From Gen X to Microsoft


From The San Diego Union-Tribune (June 6, 1995)

by P.J. Huffstutter

Twentysomething trend-setter. Slacker spokesman. Generation-X guru.

For a man whose name has become synonymous with the Gen-X hype, the Internet offers Coupland a chance to break with the past and construct his own identity.

"I think when people invent their Net log names, they reveal more about themselves than their given names ever reveal," Coupland writes in his latest book, "Microserfs."

Coupland's on-line moniker? TrixRabbit.

It's a fitting tag for an admitted pop culture aficionado who, in his latest work, has left the confines of youth culture to explore life within the monoculture of Microsoft.

"Microserfs," the 33-year-old author's fourth book since his seminal 1991 "Generation X," follows a group of young Microsoft program testers who break from the establishment in an attempt to "get a life." Daniel Underwood and his young friends struggle to find a balance between the hard drive and a sometimes harder reality.

But Coupland_who will be signing copies of "Microserfs" at 6 p.m. tomorrow in the bookstore at the University of California San Diego_won't actually talk about his work.

"I once did an interview in Ireland where, after two hours of what I thought was (a) good talk, the interviewer simply invented an entire interview with me," wrote Coupland by electronic mail. "That was the last live' interview I ever did."

So, for nearly three weeks, Coupland and I sat down at odd hours of the night and chatted by e-mail.

He posted his letters from a room "made of wood, with windows overlooking a bamboo grove and a creek (and) 1,000-year-old cedars" in Vancouver, B.C. He told me how he would give anything to do a decent job singing "Hello In There" by John Prine; and how someone had uploaded a sound file of his laugh "it's so extreme" onto the Internet. Somewhere in between, we managed to touch on topics ranging from Bill Gates to whether it is more hip to be called a nerd or a geek.

Union-Tribune: In "Microserfs," I think you've tapped into a cultural and sociological shift_that Bill Gates is everywhere, that time has become the most important currency in a capitalistic society, that PCs can achieve consciousness and that there is a slew of young people linked to the computer industry that are leaving the stability of the big companies for the potential of start-ups.

Coupland: There was no conscious "binding" process going on with Serfs. Suddenly, all the people I went to art school with turned into "geeks." Vancouver has the world's only almost 100 percent post-industrial economy. Our economy is based almost entirely on movies of the week, Aaron Spelling, Sega, Nintendo, immigration loopholes, tax dodges and real estate. Art suddenly went from being a one-way ticket to hell into being a one-way ticket to "content creation" and wealth. All of these painters and sculptors I've known for a decade started getting their paychecks from Tokyo and Cupertino. It was unexpected; alluring; fascinating. I always follow my fascinations.

U-T: In the book, you write: "We may not achieve transcendence through computation, but we *will* keep ourselves out of the gutter with them." Later, you point out that it is the children of the middle class who are flocking to this industry and it is they who are pushing its boundaries. Do you think, then, that the middle class will become the ruling class?

Coupland: Nobody could be more middle class than me, but I have this hunch that the middle classes are only an historically transitory tribe, vital for the creation of certain technologies, and once they have completed their task, they will vanish. This is not something I want, but it seems as though it may be true.

U-T: If their task is to advance our species to a technological Renaissance, then will they merge with the kings or the serfs? A tribe doesn't just vanish it mutates into something new.

Coupland: True. It might also simply . . . vanish. Like those South American Indian tribes. One day they simply . . . evaporated.

U-T: What prevents humans from achieving "transcendence" through computers?

Coupland: Nothing. We may do it shortly. That, probably, is the fascination of so many techies with the film "2001"_it presages the imminence of technological transcendence.

U-T: Is the person working on the computer actually the one who is evolving, who is transposing their own subconscious needs and desires into the computer and growing as a result?

Coupland: Absolutely. I've always been fascinated by ventriloquists_ invariably these colossally nerdy introverts who, once you hand them a wooden spokespuppet, go berserk. PCs are, in a way, like a billion wooden spokespuppets handed to a billion previous mutes.

U-T: If oral communication is being augmented by a digital dialect, then what are these mutes trying to say?

