...and geeks shall inherit the earth


From The Detroit News (June 6, 1995)

by David Jacobson

At one level, Microserfs, a new novel about a group of geeks grinding out computer code is simply and - especially when you consider the subject - amazingly, funny.

Author Douglas Coupland is probably best known for labeling the entire twentysomething age group via a previous work, Generation X. Here he tells his tale via the Powerbook diary of a Microsoft bug checker named Daniel Underwood, generating e-mail-sized chunks of whimsy by detailing the oddly disconnected lives of some utterly wired computer jocks.

It's all here: Their Star Trek and junk-food obsessions. Their prodigious work hours and "empty file" personal lives.

When Daniel and Karla find the time to fall in love - "She was like an episode of Star Trek made flesh" - their romantic interplay is spiced by discussions of whether the universe is essentially analog or digital.

Given their total immersion in the binary realm of machine language, it's not surprising that Microserfs' main characters see all of life as one big metaphor for computer coding: When you say "ummmm," it means your mental CPU is assembling data, spooling. A pregnancy yields version 2.0 jokes. A woman changing her style is "reformatting."

Their throwaway thoughts about software applications defining our identity are plenty fun. They consider what software dogs would write: BoneFinder. Or the French: "They'd invent a little icon for a headwaiter that, once clicked, made you wait 45 minutes for your file."

But ultimately this novel turns downright creepy when you begin to consider, as Coupland and his realistically rendered characters do, that such geeks shall inherit the earth.

(Beyond the fiction of Microserfs, one sees this coming true in recent media anointments: Bill Gates as "Master of the Universe" on the cover of Time; the staff of Wired, posed like one of those sexy-gang Calvin Klein ads, on the cover of the New York Times Sunday magazine.)

Sure, the novel includes a rant against the computer-driven sweatshop. As Daniel writes upon leaving Microsoft with his friends to create a Silicon Valley start-up named Oop!:

"I got to thinking of my cramped, love-starved, sensationless existence at Microsoft - and I got so pissed off . . . I want to forget the way my body was ignored, year in, year out, in the pursuit of code, in the pursuit of somebody else's abstraction."

But except for a love affair and an equity position, Daniel finds little different about his new job, toiling right through Christmas Eve in an office that's literally bounded by a gerbil run. On a visit to another high-tech company where most employees are putting in Sunday hours, he says, "it felt refreshingly like a normal workday."

These barren lifestyles of the fertile-minded Microserfs seem to cut through the hype about PCs and networks as a liberating force; they confirm all the neo-Luddite warnings about a 21st-century environment where we get sucked into computers' round-the-clock demands.

More than just being busy at their mouse pads and keyboards, the characters are out of touch with nature: Lurching into the sunlight to reset their circadian clocks. Undertaking physical exertion at the gym to download fat cells.

Rather than really recoiling, the Microserfs simply seem smug. Coupland's Daniel is forever citing the high IQs at work in the software industry, suggesting a la Charles (The Bell Curve) Murray that social Darwinism is at work and the smartest are succeeding in siliconland.

But if these people are so smart, how come they spend their spare time watching Melrose Place and playing video games?

Politics is considered a kind of neurosis, gumming up capitalist (and computing) efficiency. Fiction, art, even music rarely come up. (When the code- crunchers watch movies, they find them too slow. They fast-forward foreign films, speed-reading the subtitles.) Perhaps Coupland and Murray should co-write a book called Microsmarts about one-dimensional geniuses.

To be fair, Microserfs does illustrate the positive points about cyber-livin' : a great love affair blooms between two vastly distant and different characters over the Internet and e-mail becomes a vital, intimate lifeline for a friend of Daniel's left behind at Microsoft. And the book regularly raises profound questions about what a life of pure data manipulation means to the human soul and where we are going with this accretive yet-headlong rush toward a new intelligence, an entity that may be able to, somehow, think for itself.

"Maybe we like to believe that Bill (Gates) knows what the Entity will be," writes Daniel. "It makes us feel as though there's a moral force holding the reins of technological progress. Maybe he does know. But then maybe Bill simply provides a focus for the company when no other focus can be found."

Unlike the high-stakes gothic nihilism of cyberpunk, this novel approximates our modern moral blur, the collective shrug of people sliding down a blind chute marked progress. After considering the potential for machine consciousness or for virtual realities unconstrained by mortality, the characters retreat to an ironic distance, cracking wise: "Well, how about those Mariners!"

In one of the books' many minor asides, it's noted that Daniel literally buys into everything that's new, breathless at the thought of, say, Crystal Pepsi. The same could be said of the whole gang, and for the rest of society, being led by these code-smart Gen X blind.

At one point, a Microsoft coder suddenly blurts: "There has to be more to existence than this. 'Dominating as many broad areas of automated consumerism as possible' - that doesn't seem to cut it anymore."

He is instantly upbraided for a full page by another code jockey, who concludes, "we're all of us fabricators of the human dream's next REM cycle. We are building the center from which all else will be held. Don't question it."

In other words: Get with the programmers. Shut up and build the glorious future.

Throughout the book, it seems spirituality is kept at arm's length, as a kind of nonlinear distraction. So when a personal tragedy at the book's climax finally brings Daniel to his prayerful knees, it seems at once a brutal payback for his peer group's techno-hubris and an oddly programmatic response: As if God were the ultimate pull-down "help" menu, the icon to click on when life's hard drive crashes and you lose your computer-generated illusion of control