Bugged

Tom Vanderbilt

  • microserfs by Douglas Coupland
    Flamingo, 371 pp, £9.99, November 1995, ISBN 0 00 225311 9

‘You can leave Bill, but Bill never leaves you,’ one young Microsoft refugee in Douglas Coupland’s microserfs muses on hearing that the chairman has got married on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. It’s a believable sentiment, the lingering awe of an impressionable ex-employee towards his first real boss – and when your first boss is Bill Gates, personality cults die hard. Later in the novel, the narrator describes seeing the boyish billionaire’s face on video monitors at an electronics trade show: ‘and it was so odd, seeing all of these people, looking at Bill’s image, not listening to what he was saying but instead trying to figure out what was his ... secret.’

A similar fascination surged through the dissonant blare of America’s collective channel in what could be described as the Year of Bill Gates, or perhaps Year Zero of the Digital Revolution: 1995. The year was marked famously by the release of Windows 95, the largest bit of media marionetting since Apple ‘repurposed’ Orwell, but it also saw the upgrading of Gates’s increasingly inescapable public persona. From retiring computer geek (who turned his company into a market leader with the skill of the most venal corporate raider) to folksy patrician of next-century information capitalism, Gates has been talking to everyone, including David Letterman, about what the future – guided by Microsoft, its controlling partner – has in store.

With his transformation into a Third Wave Pollyanna, Chairman Bill is sounding remarkably like Speaker Newt, and his new book The Road Ahead has much in common with the Congressman from Georgia’s To Renew America. Both men believe in a utopian future built largely on technology in which the consumer is king and the infobahn is the road away from serfdom. In a recent interview Gates earnestly predicted that the virtual society would mend the rift between rich and poor nations. Students in India, he said, would have access to the same libraries as students anywhere else; this resonates with Gingrich, who speaks of Western doctors using technology to operate by remote control on patients in, coincidentally, India (the fierceness of Republican Medicare cuts leaves one asking how American citizens could afford such technology, much less the average Indian). In The Road Ahead, Gates describes how people might one day follow his lead and live in a ‘smart house’ like the one he is building outside Seattle: ‘If you’re planning to visit Hong Kong, you might ask the screen in your room to show you pictures of the city.’ There’s a faint echo here of a passage by Gingrich: ‘You wake up to a wall-size, high-definition television showing surf off Maui.’

Elsewhere, Gingrich celebrates the ‘Third Wave Information Age’, which will empower the human detritus of corporate restructuring, giving them the opportunity to work ‘outside corporate structures and hierarchies in the nooks and crannies that the Information Revolution creates’. Which brings us to Douglas Coupland’s novel. Centred on the lives of a group of ‘direct reports’, or ‘serfs’, at Microsoft, the book is an examination of a fabled corporate culture.

As such, its immediate historical precedent may be Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, a book with few literary merits which endures as a period piece from a time when ‘bright young men in gray flannel suits rushed around New York in a frantic parade to nowhere’. Wilson’s book, written in 1954, chronicles the nascent television industry. The book’s hero, Tom Rath, has returned from the war and is in the process of ‘heroically reconverting’ to civilian life as he soldiers through a drab and unsparingly depicted corporate landscape in order to provide honourably for wife and family.

Flash forward fifty years to microserfs, and the scene is Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington State, where the rolling expanses of lawn look like ‘green Lego pads’ and the halls are peopled not with clean-shaven men in crisp pinstripes but ungainly ‘nerds’ clad in Levi’s Dockers and ‘Tommy Hilfiger geekwear’. The flux, enthusiasm and paranoia of the first days of television have been replicated in the computer and multimedia industry; and at Microsoft, a 31.2-year-old orthodoxy prevails, with the rigidity of the Cultural Revolution, as employees speak fearfully about ‘Seven Year Programmer’s Burnout’. For the offspring of the last generation of ‘company men’, the workplace is clearly not their fathers’ corporate culture anymore. ‘It must have been so weird,’ Daniel Underwood, the novel’s narrator, says, ‘living the way my Dad did – thinking your company was going to take care of you for ever.’ Even Microsoft, the perennial upstart against the paleolithic IBM, has lost some of its lustre. Watching a group of employees in their early twenties playing frisbee on the campus, Underwood observes: ‘they’re also the first generation of Microsoft employees faced with reduced stock options and, for that matter, plateauing stock prices. I guess that makes them mere employees, just like at any other company.’

