Geek Culture


From The Seattle Times (June 25, 1995)

by Elizabeth Aoki

A long time ago when I was in a faraway galaxy - Florida, to be exact - I interviewed Douglas Coupland, author of the trendy novel "Generation X," and we swapped stories about our computer hardware. He had something like a Macintosh SE, while I was dinking away on my little Mac Plus.

At that point in cyberhistory, the information superhighway was only the information footpath, and Coupland's most exciting toy was his FAX modem, which he gleefully used to send mail cross-town from his home in Vancouver, B.C.

Times and technology have changed, though Coupland's role as ironic commentator for the twentysomething generation has not. In his latest novel, "Microserfs," Coupland takes on the techie side of Generation X and the societal aspects of cyberculture - beginning with a dead-on rendering of the Microsoft campus, followed by the flight of his protagonists to Silicon Valley and San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch, as well as - uurrrrp! - a computer-industry convention in Las Vegas.

The premise is simple. His young protagonists, weary of using their brains for Bill Gates, decide to leave Microsoft and start up their own software company, tellingly named Interiority. On the way to commercial solvency, they comment with biting humor about the world inside and outside computers. They also find their true calling. They even find true love.

As usual, Coupland paints a convincing collage of pop icons and clever phrases (Fabio, Riot Nrrrd, John Wayne Bobbitt, Western Washington's new area code, and "emoticons," those little smiley-face icons you see in e-mail exchanges). Daniel, a 26-year-old software tester at Microsoft, narrates the book through laptop-computer diary entries, which include random words and phrases he is trying to insert in the machine's subconscious. This device allows Coupland to continue the witty text-bites that enlivened "Generation X," while also permitting e-mail directed to Daniel.

But get to the point, girl, you say. Does Coupland deliver the goods? Does he really penetrate the geek psyche? Just because he mentions Nerf guns and Bill Gates and the stock climb at 3DO, does that make him a cyberspace insider?

Too much nerdiness

Well, the first thing I noticed about "Microserfs" was that even though Coupland claims to use the word "cyber" only once, he uses "nerd" and "geek" too often to be credible. Yes, hacker culture is somewhat introverted, but such terms become background noise after a while, particularly if you are a geek or a nerd. Coupland is attempting a funny and thoughtful look at the way machines mutate and mediate social structures - but Daniel doesn't need to be half so self-conscious about it. Nerds take nerddom in stride by the time they're past college age.

More problematic is that by emphasizing the emotional na&iumlaut‹veté of his characters, Coupland undermines his novel's dramatic underpinnings. Daniel has never yet known true love, but by the end of the first chapter, he has found it almost immediately in another Microsoft employee. Daniel and Karla don't have any major relationship problems either, despite their inexperience and mutual family problems. Is this fantasy or what?

Benign revelations abound, only to be resolved before they can sprout horns. We discover that Michael, the leader of the startup company, has been conversing for a year via e-mail with a hot programmer entity named Barcode. Amazing, isn't it, that even though Michael declares he doesn't care what Barcode is, Barcode turns out to be 1) a female who digs men, and 2) a female who digs Michael, even though he is pasty, plump and mostly eats food that can be slid under his door (Pop-Tarts, Velveeta slices, etc.).

Quick and tidy solutions I'm hardly one to knock a true meeting of the minds on the Internet or elsewhere, but the instant-gratification index of "Microserfs" rivals the postings on net newsgroups. When one of the merry troupe realizes he's gay, he blurts it out and immediately finds a happy relationship. One waits for another ex-Microsoft employee to discover a hidden ethnic heritage and come to quick, resoundingly happy terms with it.

Because I have sworn never to reveal endings, I won't discuss the grand finale, in which Coupland tackles the issue of computer assistance for people with physical disabilities. But it's a groaner, too neatly resolved to take in the complexity of that thorny issue.

Coupland's many convenient cop-outs - such as when Daniel is too sick with flu to be fully engaged in an emotional discussion with his dad - took me by surprise. The "voice of a generation" hype that surrounds "Microserfs" and previous Coupland books such as "Shampoo Planet" and "Generation X" - hype that Coupland plays to - is a marketing smokescreen for a fresh writing voice with a proven ability to write scenes of great poignancy. Douglas Coupland is a writer of imagination and a master of ironic juxtaposition.

But, distracted by high-tech toys, jargon and wit, Coupland hasn't been able to reprogram the narrative weaknesses of "Microserfs." They are weaknesses made all the more striking by his rare ability to pinpoint the quirky attitudes of his own generation.