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book review

We’re getting dumber: Douglas CouplandJohn Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Never trust an author who tells you they're not trying to be cute.

Canadian author/artist/sage Douglas Coupland's latest semi-fictionalized-docu-essay… thing… sees him dealing with digital anxiety, wrapping ponderous observations inside an ostensibly reported essay. And is it ever cute, despite his protestations to the contrary. Coupland crams Kitten Clone with fictionalized interludes, second-person direct address, HTML tags to break up the text, footnotes – one of which leads nowhere at all (call it a malfunctioning hyperlink) – and flights of formatting fancy, like having densely technical paragraphs ramble on until they run off the page, or leaving a bunch of airy white space around the words "the cloud."

All this eagerly playful textuality is designed to give shape to Coupland's time immersed inside Alcatel-Lucent, a French-headquartered telecommunications conglomerate specializing in mobile and network hardware (so: cables and modems and routers and stuff). Coupland jets from Bell Labs in New Jersey to Paris, France to Kanata, Ontario to Shanghai, as he stalks the halls of Alcatel-Lucent (or "Alca-Loo"). It's a great subject, playing like variations on more common profiles of hot, hip app developers that you might read on Wired or Gizmodo.

Think of Alcatel-Lucent as an unsexy Google: no pods or open concept offices with cushy beanbag chairs. Just a bunch of wildly intelligent middle-aged engineers stalking mazes of faded beige carpet trying to figure out how to jam more data through a piece of glass fiber thinner than a strand of human hair. As Coupland puts it, the researchers and developers at Alca-Loo are "charged with creating an astonishing new future in a time-stand-still physical environment." (This abiding beige-ness is heightened by accompanying colour photos by Olivia Arthur.)

Coupland presses the issue of technological determinism (the idea that progress is an inevitability) and how, if progress exists on such a continuum of predictability, the future proves so difficult to predict. But mostly he fusses over modern hyper-connectivity, and how the researchers at Alca-Loo seem totally removed from the resulting products of their work. His pet image is that of a young kid streaming the Twilight films on her phone. Elsewhere, while touring China, Coupland offers a variation, broad-stroking the Internet's endgame as "a bold and bright place where even a rice farmer can sit in a remote mountain cave and watch Anne Hathaway in HD starring in The Devil Wears Prada."

Bracketing the question of what a rice farmer is doing in a cave, examples like this are totally overloaded, suggesting only what Coupland wants: that technology is accelerating in order to hasten our access to trifling, soul-polluting entertainments. But what if Coupland's rice farmer is tucked away in a cave mainlining YouTube videos about how to boost his paddies' yields? What about the kid gorging on Wikipedia while waiting for the bus? Or the guy listening to a podcast about the history of Mongol empire while pounding the StairMaster at the YMCA? What about the really malicious uses of global connectivity, like government agencies tracking a citizen's every keystroke?

Though he never lapses to full-on alarmism, Coupland's seemingly ascribes to the idea that technological innovation and cultural coarsening directly correlate; that we're all getting dumber and worse because it's never been easier to get dumber and worse. This strikes me as its own kind of fallacious determinism. And there are places where Coupland's interview subjects reject his fatalism. As a Chinese communist ideologue (yes, yes, consider the source… but still) puts it to him, "Broadband [Internet access] is a new form of infrastructure. Penetration creates much more social potential in all areas of society, and we believe the changes are more positive than negative."

Coupland is right that technological advancement deserves meditation on these positives and negatives, and that sometimes it seems like "this sort of reflection is nonexistent." This has been a truism of technological philosophy since McLuhan, and even since Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology (1954).

But isn't this book – or any piece of sci-fi doomsday prophecy about sentient computers enslaving mankind – precisely that sort of reflection? Coupland seems to believe that companies should be mulling over the far-reaching, abstracted end-results of their R&D, that they should retain an in-house media guru. But can he really believe that CEOs are debating the deeper ethics of their bottom line?

Save for one tossed off footnote scolding financial traders who exploit lags in cable speeds to their advantage, Coupland seems totally, even willfully, oblivious to idea that the motive forces propelling this technological acceleration don't care about the "societal fallout"; that capital is, and has always been, amoral. Blaming a hi-def stream of Twilight for the world's woes is mistaking the symptom for the disease.

When he gets to them, Coupland's conclusions feel more like premises: the Internet connects people! The Internet is good… but also, sometimes bad! We prefer faster Internet to slower Internet! That he arrives at these basic deductions while sipping literal scotch in a glass tower overlooking Shanghai is nothing short of infuriating; a caricature of a man out-of-touch.

It's also here – high above Shanghai, the greying guru perched on the precipice of the tomorrow – that Coupland sums up the looming digital future by revisiting a phrase that served as the title for a recent Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition dedicated to his work, "everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything."

It's this sort of totally meaningless statement that typifies Coupland's dusty media guru philosophy, reading like a Twitter spambot spitting out sub-McLuhanist pith. Coupland is a lively, sharp, and occasionally very funny writer. But this sort of techie-transcendentalist Zen koan stuff is embarrassingly Web 1.0, and accomplishes little beyond making him sound like an anxious, 19th-century Chicken Little who thinks electricity is some kind of sorcerer's trick.

Of course the possibility to return to more old-fangled technologies is still available, for now. Unlike Coupland, I doubt that – as he suggests in a concluding fictional passage – we'll ever forget how to pet a kitty cat and, when confronted with one in the faraway year of 2245, would set about eating one. You can still crack the spine on a hardcover book (tellingly, Kitten Clone is glossily packaged as very much a physical artifact), drop the needle on a thickly pressed LP, use your imagination to masturbate by candlelight, or sip real-deal non-replicated Laphroaig in a pillar of light shooting out from Shanghai.

These analog pleasures will exist as long as they're worth remembering, preserved not so much in conflict as an in convergence with who-knows-what-other Digital Age gratifications. Like, say, watching The Devil Wears Prada on an iPhone in a cave. Or anywhere. Or everywhere. Or wherever.

John Semley is a Toronto writer.

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