Underwood is a 26-year-old ‘bug checker’ who has worked his way up from the customer support ranks. Like his co-workers, he spends his days sifting through e-mail and watching Microsoft stock fluctuate, taking visceral dollops of pain or joy in calculating how much Gates has made or lost that day. Halfway through the novel, a friend offers Underwood (and his housemates) work in a Silicon Valley software start-up firm. His departure is hardly sentimental: ‘there’s something about a monolithic tech culture like Microsoft that makes humans seriously rethink fundamental aspects of the relationship between their brains and bodies – their souls and their ambitions: things and thoughts.’ The action shifts to the ‘bland anarchy’ of Silicon Valley, where the new company is located in the narrator’s parents’ house. Here, the young ex-company men are joined by Underwood’s father, a middle manager who has just been laid off by IBM. Released from the life-draining ‘Biosphere’ of Microsoft, the characters begin to acquire the trappings of what they call ‘a life’, by getting in touch with their bodies and feelings.

One wishes, however, that they had stayed in Washington. Despite his severe shortcomings as a novelist, Coupland is adept at a minute, catch-all style of reporting. While much is made of the casual style of companies like Microsoft, what comes through is a workforce as tied to the traditional corporate motive – profit – as the most stuffed-shirt, old school firm. ‘If putting a computer on every desktop and in every home didn’t make money,’ one character says, ‘we wouldn’t do it.’

Coupland is the sort of writer who is said to have his ‘finger on the pulse of popular culture’. Reading microserfs, one does not doubt this for a moment, but the suspicion develops that he is, in fact, incapable of removing it. The result is a flurry of arcane references from the deepest recesses of televisual memory that litter the narrative with off-putting frequency. (‘I sandpapered the roof of my mouth with three bowls of Cap’n Crunch – had raw gobbets of mouth-beef hanging onto my tongue all day. It hurt like crazy, and it made me talk with a Cindy Brady lisp until late afternoon.’) Only a jaded or archly High-Modernist soul would not share a certain primal delight in these childhood breakfast sensations and Brady Bunch trivia. But what is at first the flash of retro titillation soon becomes the flat drone of semiotic pornography. Pop culture references ranging from cult to universal – Rhoda Morganstern, Martha Stewart, Lego – are endlessly repeated, for lack of better metaphors. And often – ‘he sat in the backseat, rattling like a stack of Franklin Mint souvenir plates’ – they are wildly gratuitous. Any reader of an American popular magazine would recognise such plates from an advertisement, but do they really rattle differently from other plates, and would we be able to discern this sound?

Choking in this haze of brand names, Seventies nostalgia and hip one-upmanship, the characters in microserfs become cardboard cut-outs in a Potemkin village full of all the supposed ‘twentysomething’ attributes. Like a savvy marketing man Coupland is constantly seeking to reduce his hollow men and women to easily digestible (and sellable) commodities. The same was true of his earlier novel, Generation X, which quickly became a rallying cry for Madison Avenue and all others who prefer their target markets neatly wrapped. Coupland is the sort of author who is impudent enough to lay claim to a zeitgeist, then balk when the media pick up the trail (and help sell zeitgeist books), then laugh the whole thing off from his Irony Tower.

The life that microserfs posits is as iconic as the screens from which the computer coders work, which may be appropriate in the light of the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum’s model of the programmer as someone ‘convinced that life is nothing but a program running on an enormous computer, and that therefore every aspect of life can ultimately be explained in programming terms’. In his effort to fashion generational archetypes, Coupland puts his characters through so much posturing and reference-dropping that they, too, cease to seem human. They fret about companies merging and employees losing their identity; they worry about not having ‘the traditional identity-donating structures like other places in the world have’; they talk of how ‘we can edit ourselves as we go along, like an on-screen document.’ The computer buzzwords ring false after a while. It’s clever when we hear that a character has pet hamsters named ‘Look’ and ‘Feel’ (after the celebrated lawsuit between Apple and Microsoft over how the latter’s ‘look and feel’ compared to the former’s), but when they utter a stream of overdetermined techie babble like ‘I want a backup’, or ‘bodies are like diskettes with tags’, or the need to do ‘find-and-replace’ to try and ‘debug myself’, it all gets a bit predictable. A year or so ago, a computer program created a ‘novel’; it’s still humans, though, who must read them.

When the characters depart from their archetypal moorings, their expansion of consciousness seems patently contrived. A sudden physical exchange between two characters feels completely out of joint after a stream of heady talk about how the computer is making the body obsolete. Underwood is prone to statements like ‘beware of the corporate invasion of private memory’; another character lapses into Baudrillard-speak: ‘Given this new situation, the presumption of the existence of the notion of “history” becomes not necessarily dead but somewhat beside the point. Access to memory replaces historical knowledge as a way for our species to process its past.’ It’s not such a bad riff, and with some work it could find room in a novel by Kundera or a book programme on French state television. But here it shows an author clinging to some vestige of integrity as a cultural critic even as he exploits the zeitgeist he has so rigidly circumscribed.

