Douglas Coupland on bloggers, YouTube and Bubble 2.0
Generation X, Microserfs author spooked
SXSW When Douglas Coupland published his seminal pre-dotcom tech satire Microserfs in 1995, based on time spent around an adolescent Microsoft it was, as he puts it, "still OK to like them".
The laconic Canadian returned to overtly tech-related subjects last year with the quasi-sequel J-Pod, which chronicled the adventures of a similarly anonymous and pissed-off group of workers at a fictional videogame development house, based on an Electronic Arts studio in his home town of Vancouver.
The novel dealt with many of the biggest anxieties within the technology industry and its effect on the world: the rise of China, the numbing effect of too much Google-pimped information, and the toothlessness of intellectual property claims.
Canada's CBC is turning J-Pod into a TV series, set for broadcast in January 2008. Coupland told us: "We got greenlit three days ago. It's so much fun for me because the universe is already there and all you have to do is channel the characters."
We met up with the author at SXSW in Austin. He was in town to promote the movie Everything's Gone Green, (trailer here) which is based on his first screenplay, written nine years-ago over "a weekend of fun going 'blah, blah, blah into a computer". Coupland "feels so fraudulent even discussing it", so we skipped the press junket, and talked about the internet.
The intellectual property-squashing effect of YouTube - which in Viacom's opinion at least has driven its popularity - was one of the hottest topics among the less cavalier attendees at SXSW. The site's use of expensive, professional video as well as the original microproduced and user-generated content that is poised to change the world, according to some panellists at the conference, is no problem to Coupland.
The threatened video clip dump garnered support from Coupland as a promotional vehicle for his new move into TV and film production.
Coupland: Take Family Guy. I love it, and YouTube means when I'm bored I can go and watch clips. The old thinking was that producers didn't want to lose control, but now it's more 'no, we actually want that stuff up there'.
This is hardly news, but it's fortunate that the DVD is not just saving TV but giving it a renaissance. The way people take in shows and series now is so different. How many people choose to watch 24 on DVD over a couple of days now?
Some SXSWers had one hand entering banalities into their Twitter account and the other on covering their behind: Bubble 2.0 paranoia was as easy to come by as the extravagant parties thrown by obscure web typography firms. Speculators in the press room meanwhile were heralding the Viacom vs YouTube suit as a last call for alcohol at the current tech cash blowout.
So, are we in trouble again?
Coupland: I don't think so. I think it's that much harder to con people in New York this time round. Honestly, my biggest question mark with the mid-90s was how out of it New York was. They weren't just two years behind - they were more like 'what's a mouse?'
Because of that they got so duped. All you had to do was walk in and say 'start-up! West Coast!' and New York would just throw money.
You knew it couldn't last, whereas I think this one feels much more sustainable, but the changes when they come, like YouTube, man do they happen quickly. A year ago nobody had heard of it, but now I get 10 to 20 YouTube links in my inbox everyday.
The expansion this time is more widespread, more distributed, less a bubble and more a swell, Coupland reckons.
Coupland: Everywhere is a tech city now - LA's becoming a tech city. It had to happen sooner or later. Starting with Silicon Valley, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, you can just taste the money in the air.
I was working at Wired for a while in the mid-90s, and the 1.0 mania, it was so exciting, so much fun. And I'm glad there's a 2.0 because it got a little shitty there for a while when the Bubble burst around the same time as 9/11.
Through self-selection and natural curiosity I just end up knowing a lot of people in all these tech places [San Francisco, Silicon Vally, Seattle, Vancouver]. Everyone's on the make, but it used to be like you were just working for Mr. Burns or something and now there's a nascent sense of self-awareness out there. It's nice.
That optimism that the technology as a whole has grown up to care about its effect on the world, subtly contradicts his unease over the barrage of self-awareness expressed by Twittering and videoblogging at SXSW. The paradox is not lost on Coupland.
Coupland: It cuts both ways. With things like YouTube you've got people who in a previous era would never have done anything remotely creative doing nine minute animation segments of dancing marshmallows or something, which is really great because they are using better parts of their brain.
The other edge to the web 2.0 knife is all too clear. As a veteran of SXSW in the early 90s grunge-era days when it was just a music festival, Coupland was shocked by the attack of the bloggers.
Coupland: For about four months back in the 90s I kept what was once called a diary, and I enjoyed doing it but what happened was - and I think this is a very common response - is when you start living your life inside your diary you become quite mercenary, and it's all about 'will this make a good entry?'
Suddenly your life becomes that Warholian thing where every moment of your life should be something you can sell, you're always taking pictures, taping everything, and then I think it's just psychologically strange.
There is a tendency to become like a hermit and sit in your house in a persistent state world or something and your avatar is more real than you. I think it's really fucking spooky. It's so scary.
In the future, all these kids now with MySpace pages who put absolutely everything out there, like number of tampons they used, everything, in 40 years there'll be a political culture where stuff like that, minor details, don't shock anymore.
Now in the States if you hire a maid who doesn't have her papers you have to withdraw from politics. I hope I live to see the day when stuff like that doesn't matter, but at the moment I think after a certain age - I tag it arbitrarily at 22 - everyone's more withdrawn in fear.
Earlier, in a brief book reading to fans at the Austin Conference Center which hosts the show, the author voiced his own fears that everything he said would end up in a mash-up on YouTube, but even an established artist and tech cynic is not invulnerable to the internet's tempting outlet for more of our thoughts and ideas. Coupland's next novel, The Gum Thief, comes out this Autumn. He has registered its two lead characters' domain names and is building mock personal websites as a side project. "The book comes first though," he was quick to insist. ®