Coupland: Things that would otherwise not be expressed. This makes me happy to think, for example, that love that may go unspoken will be spoken.

U-T: If you take it a step farther, wouldn't programmers become the next generation of storytellers?

Coupland: Maybe not. They only invent the alphabet.

U-T: The concept of a nerd vs. a dweeb vs. a geek. You point out that there is a distinct difference between the three tags, though I've noticed that some people feel it's cool to be a geek, while others prefer nerd. Why do you think people are taking pride in terms they shunned only a decade ago?

Coupland: Taxonomy and identity: Dweebs are un-techie, may or may not be poor/rich. Nerds are techie but poor Geeks are techie but rich is but the most recent and most powerful inflection of individuality occurring in North American culture. Suddenly the mute speak. Suddenly introversion means reflection, work and thought instead of psychotic "unperkiness."

U-T: What the does the code on pages 104 and 105 mean?

Coupland: Top secret, but it means SOMETHING (taunt taunt)

U-T: Is it ASCII?

Coupland: Yup. Binary. It was hell converting from hexadecimal

U-T: How did you research this book? And for how long? I remember reading somewhere that you live in Vancouver. So Seattle and Redmond aren't too far away.

Coupland: I spent six weeks doing "Gorillas in The Mist" living in and among techies in Redmond and Bellevue, Washington, plus four months in Palo Alto doing the same thing with start-up types. They've all, actually, become my best friends now. Another reason for the Microsoft/tech fascination was the fact of geographical proximity. Bill Gates is only 5 years older than me, and we grew up in more or less identical middle/upper-middle-class psychic ecologies (as did pretty well everybody in this part of the world). So I wanted to witness and join what was the most powerful expression of what this sort of upbringing makes manifest in the world.

U-T: Have you had any feedback about "Serfs" from people who work at Microsoft? A friend of mine is a tester over there. I remember her telling me about the "Microserfs" excerpt that ran in Wired magazine last year.

Coupland: I get top marks for accuracy. A few uber-geeks crabbed out about a technical detail here or there_some details intentional, some not (for example, there IS no Building Seven . . . I thought it would be amusing to invent No. 7. A forest stands where Seven was supposed to be.) I got a highway wrong in the Wired version (now corrected) but on more important levels, people involved in both tech megacultures and start-up cultures have been happily concurring about accuracy of life as it is depicted.

U-T: Throughout the book, the characters sport business cards with weird titles, and talk about the ability to rename themselves when they pick an e-mail name. Why are people so caught up with altering their identity? It seems odd that a group of people who are, in effect, revolutionizing our culture remain trapped in the concept that they are defined by their job.

Coupland: I don't know if you come from a large family, but if you do, then you'll know that if there's four kids (my family) you invariably end up with four tetrametrically opposite personalities, all bearing the same surname. So traditional naming codes are only that_traditional.

I think the whole notion of "identity" is undergoing a profound meltdown right now. Most extreme 20th century avant-garde' concepts have played themselves out, and in order for the spirit of newness to propagate, it must enter realms that are possibly frightening, and that speak of hard work, and of mystical rewards. Thus . . . technology. Most people are as spooked about the world of Microsoft as they were of Picasso circa 1920. So I guess Microsoft really is the new avant-garde.

U-T: Then do you consider Bill Gates an artist?

Coupland: He's definitely an artist. He takes bits and pieces from here and there, and converts them into entities that compel and make you see the world in a new way.

U-T: Why are so many people threatened by him, anyway?

Coupland: I think those within Microsoft are intrigued by him. They have an insatiable need to know more about him.

U-T: Why? Because of his technical knowledge? His financial success?

Coupland: His money. His success. His drivenness. His seeming lack of stress. His *aura.*

U-T: I wonder if mainstream America will eventually become more enthralled with Bill Gates or the sociological icon that he represents than those within the technological industry.

Coupland: Both. Bill's a new archetype and this is a rare thing.

Coupland: It's 10:50 as I write this letter. My living room looks and smells like the back room at Kinko's, and my left hand feels like a moldy pork chop after signing prints all day for the big art giveaway at all the readings. Eight prints with an edition of 1,000 each on the theme of the "History of Computing": Steve Jobs Wozniak, Bill Gates II, Altair 8800 punch cards, Everybody at every reading gets one print (while supplies last).

