The geek shall inherit the earth


From The Vancouver Sun (June 24, 1995)

by John Moore

'Rants are the official communication mode of the '90s," the narrator of Doug Coupland's Microserfs observes in the laptop notebook computer diary, whose entries make up the book.

The diarist, ironically named Daniel Underwood (remember typewriters! Postmodern wink/nostalgic nudge/snicker), is a member of a Microsoft product development group, one of a legion of Gap-clad coder/programmer clones who toil in microserfdom on the campus of the most powerful monoculture in the world. It is a world where everyone appears to be a 31.2-year-old neo-nerd, where all is dominated by the omniscient, omnipresent, invisible "Bill."

When not coding or shipping product, the microserfs live in communal "geek houses" furnished with state-of-the-art electronics and retro toys (Nerf-guns, etc.), subsisting on obsessively categorized convenience foods. (One genius eats only flat foods: Kraft singles slices, pizza, Pop-Tarts and the like.) They communicate in rants, tirades which focus on the cultural meaning of Barbie, Lego, Star Trek and The Brady Bunch.

When Michael, the renegade flat-food genius, rebels against Bill and invites the group to join him in developing a three-dimensional computer-generated building program called Oop! (based on Lego, of course,) they all jump ship and exodus to Silicon Valley, each seizing the chance to "get a life" of his or her own.

Recruiting a few indigenous California nuts and flakes, including Daniel's parents (his 50ish Dad having been downsized out of IBM), they fall in love, pair up, form a software company and acquire new dietary obsessions, but they don't really "get lives." Instead of Life After God (Coupland's last book), this is Life After Bill, which, in the best existentialist tradition, consists of doing pretty much what you did before but talking about what it means a whole lot more. The faintly upbeat finale, which suggests this collection of dysfunctional dweebs constitutes a new kind of tribal family, a prototype of the carbon/silicon symbiotic Superhuman of the future, doesn't make it through the rinse cycle.

Though in recent interviews Coupland has displayed a touch of pique at the ad nauseam hoorah about Generation X, (his first best-seller), he's picking the same scab here, but this time he's drawing blood. These people are the losers of Gen X; the handsome varsity Brads and Lisas of their grad classes are working commission sales for Radio Shack, hawking products designed by the losers, the nerds, geeks and dweebs who simultaneously hit puberty and the personal computer revolution in the mid-'70s.

Despite its light, brand-name, offhand culture-crit tone, Microserfs has a very serious and scary subtext: the geeks will inherit the earth. They already have. Essentially infantile, apolitical and ahistorical, it is these people, with their generic Lenscrafter frames and weed-whacker haircuts, who are designing the shape of knowledge in the future.

(Don't laugh: people with bad haircuts and no fashion sense lived in monastic/tribal communes and produced the last quantum leap of human intelligence.)

Microserfs is a cautionary tale. The data, the reams of trivial traffic that clog the Information Superhighway (the I-way) at the moment, are irrelevant.

Coupland drops clues in the text, like Daniel's obsession with freeway design: it is not the designers of cars who determine the shape of a nation or continent, but the virtually anonymous designers of freeways. Not Lee "Mustang/Minivan" Iaccoca, but Mr. X of the Interstate Bureau of Cloverleaf Construction, is the secret genius who determines where cars will go and where cities will be built. Knowledge is power, but what is knowledge? Who defines it? Who decides whether an electronically generated virtual experience is as real as being branded on the forehead with a red hot iron? The microserfs of Coupland's electronic Renaissance, the midwives of a new carbon/silicon Entity, the Adams and Eves of the Geek Tribe, that's who.

Coupland proves Daniel Underwood wrong about one thing: rants are not the dominant mode of real communication in the '90s, any more than the Internet. That distinction still belongs to the novel