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The quietly powerful company Alcatel-Lucent, which makes much of the wiring that keeps the Internet alive, is the focus of Douglas Coupland’s 25th book. (Olivia Arthur/Penguin Random House)
The quietly powerful company Alcatel-Lucent, which makes much of the wiring that keeps the Internet alive, is the focus of Douglas Coupland’s 25th book. (Olivia Arthur/Penguin Random House)

Douglas Coupland ponders how the Web has rewired our brains Add to ...

Douglas Coupland has been writing about society and technology ever since Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture was published in 1991. His new book, Kitten Clone, is a non-fiction look at the inner workings of Alcatel-Lucent, an unheralded multinational company that holds many of the most significant patents in modern history (the transistor, microchips, optical fibres) and is one of the world’s main providers of the messy set of wires and computers that are the Internet. Mr. Coupland uses the book to meditate on the Internet as it “relentlessly colonizes the planet and our brains.” There’s a “new neural reality,” he writes. We spoke to him by phone from London.

You say right at the start of the book that you used to think the Internet was a metaphor for life, but now it’s the other way around – life is a metaphor for the Internet. What do you mean by that?

In the last few years I’ve been saying I miss my pre-Internet brain, and I think people know what I mean. And then lately I’ve been realizing I no longer even remember my pre-Internet brain. This technology has rewired my own brain, and I mean that in a genuine neurological sense, but it’s also rewired everyone else’s brain the same way. The Internet has an amazing capacity to homogenize thought, homogenize existence, in a way that is unparalleled in human history. That’s what I’m alluding to when I say that.

Someone tells you in the book, “The future is a machine that learns you.” What will that mean?

The future of data is machines talking to other machines, and those machines will be talking about you. Facebook has this project right now called DeepFace where every single photo that’s ever been put on Facebook is in their memory banks, and they’re putting in facial-recognition algorithms, programs, bots, what have you, to name and identity every single person that’s ever been on Facebook. To what end I’m not quite sure, but they will do it.

Then we enter the area of retroactive privacy invasion, where you have Google, who have been going into bookstores everywhere on Earth and saying, I’ll take the whole store, and shipping it to the Indian subcontinent where it’s all scanned into these very sophisticated scanners. And it’s not just books; it’s high-school yearbooks, it’s every old magazine, it’s all going in there. Your old Grade 9 high-school photograph is going to be searched and identified both by Google and by Facebook bots. They start working together. So it’s not just the present or the future. It’s the past that’s going to get eaten up by this, too. I find that spooky, but it’s going to happen.

What do you do with that?

I think people are still in denial, even in 2014 with all the crazy stuff we’ve seen in recent years, [and they believe] that it’s all going to magically go away. But it’s not going to go away – it’s just going to become more and more extreme. I’m here in this hotel in London, and if you go down to the lobby, there are maybe 45 or 50 people and every single one of them is on a device. Every single one of them. And there’s no noise except the music in the background. I don’t even know if you can pass judgment on that, if you can say it’s bad or good. It’s just the way things are happening.

You write that the sense of our lives as a narrative, as a series of stories, has been stripped away by the Internet; that we now see our lives a series of tasks. As a writer, you must be bummed – telling stories is what you do.

Well, life is all about emotion. It makes for a sense of escape to think that my life is what lives used to be back in the 1920s, thirties, forties, as if it were a grand narrative. But it’s not, and that’s not going to help you. We are emotional creatures. How are we restructuring now? Where is our intensity going? Where is our sense of politics and sex and need for profound religious experience – where is that all headed? If you follow those threads, you’re probably going to have much more happiness and much more success – rather than sitting around waiting for something that’s never going to come back. Nostalgia for the 20th century will get you nowhere. In fact, it will be a big millstone around your neck. You’ve just got to let it go.

You also wrote that walking without listening to music or texting or talking on the phone is now a “borderline political act.” Doesn’t that kind of make you feel good? I ride on the streetcar and proudly put my phone in my pocket and feel like a rebel for not staring at it.

[Laughs uproariously] Yeah, like you’re better than everyone. But you’re not, because you’ll be back on your device before you know it. What is sort of comforting about all this is the universality of it. It’s not something you or I are going through alone. Everybody is going through the same thing right now. I’m surprised we actually don’t talk about it more, given just what a profound change it is in the human experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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