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Douglas Coupland Misses His Pre-Internet Brain (Q&A)

An email chat with the author of "Generation X," who takes readers inside the mobile-electronics factories of China in his new book, "Kitten Clone."


Internationally known as the author of the prescient novels “Generation X,” “Microserfs” and “J-Pod,” Douglas Coupland’s just-published nonfiction book, “Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent,” takes readers inside one of the largest global telecommunications companies in the world — visiting its faceless corporate offices and wire-laden science labs in the U.S., France, Canada and China.

Getting a rare look within Bell Labs in suburban New Jersey and an Alcatel-Lucent factory in China, Coupland reports with the eye of an artist and the ear of a novelist. The book is funny and insightful about China’s “Five-Year Plan” for equipping its vast population with high-speed mobile connectivity, and about the effect that “Alca-Loo’s” information technology may have on the Internet, its future and our possible future within it. Re/code is running a two-part excerpt from the book, beginning today.

Although he’s not a fan of interviews (in this quite good one, he called them “torture”), he agreed to an email Q&A.

Kitten Clone cover

Re/code: First words in “Kitten Clone”: “You’re holding a book about a company you’ve most likely never heard of.” What did you set out to do with this project, and how did it come about?

Doug Coupland: It’s part of a series started by Alain de Botton in which fiction writers enter other universes, write about what they find and then use that as a jumping off point for musings on the human condition. Alain suggested Alcatel-Lucent. It has the entire Bell Labs heritage behind it, and yet it’s sort … invisible … and owned by the French. WTF?

What is your big-picture view of what’s going on in China?

They are embracing the inevitable information head-on, and without fear of the consequences. They only know that certain things about the future are inevitable, and so they may as well get there first.

You say you were going for a “surfy feel” for this book — what’s that about?

The book is also a real-time description of my own trying to understand the company. It was written entirely in chronological order. I think the footnotes and (wonderful) photos by [Magnum photographer] Olivia Arthur make it slightly like a Web experience.

This book is available only in print, as a limited edition. Why?

They’re a U.K. publisher who have wanted to do a project with me for a long time — and then this one emerged. It’s a good fit.

Most readers will know you as a novelist. But earlier this year, you kindly gave me a preview of your career-spanning art exhibition at your West Vancouver studio. How did it go? And where is it going?

It was terrific, and goes next to Toronto, Ontario, to the ROM and MOCCA for the months of Feb/Mar/April 2015. Also look up #gumhead on Instagram.

In the foreword, you say: “I thought that the Internet was a metaphor for life; now I think life is a metaphor for the Internet.”

I think the inevitability is that they do end up being coequal. It’s horrifying to think of from an older perspective, but just fine from a young perspective.

Also: “A larger meditation … about what data and speed and optical wiring are doing to us as a species — about what the Internet is doing to us.” What is it doing to us?

Joe, you know that can’t be answered in a few sentences! But at the very least, it’s neutrally homogenizing us as a species, while making us all drink from the same waterhole.

This is not really a question, but I bought this T-shirt from your museum gift shop — “I miss my pre-Internet brain.” Everyone likes it and wants to talk about it.

Buy more. I realize this past month that I don’t really remember my pre-Internet brain. I know what I used to do and how I did it, but I can remember how it felt. I think this is becoming common.

How techy are you, personally? What is your gadget arsenal like?

Last of the 17” MacBookPro users … end of an era. I’m also possibly the only person on earth who navigates a desktop using the control/option/command/1-2-3-4-5 feature.

And what does the foreseeable future look like for the prescient Doug Coupland?

More visual work, and a new fiction project starting next month. I’m trying to get rid of life’s small obligations. They always get in the way of larger obligations. For example, doing a speech somewhere, and because of that having to cut short another trip, or adding a few days to something. It’s one of the most annoying ways to destroy time, and nobody comes out of it happy.

Douglas Coupland is a Canadian writer, designer and visual artist. His first novel was the international bestseller “Generation X,” which was followed by many more works of fiction and nonfiction. He also writes a weekly column for the Financial Times Magazine. Reach him @DougCoupland.

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