A little way into Douglas Coupland’s 1995 Silicon Valley novel, his protagonist Dan Underwood theorises that ‘what if machines do have a subconscious of their own? What if machines right now are like human babies, which have brains but no way of expressing themselves except screaming (crashing)? What would a machine’s subconscious look like? How does it feed off what we give it? If machines could talk to us, what would they say?’ To develop this Dan begins to write random thoughts and phrases into his journal each day, which he saves in a subfile named ‘Subconscious’. The results are scattershot but can be interesting, profound, and sometimes unbearably moving.
Coupland’s image is apposite. 1995 was the infantile stage of an interactive technology that would accelerate almost beyond understanding in the twenty-first century. Like the best novels, Microserfs is dated and like the best writers, Coupland knows it. The narrative abounds with references to now obsolete systems and process, that seem bewildering in retrospect. His characters applaud the latest plodding IT discovery with an enthusiasm that seems laughable from a modern standpoint. There’s a moment where Dan, with a condescending pity, reflects that for people of his mother’s generation Pong was their only video game experience. Readers his age today might feel the same for Dan and his 1990s geek friends. Wow, they didn’t even have Facebook back then?
Microserfs is a story of personal liberation. Dan lives in a geek houseshare in a dreary Washington byblow. He works at Microsoft, so does everyone he knows. Life revolves around work. ‘My life is lived day to day,’ Dan tells us, ‘one line of bug-free code at a time.’ The housemates worship Bill Gates and have thrown themselves into their jobs. While there is camaraderie and pride in achievement (Dan’s housemate Susan throws a party when her stock matures, and Dan displays his Ship-It trophy – EVERY TIME A PRODUCT SHIPS, IT TAKES US CLOSER TO THE VISION – with obvious pride) the work-life balance is seriously skewed, to the detriment of other important things. As Dan says: ‘You wake up one day and you’re thirty and you haven’t had sex for eight years.’ And: ‘I know a few Microsoft employees who try to fake having a life – many a Redmond garage contains a never-used kayak collecting dust. You ask these people what they do in their spare time and they say ‘Uhhh – kayaking. That’s right. I kayak in my spare time.’ You can tell they’re faking it.’
Escape comes early on when one housemate, the eccentric loner Michael, proposes that they leave Microsoft and create a start up in Silicon Valley, based on his idea for a sticklebrick-centred video game called ‘Oop’. All but one take the risk and hightail it to Palo Alto. During the course of the story, Coupland resolves each housemates’ neuroses, one by one: he’s like Dickens in his generosity, patiently leading every one of his dysfunctional and unhappy characters to a happy ending. For Dan, it’s his relationship with Karla that saves him and that provides some of the most affecting scenes in the novel. A common critique of Coupland is that his characters are interchangeable – they are identified mainly by cultural reference points and come off in the reader’s imagination like hipster Lego men – but he can write happiness, and he can also do engaging dialogue between loving couples, which is a hard thing to pull off.
Coupland isn’t immune to the wide-eyed, slack-jawed futurism common to tech culture. When Dan’s mother has a stroke, she learns to communicate through a hooked-up PC; her first words on the screen reduce his father to tears. Michael, who’s been alone throughout the story, meets the love of his life through a chatroom. When the woman, Amy, finally insists on meeting, the shy Michael has Dan meet her at the airport. Dan shows Amy a group shot and asks her to guess which one is Michael. She identifies him without prompting.
The poignancy of these scenes makes the naivety less apparent. Coupland has some hilarious riffs when a character converts to Marxism-Leninism (‘But Todd – the Wall came down in 1989.’ ‘That doesn’t matter’) but then a few pages later he has Michael say that humanity is now at the stage where ‘the amount of memory that exists in books and databases (to name but a few sources) now exceeds the amount of memory contained within our collective biological bodies.’ He goes on to say that: ‘Memory has replaced history – and this is not bad news. On the contrary, it’s excellent news because we’re no longer doomed to repeat our mistakes; we can edit ourselves as we go along’. Fascinating stuff, and hopeful: I agree that ‘the prospect of cyclical wars and dark ages and golden ages has never really appealed to me.’ Still… the end of history. Haven’t we heard that song before?
