their computers, to transform themselves into digits that avoid decay and death. This symbiosis between Geek and Machine is not some new digital barbarism, but a version of the old transaction made by poets and scholars, between the life we can "get" now and the more prolonged versions in paint, stone or text.

Coupland only rams this theme home in the last section, when Daniel' s mother suffers a stroke and overcomes her aphasia by typing messages into a PC; this is a rare moment of awkwardness. On the whole, Microserfs is a tough and raucous celebration of our ability to reinvent and remember ourselves. And it paints a vivid picture of the new geek priesthood, sitting like monks in their VDU-lit cells, embellishing the margins with hieroglyphs, and keeping our culture alive.

Peter Jukes, who has written for TV, print and ratio, is now working in multimedia