“It’s hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln using Twitter”: Douglas Coupland on free time, automation and Donald Trump
Douglas Coupland has hit a coffee wall. His dressing room has a spread of tiny sandwiches, but he is too jetlagged to eat or drink. His time is out of whack.
Coupland coined the term “Generation X”, with his debut 1991 novel of the same name. In the decades since, he’s written a smorgasbord of novels, short-story collections, nonfiction books, screenplays and columns. He’s also a visual artist, with public works dotted around his hometown of Vancouver.
Technology, and technology culture, has been a consistent presence in his work, most obviously in 1995’s Microserfs (which tackles a pre-Windows 95 Microsoft) and 2006’s JPod (which follows a group of six game developers). I meet him in Berlin, where he’s been giving a keynote for the Japanese business-tech company Konica Minolta, talking about the “future of work”.
Coupland’s speech capered across automation, the internet and how technology is changing the way we think. He spoke, interestingly, about time, and how our sense of it is altered in a world of smartphones and scrolling newsfeeds. “Data has replaced organic experience,” he said. Agriculture gave us the calendar, the industrial revolution gave us weekends, but – mid-workday lunches aside – we are drifting away from an idea of time based around physical experiences.
In the dressing room, internal clock uncertain, he talks to me about, well, lots of things.
I liked what you were saying about data replacing organic experience.
Thank you. I think it’s really true.
Is it a similar thing to Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg man? (The new type of person brought about by the invention of the printed book)
It’s building on McLuhan. It’s the only theory I can think of that explains the way my perception of reality has changed. How old are you?
Do you have any pre-internet memory?
So, 3,000 years ago – herding goats – not much changes, then things change, then we get radio and TV, which is where I come in. But we still have the calendar, the week, experiences based on physical engagement with the universe. Then [with the internet] suddenly, boom. You brain is not in the world any more. Then someone says “wait, when did David Bowie die?” It feels like ten minutes ago. Or it feels like ten years ago. Time isn’t really time any more.
“Time isn’t really time any more”
The other thing, I had people over for dinner two summers ago. This guy brought over a then-state-of-the-art Oculus Rift headset. I put it on and see asteroid mining, or skimming over the water chasing a blue light. I take it off. Fuck dude. The real world is a dump. Just really horrible.
Was your sense of time different when you took it off?
My sense of space, my sense of light was. I think time in VR is probably the same thing. It’s maybe the visual equivalent of what’s happening with time.
I think it’s all sort of gelling now. You’ve had all these media theorists for the longest time trying to understand McLuhan, to build on it. The thing about McLuhan is that he knew what was coming, he just didn’t know the interface. eBay or PayPal or porn or whatever. On pornography he said the world would be a bordello without walls.
“We’re entering this new era in human evolution”
Now we’re going past that. We’re entering this new era in human evolution. Which is a really scary and beautiful and fucked-up thing. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.
What you said about David Bowie and celebrity deaths is interesting. When you talk about a pre-internet age, the way you measure a lifetime tends to be in big events, moon landing, celebrity deaths, JFK’s assassination. Has that conceptualisation of events and time changed with the internet?
Big events are still events. The Trump election, I remember that. Brexit. I think big events are always going to be big events. But then you take someone like Donald Trump, and how he’s taking Twitter. It’s hard to imagine Rutherford B Hayes or Abraham Lincoln using Twitter, but he’s made it his own. He’s short-circuited all media systems. That is a really radical thing, what he’s done. They’re all “but, but, but…”, meanwhile he’s just out there doing it.
In terms of time, you look at kids now, and I have no idea how they’re going to perceive things. How when they’re 30, 40, 50 [they] are going to look back at their lives and how they’re going to remember things. I’m not sentimentalising the way things used to be. They just were the way they were.
If automation ends up replacing their jobs, maybe they’ll have more time to ponder their lives.
Maybe less work for more people is better. But make sure they have something to do, not nothing, because then you really get trouble. We weren’t built for free time. We’re the worst species on earth with free time. I’m surprised that people who retire at the age of 65 don’t become terrorists, just to cure the boredom of it all.
(Above: Coupland, speaking at the Konica Minolta event)
Perhaps not terrorism, but do you see a backlash against automation? Could we get a return of the Luddites, the weavers who smashed up factory machinery in the 19th century?
Ultimately we probably will come up with new things for people to do, but I think that’s going to take a while. In the meantime there’s going to be a lot of people losing a lot of jobs very quickly. We all know that. If I was a politician right now I’d be planning – well, politicians don’t plan ahead – what to do when, say, in North America in ten years, when 15 million [people] have lost jobs to automation. Do they all start gardening or growing organic vegetables or do they give back rubs or hand jobs or something, I don’t know.
I remember the Iranian revolution. It was all through high school in grade 12. The Iranian hostage crisis was 444 days long, and I remember it was on TV, my mom walks in from the kitchen and looks at me. “Oh, look at them all. They don’t need a new leader, they just need jobs.” It’s like punk. Boredom generates violence.
What’s to be done?
I hope I live long enough to see what happens. I think the biggest unanswered question about the internet for me is, does it ultimately favour the individual, or does it ultimately favour the group? Number two would be, does it favour secularism or does it favour orthodoxies?
What do you mean by that?
Will belief systems be the ultimate winners?
When you’re talking about belief systems, what do you mean?
Religion. Political ideology. Are you old enough to remember communism?
I was born in 1987, so not really.
(Above: Remnant of the Berlin Wall)
It was real. I was born in ’61. I grew up with nuclear war. Every other day it seemed like it was going to happen. It was very real. That’s only thing it’s very hard to explain to future generations, just how real it was.
Talking about belief systems on the internet, I’ve seen articles talking about how alt-right groups are embracing postmodernism – co-opting the distrust of rationality and metanarratives in the writing of thinkers like Jean-François Lyotard, using it in part to justify irrationality.
No way. This seminar I was at recently was about how Lyotard did this show in the Centre Pompidou [Les Immatériaux, 1985], considered the birthday of postmodernism. He was going to do another show called [Resistance]. This show was supposed to be about what follows postmodernism, but he died and never got to do the show.
What does Resistance mean? Everyone is resisting Donald Trump. You morons, you’re the ones being resisted against by him. You think you’re the morally superior person, on the right point of the power hierarchy. He’s Johnny Rotten. You’re Margaret Thatcher. You’re flattering yourself to think it’s the other way around. He’s killing you, and you’d be an absolute idiot not to adopt his strategy to fight him in return.
Can they? Is that effective, you think?
“The rules are different now. Why don’t they realise that?”
Yes! Why don’t they? “We want to play by better rules.” Fuck. You’re going to lose. The rules are different now. Why don’t they realise that? Talking about postmodernity et cetera, the way everyone thinks the power structure is now is inverted. It’s going to take lag time before, I hope, people realise, the way they’re doing stuff isn’t working.
So because it’s inverted we have to embrace that?
Just get your shit together.
And you see that coming?
I don’t want to jinx it with puppy-like optimism. I see some of it happening. We have three, almost four years to figure it out. If we don’t then we deserve what we get.
Images: Wikimedia commons, Thomas McMullan