In ten years, microserfs will seem antediluvian. The world it describes has already been superseded; multimedia and information industries in which hard-core, Coke-and-junk-food-fuelled insomniac bouts of technical programming have largely been replaced by friendlier mechanisms like ‘html’, that can be learnt in one day and used to create World Wide Web sites the next. The Altair 8800 and other archival monuments of early personal computer technology mentioned in the novel will soon be as obscure as Babbage’s engine. The author’s cherished references will wither as the sitcoms they refer to drop out of syndication and leave the vernacular. Which leaves us with a competent, timebound rendering of the fluid and memory-effacing computer industry, a vignette of company life as it shifts to a post-corporate age. But Coupland is no Balzac; he cannot depict the epochal sweep of industries and economics and social relations undergoing change. Instead, he doles out scads of trivia and passes off comically striking disjunctions as insight.

Like The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, which ended with a quotation from Browning about all being right on God’s green earth, microserfs closes on a happy note, with the narrator realising that his Organisation Man-angst has been liberated by working for his Silicon Valley start-up. The hero heroically reconverts not from military to civilian life but from stultifying corporate culture to entrepreneurial vitality. It’s no longer about work, the narrator says, it’s ‘about all of us staying together’. For all its critical posturing, microserfs in the end becomes a mawkish literary homage to the post-corporate opportunity society extolled by everyone from Gingrich to George Gilder and Tom Peters. It’s Horatio Alger in Silicon Valley: everyone lives and works together, in the best craft-guild tradition; Dad finds meaningful post-IBM work after being nudged gracefully into new technologies and the narrator’s mother, after suffering a stroke, is able to communicate with the family thanks – you guessed it – to a computer.

One might do well to change the channel for some reality-based programming. While the start-up firm of microserfs is heralded as the dynamic, driving force of the information economy, the actual influence of such ventures seems largely Pyrrhic. In The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin quotes the political economist Bennett Harrison’s assertion that ‘the proportion of Americans working for small companies and for individual establishments ... has barely changed at all since at least the early Sixties.’ Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans working for Fortune 500 corporations has dropped by nearly half since the Seventies, with job stability slipping as well. Rifkin notes that the 35 per cent gain in productivity during those decades was offset by a 15 per cent shrinkage in workforce, and suggests it is time to think again about what Keynes termed ‘technological unemployment’, in which the ‘discovery of means of economising the use of labour is outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour’.

While the information superhighway will create plenty of jobs for microserfs everywhere, it is hard to believe the numbers will match those displaced as everything from voice mail to virtual malls renders any number of clerks, secretaries and even middle managers redundant. Technological innovation is nothing new, but Rifkin makes the key point that where agricultural workers earlier this century could go into manufacturing as technology reduced the number of farm jobs, the new technological displacement is not offset by a significant sector into which the ‘downsized’ can go (except perhaps for the ‘contingent workforce’). And while Underwood’s father may be able to wedge himself into one of the ‘nooks and crannies that the Information Revolution creates’ (to return to Gingrich), Rifkin cites a US Labour Department finding that only 20 per cent of the participants in a federal programme to retrain laid-off employees were able to get jobs paying at least 80 per cent of their former salary.

But in microserfs, things are looking up. At one point, the narrator ogles the lifestyle of Silicon Valley coders who, rather than being homogeneous worker drones, have ‘a life’, in the form of ‘an exciting, value-added job that utilises your creativity, a wardrobe from Nordstrom’s or at the very least Banana Republic, a $400,000 house, a cool European or Japanese car, the perfect relationship with someone as ambitious, smart and well-dressed as yourself, and extra-money to throw parties so that the whole world can observe what a life you have, indeed’. The observation gives rise to a bit of class anxiety for those coders who, having not yet acquired such accoutrements, can still differentiate themselves from yuppies. Another object of class anxiety – the shrinking middle class and growing upper and underclasses – which is bound to be a hallmark of the digital revolution, lies outside this novel. The lives of Coupland’s microserfs, as they make the leap from geek to symbolic analyst in a single bound of pecuniary emulation, have little to say to the majority of information-age employees: from piece-workers in maquiladora-like microchip assembly plants in Silicon Valley to service industry employees in new digital frontiers like Omaha, Nebraska, through which the Information Highway now runs, bringing a version of the American Dream that does not offer stock options but wages that have scarcely improved since well before there was a personal computer on every desk. Somewhere, on the road ahead, it might be worth taking a look at what kind of ‘a life’ these people have.