On-line obsessions at Microsoft


From The Houston Chronicle (August 6, 1995)

by Dwight Silverman

You can thank Douglas Coupland for the term ""Generation X" - his book by the same name slapped that moniker on the twentysomethings of the 1990s. There are probably thousands of people in this age group who, in turn, would like to slap Douglas Coupland. What a bummer of a label.

Now Coupland has turned his eye toward a tiny subset of Gen X the bright, young workers in the computer industry.

"Microserfs" is a novel that looks at a group of employees at Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant that has some component of its software on nearly every computer on the planet.

How big has Microsoft gotten? This big: It's started to attract the obsessions of the type of paranoids who used to think the FBI was controlling their thoughts via laser beams.

But the Microsoft in Microserfs is far more benevolent. It's just another big company with a culture that eats the energy of its young work force. The big goal at Microsoft, according to this book, is to hang on long enough to become vested in the company's stock plan and join the millionaire's club.

But the group of friends who make up Microserfs' universe decide to take a risk and join a tiny Silicon Valley company started by one of their former co- workers.

Thus, more than half the novel does not even take place at Microsoft.

The tale is told from the point of view of Dan, a programmer at Microsoft who wakes, eats, works and sleeps. Perhaps it's because he has no life that he spends a lot of time pondering the mundane mysteries of same. Dan's attempts at profundity are sometimes witty, sometimes irritating, and sometimes he hits a home run. But usually, while reading Microserfs, I kept hoping these people aren't really this shallow.

Are they?

The characters in Microserfs are interesting enough, if somewhat aimless. Among them is Karla, Dan's girlfriend, who practices shiatsu massage on her mate while waxing cosmic, usually finding some digital analogy to the human condition.

Ethan, the money man for the start-up, suffers from dandruff and later skin cancer, and lives for Prozac.

The most interesting, if somewhat maddening, characters are Todd, a body-obsessive muscle-builder, and his equally pumped significant other, Dusty. They change political philosophies as often as they change protein diets, and they're hilarious.

This is a very funny book. One segment toward the end, when the gang heads to the giant computer trade show Comdex to show off their new product, is wonderfully engaging. The friends end up at a party given by Sony, where all the women are overdressed and named Lisa. Each one becomes a ""Lisa-unit" to them. Coupland does a great job of capturing the lifestyle of the computer ""hacker" - here using the word in its original sense of someone who ""hacks" at a keyboard into the night, rather than as an on-line criminal. Software programmers are the artists of the digital age. What may look like algebra on steroids to you and me is actually a form of art. Good "code" is a thing of beauty, and rendering it is indeed a talent.

Anyone can write a computer program, but it takes a special kind of person to do it right. Computers consume their users; they are an addiction. Writing software is even more so, and the characters in Microserf live to do little else. They name their pet hamsters, for example, Look and Feel. It is pervasive.

But where Microserfs swerves off course is when Coupland tries to deliver depth, while at the same time implying that these people are not necessarily deep. It's a conflict he can't quite manage, and the result is that characters frequently appear to flounder. Is this intentional, or just the author losing control of his work? I can't tell - which may indeed be the point.