Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Douglas Coupland - the art of communication

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Gen X author is now investigating the way the world is wired, writes Chris Barton.

Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland. Photo / Supplied
Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland. Photo / Supplied

Douglas Coupland went back to making things - physical objects - in 2000 because he felt his brain was changing. He really felt that.

"Yeah I still do," says the Canadian author, on the phone in the hotel room he's about to check out of somewhere in Auckland. I wanted to meet the man best known for branding a generation face to face. He didn't. I wanted to discuss his extraordinary life since he burst onto the world stage with his seminal Generation X in 1991. But Douglas Coupland didn't. You can understand why.

He's no doubt sick to death of being always referred back to the zeitgeist defining book he wrote more than two decades ago and of being asked about McJobs, Boomer Envy, Bambification, Emotional Ketchup Burst and other such prescient Couplandisms. His creation of these terms made him a reluctant spokesperson - don't call him a cheerleader - for his generation.

Being Douglas Coupland can't be easy. So we talked about the weather.

"The weather here yesterday was insane. Is that normal?" He's referring to Sunday's blustery blast. "The room I'm in is literally on top of the water and it was like being in the middle of the storm. I sat here working all day it was beautiful. It was wonderful and wild."

It's his first time here although one of his characters, Samantha, in his 2009 novel Generation A was stung by a bee in Palmerston North. Was there a reason for that?" "It's the exact polar opposite of Madrid, Spain - the antipode." When Samantha is stung, she is creating an Earth Sandwich - a reference to the 2006 challenge created by internet performance artist Ze Frank, requiring two people place slices of bread on opposite sides of the planet using GPS coordinates. Such things matter. Talking about home in Vancouver, which he sees as "basically Auckland on the side of North America", he wants to know Auckland's antipode. I find out later it's Seville.

Generation A takes place in a near future "real-time 24-7 marinade of electronic information" in which bees have become extinct. Have environmental issues become a new focus of his work? "On a per capita global basis, 2012 is still the best place we've ever been as a species on the planet," he replies, then pauses putting his changing brain to work. "Hmm. The thing I like about conversations like this is it really calls me on my shit. I would actually say yeah, I am becoming much more environmentally concerned than I maybe used to be. Didn't see that one coming."

A long list is necessary to describe Douglas Coupland. In addition to Generation X and Generation A, he's written 12 other novels (including Microserfs, Jpod, All Families are Psychotic and Miss Wyoming), plus a collection of stories (Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People), and eight books of nonfiction, (including a biography of Marshall McLuhan, and City of Glass, a Vancouver travel guide). He's also a screenwriter (JPod the TV series and the movie Everything's Gone Green), a sculptor (including "Monument to the War of 1812" in Toronto and the Canadian Firefighters Memorial in Ottawa). Then there are his clothing and furniture designs (including a line for Canadian clothing retailer Roots) plus his art (his "Welcome to the Twenty-First Century" exhibition recently showed at Toronto's Daniel Faria Gallery).

Despite his success as a novelist, Coupland sees himself as an artist who writes. His training is in graphic art and design, first in Vancouver, then Italy and later Japan. His doctor, also a psychiatrist, says he has visual/verbal synesthesia meaning words and images are the same thing in his head. "A synesthesia diagnosis means that I don't have to pretend that making something out of wood and writing a paragraph are different activities anymore," he has said.

"He conceptualises ideas as visual-spatial-logical relationships, diagrams and graphs. The trashy references he fills his work with are like scraps torn from magazines, the rough white paper edges proudly out on show," said Jenny Turner, reviewing Miss Wyoming in June 2000.

That was the year, after almost a decade of putting his art to one side, that Coupland realised something was missing in his brain. "I was an early adopter of the internet. My brain was changing," he says. "I could feel it in the way of: 'Oh, OK something is going on up there.' And I realised if I was hit by a bus tomorrow I wanted to have felt like I was using all of my brain, not just part of it." In typical Coupland style he's visualised the problem - inside a gold family photo frame with the words (in gold capital letters) "I miss my pre-internet brain".

Is he talking about the Nicholas Carr point of view first expressed in a July, 2008, Atlantic Magazine article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

"I don't think it makes you stupid I think it enables curiosity," he says. "I've structured my life so that if I get curious about something I'm able to investigate it and usually I find other things emerge."

This is why he is here - a series of coincidences hyperlinking together. They begin with writer and philosopher Alain de Botton and his A Week at the Airport - a diary account of Heathrow airport when de Botton was given unprecedented access as writer in residence. "It was such a good experience for him, he had myself and four other writers each take an organisation or structure which we investigate. It then becomes a jumping off contemplations and aphoristic thinking and that sort of thing."

Coupland was looking for a company that "dealt with the wiring of the world" and ended up with Alcatel Lucent. He's been a fly on the wall for eight months in a journey that has taken him from the famous Bell Labs in Jersey, created in 1925 from the R&D organisations of Western Electric and AT&T, to the company's headquarters in Paris and the factory floors of the suburbs of Shanghai.

If this sounds a little familiar, that's because it is. In 1995 Coupland released Microserfs, his insider's look at Microsoft culture in the form of a novel about a group of overworked geeks who leave Microsoft and set up their own software company. Is he immersed in Alactel Lucent in the same way? "I think far more deeply here. I'm not out to sandbag them. I think it's really interesting. They have been very generous."

He says they were "surprisingly not paranoid" when the idea was put to the company. But bristles when I suggest it's a symbiotic relationship. "I'm not working with them. They've graciously allowed me to be a fly on their wall."

Coupland was brought here by Alcatel Lucent as a guest speaker at a "Chorus Connection" gathering held last Thursday where he extolled the virtues of something called the V-Pole. He came up with the idea about a year ago with his friend, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, to deal with visual blight in the city caused by the growing clutter of communications antennas, dishes, cell towers and base stations.

"We discussed, naively at that point, maybe we can get all the telecomms operators to share antennas and the big boxes and spaghetti that go at the bottom of poles." He quickly found in the fiercely competitive telecomms market the idea of sharing anything was hugely problematic.

But the idea was revived when he came across the lightradio cube at Bell Labs that compresses all the wires and circuit boards of a cellphone tower antenna into a modular 65mm cube-sized block. That led to the V-pole (V for Vancouver), a 3.6 m neighbourhood utlity pole in fetching multi-coloured pop art rings, stacked with all the communications you could need - WiFi, 2G, 3G, LTE and more, plus LED lighting, in-ground pads for inductive charging of parked electric cars, a parking payment interface, and even a digital neighbourhood bulletin board.

As a way to wire for the future it's sensible, possibly paradigm shifting. Better still, because the lightradio cubes are so small, power output is substantially decreased, easing the electromagnetic radiation concerns that typically plague cell tower installations.

"The larger thing that came out of this is that people really want this. It's like the 1965 Ford Mustang. Everyone is just like wow, even the people who wear tin foil hats are like this is pretty good," says Coupland somewhat overenthusiastically. "Maybe the biggest shift here is its gone from not in my back yard to please put it in front of my house."

Really? "Obviously it's on the optimistic side. This cube doesn't make julienne french fries. It does a lot of things and they are improving it. It's definitely the next direction."

This is the man known for having his finger on the pulse of a generation, the one who has darkly satirical insights summed up in laconically cool phrases. To hear Coupland talk as a cheerleader for an unproven future technology, seems uncharacteristically utopian. "I have no business stake in this or anything. Here is something that could make the world a much better place." Perhaps the internet really has rewired his brain.

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Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

Read more by Chris Barton

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