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.

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