Microserfs, Douglas Coupland

Late 90s?

So I just finished reading Microserfs. First off a couple of things amazed me right away: the book was written in the early nineties and yet Coupland manages to avoid the starry-eyed view of the information superhighway that was sucking everyone in left and right back then. He sees all the technology around him with a level-headedness and equanimity that as far as I remember was absolutely lacking back in the day. Secondly, he really does come across as seeming to know a lot about coding software. He may not know squat about any particular programming language, but he knows what it s like to sit in a room and code for several hours. Coupland writes about coding the way Hemingway wrote about fishing. I was impressed by the authenticity of the characters work experiences.

If anything, the book is about a search for meaning. It tries answer questions about what role money and creativity and personal satisfaction play in the uncovering of meaning in one’s life. None of the questions are particularly new. Against the backdrop of a purely late 20th century lifestyle (nomadic coder, moving from job to job), the questions take on a slightly new significance. Several of Coupland’s characters argue that because of the nature of technology and the miracles it promises, to simply be involved in the computer industry in any capacity at this point in history is enough to bring meaning to one’s life. Being on the cutting edge of what will inevitably effect the rest of human history is supposedly sublime enough an occupation that meaning need not be sought elsewhere. I disagree, but this here bit of writing is about the book, not me.

Another interesting issue brought up by the characters is at what level we function simply as members of the human race and at what level we function as individuals. One character describes it as this: when we look up at the sky and see a flock of geese flying overhead we do not see any one individual goose, instead we see them all as a group and evaluate them as a group. Should humans be seen any differently: should our individual actions be so scrutinized or should we instead step back and see the human race’s actions as a whole? It goes back to the question: In what ways are we like all other people, some other people and no other people? Everyone answers that questions differently I guess.

So among all the bitching and whining about how life has no meaning and crap like that, the only solution the characters of the book can find is to share common experiences like the huge effect that playing with Legos had on their lives and crap like that. This is where Coupland always has driven me nuts and continues to do so in this book. Yes legos and nerfguns can be sublime in how they connect us to one another. Maybe they connect us despite their unnaturalness or maybe because of their synthetic, purely from the hands of man, nature. Same with computers. Yes computers may bring us closer together, but there’s something weird about it.

There’s something distasteful about human bonds being formed of inorganic substances. A shared affinity for a particular sunset warrants that feeling of sublime connectedness that makes us feel a part of the human race. But what about a shared affinity for Linux? I think this geek will look elsewhere for connections.