Tech-Fi Review: Microserfs by Douglas Coupland (1995, Harper Collins)

in books •  9 days ago  (edited)


Source: My own scan. Note that this book's dust jacket has a polished, mirror-like sheen to it that a scanner cannot replicate in the slightest.

It's the Fall of 1993.

Daniel Underwood works in Building Seven of the Microsoft Campus (and it's always the 'campus', never the 'office'). As such, he's a typical techie: he bonds with his office mates over Star Trek references and their mutual fear of being flamed by Bill (as in 'Gates') for imperfect code, something which has just happened to their co-worker Michael as the book opens.

Dan didn't intend for this thing to turn into a book. Originally it was just a journal for him to lob words and memories into, a digital preservation of current events as seen through the lens of one of the tens of thousands of twenty-something up-and-comers of the computerized world.

But as time passes, and Dan observes the follies and foibles of his co-workers (and they observe his), he updates his file with everything from the day's recollections to random splats of words which feel important to him at the moment.

Triumphs and tragedies, in-jokes and aspirations, confessions and melt-downs -- Dan records them all in his journal. The term 'blog' hasn't been invented. Windows 95 is still 'Coming Soon', and people are only starting to hear whispers of this thing called the "World Wide Web" which will revolutionize humanity in ways undreamed of by previous generations.

AOL hasn't begun mailing diskettes offering 100 free hours of Internet access to every home in the United States.

Dan and his co-workers decide working at Microsoft isn't working for them, so they strike out with Michael, the most entrepreneurial member of the group, to join his Silicon Valley start-up. They move from Washington state down to California, and spend months working on Oop!, a virtual multimedia Lego-type program, visiting trade shows like CES in Las Vegas, and worrying about how to distinguish themselves when everyone in this pre-dot-com world shops at The Gap.

Romance, humor, heartbreak, philosophy, political discussion, and tragedy all ensue, and Dan documents them all, as only a tech-obsessed geek from the 90's could.

There's no easy way to describe Microserfs. In some sense, it's a documentary time capsule of a bygone era. The 90's was a time where bright-eyed, bushy-tailed optimism collided head-on with a jaded cultural pessimism. The offspring of the Baby Boomer era, the so-called "Generation X", began to come into their own after having straddled a cultural line where their childhood involved playing outside while their adolescence introduced them to the world of the personal computer, and nothing would ever be the same.

As someone born and raised on the tail end of Generation X as it spilled over into the 80's-born Millennial era, Microserfs was written to be read by people like me. I first read it in 1996, when I was a senior in high school, and thus ten years younger than the characters depicted, but I could still understand them. They were 'me', just a decade out. I didn't know what I'd be doing with my life in ten years, but then again, here was this group of people who also didn't know what they'd be doing with their lives in ten years, mainly because they had no idea what they'd be doing ten days from now.

I came of age with Nirvana's cultural howl of Smells Like Teen Spirit reverberating in my ears, when a beige box bearing arcane runes like 'PS/2' and 'IBM' and '286' promised the future was now. I witnessed my generation's innocence-destroying event, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, on live broadcast when I was at school, only for a few years later to have my faith in humanity briefly restored as the Berlin Wall came down.

You don't hit highs and lows like that and walk away unscathed, unchanged.

Even if you never studied German, you've probably heard the word zeitgeist at least once in your life. Made up of the German words for 'time' and 'ghost', a direct translation doesn't do it justice. In a cultural context, the zeitgeist is a measurement of which way the winds of that culture are blowing. The 90's zeitgeist was the rapid expansion of technology and creativity which promised to shrink the planet in ways undreamed of since the advent of the telephone and the airplane.

Into that milieu, a world where Microsoft was asking, "Where do you want to go today?" with the unspoken assumption being that Windows 95 could take you there...

...Douglas Coupland thrust Microserfs, a cultural snapshot of Silicon Valley tech culture in a pre-internet world. Coupland has an uncanny ability to put his finger on these generational pulses and keep it there like a nurse taking your vitals. Microserfs is a time capsule of creativity, optimism, and simultaneous future- and navel-gazing. If you were there, if you grew up on movies like Reality Bites and Singles, if you were a part of that generation and that era, if you ever fought the urge to dance and sing to The Knack's My Sharona in the middle of a convenience store, you'll get it.

If you weren't, didn't, haven't?

Well, I'm not going to say you can't "get" Microserfs. Plenty of people who didn't reach adulthood in the 1980's grasped American Psycho, after all. But this isn't post-modern irony. This is literally the zeitgeist of the early 90's, the days before everybody in the world knew the name 'Monica Lewinski' and OJ Simpson was just an actor and sports hero, not a man accused of slaughtering two people in "the trial of the decade".

A period where we here in the US had recovered a bit of our starry-eyed innocence from the Gordon Gecko-esque "Greed is good!" era of the 80's, and were looking to Silicon Valley to deliver us from evil.

How's that working out these days?

You couldn't really write Microserfs today.

I mean, you could. Plenty of people do. That's what blogs are: your own personal introspective, interactive, online diary of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions in the current moment.

But you'd have a hard time finding anyone willing to publish a book like Microserfs. After all, millions of people are willing to give away those memories for free on the internet, so why would you or anyone else pay for them? I can wax nostalgic and historic about the era of grunge, memories of old high school friends, and what I was doing when the OJ Simpson verdict was handed down (sitting in Ms. Haugh's Creative Writing class, where we'd convinced her it was in our own national interests to watch the proceedings live). But if I put it all down in a semi-epistolary format, it wouldn't sell.

The winds have shifted. The zeitgeist has moved on. The culture has changed, and people carry devices in their pockets thousands of times more powerful than the computers used by NASA to land a man on the moon. In the days of instant messaging, GPS, and live streaming, each and every one of us is writing our own version of this book daily. Our cell phones and tablets and web browsers remember everywhere we've been, even if we forget. It's all wrapped up in one giant cluster of data.

It's all "on the cloud".

Back in the 90's, only 'books' could be the cloud. Memories were stored in print, not in servers mirrored all across the globe. Microserfs is a 371-page glimpse into Douglas Coupland's cloud. Like Seinfeld, it stands as a masterpiece of nothingness, because the story it tells isn't an epic, but one of everyday life where conflicts are small, bad things happen to good people for no reason, and Facebook hasn't replaced face-to-face interactions with friends.

It is the early 90's. And yeah, you kinda had to be there.

I was.

Your mileage may vary.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering? My seven dream categories on Jeopardy! would be:

  • 90's Alternative Rock
  • DOS-Based Computing
  • The Super Nintendo
  • Starring Peter Davison as 'The Doctor'
  • Nickelodeon Sketch Comedy Shows
  • Richard Laymon Novels
  • You Know You're Over 40 When...

Five Lego minifigs out of five.

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