Microserfs is about people in their mid twenties to early thirties and the book has that happy messy feel of living in a houseshare with a group of friends and few responsibilities. Coupland’s Palo Alto is a fun creative hinterland where no one takes anything too seriously, and there’s little foreboding of tech culture’s dark side which would become all too apparent in the 2010s. Oh, Coupland points to tech’s skewed gender ratio which leads to some sleazy moments at industry parties. (‘It’s a very homogenous environment,’ software engineer Victor Hernandez told the Observer’s Rory Carroll. ‘No one is macho, but they can be sexist.’ Dan’s housemate Susan responds to this male dominated business culture with a lively feminist coding group called ‘Chyx’). And there is a revealing scene where Dan’s mother asks the housemates to explain the difference between the terms ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’. After some rumination, the housemates say that nerd just sounds like some everyday oddball, whereas geek implies power.
Transport Coupland’s good-hearted characters to the San Francisco of 2013 and they would find it unrecognisable, and not in a good way. There have been two excellent in depth reports on the city recently, from George Packer in the NYT, and the Observer’s Rory Carroll. They paint a grim picture of a divided city where Microsoft and Apple execs are chauffeured to luxurious tech compounds in fleets of immaculate white buses, while ordinary San Franciscans struggle with rocketing rents, pothole-pitted roads and overcrowded public schools. From Packer’s piece:
San Francisco is becoming a city without a middle class. Pockets of intense poverty, in districts like the Fillmore and the Tenderloin, are increasingly isolated within the general rise of exorbitantly priced housing. The black population has dwindled from more than ten per cent of the electorate, in 1970, to less than four per cent today—that’s not enough people to fill the forty thousand seats at A.T.&T. Park, where the Giants play. The number of Latinos is increasing much more slowly than elsewhere in California. Rent control and other features of the city’s traditional liberalism still hold in check a mass exodus of all San Franciscans who don’t work in tech, but it’s common to hear stories of working families pushed south, into Bayview or Daly City, or across the bridge, into the East Bay.
When Twitter threatened to relocate from San Francisco in 2011, politicians across the spectrum threw themselves around the company’s ankles and offered a multitude of tax breaks. But a city dependent on a single industry can find itself held to ransom. Victor Hernandez commented on the widespread disconnect of tech professionals to the city that serves them: his friends ‘would grumble about the state of roads and schools but make no link to the low taxes paid by major tech companies.’ To Carroll, IT professionals in their Wi-Fi play complexes seemed completely detached from the city. Meanwhile the major players indulge in ostentatious displays of wealth and power that would make Asma al-Assad shake her head sadly. Carroll: ‘Facebook billionaire Sean Parker is preparing a reported $10m Game of Thrones-themed wedding, replete with fake ruins and waterfalls.’
Tech culture has also given us the NSA/Prism revelations, the Foxconn Appleserf sweatshop scandal, the Google China firewall, the swaggering paranoia of Julian Assange, and countless online forums that have become dominated by hate merchants and conspiracy theorists. It turns out that the revenge of the nerds is not sweet for long. I’m not expecting the 1995 version of Douglas Coupland to have seen all this coming in his MacBook 1.0. But tools can be swung both ways.
That there is an iron separation between the digital world and life itself is a fallacy of our age and Coupland was one of the first to recognise it. In their questing youth his characters explores the ways that computers and technology can complement our natural existence. As Dan says in the book: ‘Sometimes we all forget that the world itself is paradise, and there has been much of late to encourage that amnesia’. Optimism and curiosity in the face of a world filled with suffering is Coupland’s great strength. It’s what makes this novel a contemporary classic as well as a fine portrait of a time almost new.