My book report is on this really cool story… I just wanted to continue a log of books read on this trip; my reading volume will likely exceed the sum total for the last 4 years. When I was in Hope, BC, I found a great little book store that had 50% off of all titles:
I just finished book 1 on the left, Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs – a good read indeed. For me, having started my career in the time span represented in the book (early 1990s), there was a lot to identify with. The story is told in a sort of burst like vignettes from one of the primary characters, Dan Underwood, of a group of young workers at Microsoft who bail to follow one of their crew to Silicon Valley to work for a software startup.
So after setting up the culture of the Redmond environment, it flips to the counter version of California. The entire book is written in what might be considered now close to twitter form- short bursts of thoughts, maybe suggesting something about attention spans of the characters? Not to say they are shallow (they are not), but like the computers evolving at the time, they flit from one culture context to the next in rapid succession.
The narrator Dan outlines why he is writing his thoughts:
Lately I’ve been unable to sleep. That’s why I’ve begun writing this journal late at night, to try and see the patterns in my life. From this I hope to establish what my problem is– and then, hopefully, solve it. I’m trying to feel more well adjusted than I really am, which I is, I guess the human condition, My life is lived day to day, one line of bug-free code at a time.
You’d think he is talking about blogging, and he writes what sits in my brain, the idea that writing can “see the patterns in my life” (can you really do that in a 3rd party social media bin?). Dan is not ignorant to his condition; in contrast, he sees himself for who he is, and in the start of the book, is a starting point for a journey:
I don’t even do many sports anymore and my relationship with my body has gone all weird. I used to play soccer three times a week and now I feel like a boss in charge of an underachiever. I feel like my body is a station wagon in which I drive my brain around, like a suburban mother taking the kids to hockey practice”
There is more than enough references there to connect with if you grew up in the 70s or 80s. Just the word “station wagon”.
Among many gems, here is a take on the Microsoft culture:
Everyone at Microsoft seems, well literally, 31.2 years old, and it kind of shows.
There’s this eerie, science-fiction lack of anyone who doesn’t look exactly 31.2 on Campus. It’s oppressive. It seems like only last week the entire Campus went through Gap ribbed-T mani together– and now they’re all shopping for the same 3bdrm/2bth dove-gray condo at Kirkland.
Microserfs are locked by nature into doing 31.2-ish things: the first house, the first marriage, the “where-am-I-going” crisis, the out-goes-the-Miata/in-comes-the-minivan thing, and, of course, major death denial. A Microsoft CP died of cancer a few months ago, and it was, like, you weren’t allowed to mention it. Period. The three things you’re not allowed to discuss at work: death, salaries, and your stock options.
I’m 26 and I’m just not ready to turn 31.2 yet.
There are tons of great sections I could cherry pick out of the book, and I found myself smiling or feeling a connection to something on every other page.
Remember, this is the early 1990s- consider this section on e-mail:
I’ve been thinking: I get way too many pieces of e-mail, about 60 a day. This is a typical number at Microsoft. E-mail is like highways– if you have them, traffic follows.
I’m an e-mail addict. Everybody at Microsoft is an addict. The future of e-mail usage is being pioneered right here. The cool thing about e-mail is that when you send it, there’s no possibility of connecting with the person on the other end. It’s better than phone answering machines, because with them, the person on the other line might actually pick up the phone and you might have to talk.
Typically everybody has a bout a 40 percent immediate cull rate– those pieces of mail you can delete immediately because of a frivolous tag line. What you read of the remaining 60 percent depends on how much of a life you have. The less of a life, the more mail you have.
Again 1993- it was before spam took off. It’s kind of dated in attitude but not really. How is your life to email ratio?
The characters leave the Redmond scene for the start up action in southern California.
Dusty tried to get us to do aerobics in mid-afternoon, but all she got were six insolent stares, She, like, jogs to Oakland during her lunch hour or something. People in the Bay area are so extreme.
At geek parties, you can sort corporate drones from start-up drones by dress and conversation. Karla and I stood next to two guys who work on the Newton project at Apple. They talked with unflagging enthusiasm about frequent flyer miles for about 45 minutes. They had a purchasable Valley hip. One guy had the mandatory LA Eyeworks glasses and a nutty orange vesy=t worn over baggy jeans. The other guy had Armani glasses and a full Calvin Klein ensemble, but not a matching ensemble, mind you– “throws together” in that “ezpensive way.” You can’t help but be conscious here of how much everything costs, and where it comes from.
Beyond the pop culture analysis, there are spurts of two paragraph philosophy, like MIchael, the serfs leader who occupies a state of reverence.
Michael said something cool today. He said something remarkable and unprecedented has occurred to us as a species now– “We’ve reached a critical mass point where the amount of memory we have externalized in books and databases (to name but a few sources) now exceeds the amount of memory contained within our collective biological bodies. In other words. there’s more memory ‘out there’ than exists inside ‘all of us.’ We’ve periphialized our essence.”
He went on:
“Given this new situation, the presumption of the existence of the notion of ‘history’ becomes not necessarily dead bust somewhat beside the point. Access to memory replaces historical knowledge as a way for our species to process its past. Memory has replaced history– and this is not bad news. On the contrary, it’s excellent news because it means we’re no longer doomed to repeat our mistakes; we can edit ourselves as we go along, like an on-screen document…”
It goes on but its remarkable to consider how much more of memory is externalized. As we move into the cloud, is it “we’ve cloud hosted our essence”?
The ironic things about the book is that you feel like the technology these people have built their lives around might be at the center, but its barely there. The start up the group goes to south California is some sort of 3d game technology, but its rather vague, and obviously not the topic.
And in the end, the group of disparate lost souls come together over something more important.
And then, I thought about us… these children who fell down life’s cartoon holes… dreamless children, alive, but not living– we emerged on the other side of the cartoon holes awake and discovered we are whole.
I’m worried about Mom… and I’m thinking about Jed, and suddenly I look at Bug and Susan and Michael and everybody and I realize, that what’s been missing for so long isn’t missing anymore.
It’s not quite the same hole, but it is a feeling that I am discovering as an outcome of my travels, and I am reveling in that thing that is not missing anymore. If it is not clear what I am talking about, well… let’s say it is easily the one thing we ought to be centering our lives on, so obvious, yet so missing in many places and lives.
And it is damn good.