U-T: Sorry to hear about the hand. Would you like some applesauce with that? The prints sound cool, though it'd be tough to choose between Apple II and Steve Jobs. Which one do you like out of the series?

Coupland: The HP-35 calculator is my fave. I had four identical T-shirts made from it at Kinko's. That's where modern people buy their clothes.

U-T: In "Microserfs," you wrote: "Do we pray to machines or through them? How do we use machines to achieve our deepest needs?" How do you use machines to achieve your deepest needs? And have you thought about writing code?

Coupland: I used to write code back in high school when I was a physics geek (British Columbia Physics Olympics, 1978), and I hated it because it's too linear. Punchline: I now write books which are essentially thousands of lines of code strung together. But as for how I use machines, all I'll say is that I sometimes wonder what I'd be like as a person if I was born in, say, 1361 instead of 1961. What sort of personality would I have if I hadn't grown up supersaturated in media and information? Actually, now that I think of it, the word "personality" is probably only 100-or-so years old. So that tells us something in itself.

U-T: In "Microserfs," your characters are always searching for enough time to "have a life." But what really defines having a life?

Coupland: . . . Perception of "individuality." . . . Perception of relation of internal thinking systems to meat carrying device (body). . . . Ratio of relationship time to time spent receiving information. . . . Many other things. I don't get the feeling that you see people in start-up companies adhering to the old adage of work equals life. But that's actually the mentality that exists at Microsoft and, to some extent, the work ethic portrayed in Dan and his friends' start-up company.

So where's the balance?

Coupland: We're locating it now as a society, and this is what the book's about.

U-T: Do you have a life? issue over time reminds me of an argument I was having with my friend Tom. We debated about whether people will use technology wisely, or if we'll corrupt it into some bad television experience that numbs the mind like an endless loop of "Silk Stalkings" repeats.

Coupland: Tonight I was trying to convert some IBM files into Mac at a friend's company office, and we had a similar (*insert eerie music*) discussion. My friend said that human beings secretly hope that we'll invent a machine that will allow us to do cool things without either hard work and/or talent. But I don't think this can ever happen. Machines are only an extension of our animal essence, and only ever can be: Nothing more or less.

If you give a box of 96 gee-whiz all-color pastels (you remember the boxes) to 1,000 people, only one person will create art, maybe 30 will create something cool, and everyone else will either do scribbles or put things away and go watch "Silk Stalkings" on VHS dub.

Coupland: My Mac Centris 610 died this morning (proton decay?) The hard drive just . . . *died* on me . . . system folder corruption and God-knows-what from all this e-mailing I've been doing. My SAM virus checker was going koo koo, so *something's* up. I'm slumming it on the PowerBook 180. It feels like camping. Question for you: Can techie-illiterate people still get into the book?

U-T: Yes, to a certain degree. But understanding tech is an asset if you're going to sit down with "Microserfs." Otherwise, you're going to lose a lot of the cultural references. People will look at the coding on pages 104-105 and just think it is part of the stream-of-consciousness bits that are interspersed throughout the book.

Coupland: Oh well. I still like it. criticism of "Microserfs" is that you are at your techiest at the beginning. And because of that, I think you're going to lose most of the older, non-tech crowd.

Coupland: If that happens, it happens. If you write for an audience, you're doomed. A book has to be what it will be.

U-T: Still, the book's not aimed at those readers. You picked a topic and created characters that are going to interest a more youthful audience. A high school kid in Iowa is going to get "Serfs." A grandma in Iowa is not. And you're not John Grisham. "Microserfs" doesn't have people shooting at one another, or huge conspiracies involving high-ranking government officials. And I just don't see any roles for Julia Roberts. Sandra Bullock, maybe. But not Julia.

Coupland: I was thinking of a Sally Struthers comeback vehicle. Question: Is Quentin Tarantino hip enough to make Sally Struthers hip?

U-T: He can make anyone hip. Even me. Just think_Sally as (body builder "Microserfs" character) Dusty. It could happen.

Coupland: Sally Struthers: The new Travolta.