clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

"Market Communism" and China's Need for (Mobile) Speed

If one ever needs proof that technology rewires the human brain, simply speak to anyone in China older than 50.

© Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

This is part one of a two-part excerpt from “Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent,” by Douglas Coupland, published by Visual Editions on September 25.

Internationally known as the prescient author of "Generation X," "Microserfs" and "J-Pod," Coupland reports with the eye of an artist and the ear of a novelist from inside Alcatel-Lucent — one of the largest global telecommunications companies in the world — visiting its faceless corporate offices and wire-laden science labs in suburban New Jersey, France, Canada and China. “Kitten Clone” is insightful about the effect “Alca-Loo’s” information technology has on the Internet, its future and our possible future within it. Re/code is running a two-part excerpt from the book, beginning today.

Kitten Clone cover

Growing up, whenever I thought of what the future might look like, the image that always came to mind was of a jet ramp you’d walk into at a Chinese airport after a long flight on a cheap airline. No windows, and the air would be hot, muggy, infused with smell of farts and engines, and there’d be backlit advertisements for obscure banking services and unidentifiable, scary-looking foods — huge tureens filled with things like cooked baby birds and donkey ears — genetic smoothies to be consumed only at one’s peril. On the ground, instead of litter, there’d be items people had abandoned: Frayed luggage, dead phone cards, ice cream turned to cheese in the heat, oil-soiled garments. The ramp would go on and on, and there’d never be an airline terminal, just this endless heat and claustrophobia and sense of environmental depletion.

I actually do find a bit of that in China on every trip, mostly when I stray a hundred yards or so off the metropolitan showcase arteries. But what I find on a larger scale this time as I land in Shanghai is an overpowering sense of damaged brilliance: The morning white light off the shimmering East China Sea turning the sky into a massive magnifying lens made of burning coal and vaporized cash.

Through this lens are apartment buildings that seem to continue uninterrupted as they recede over the earth’s curvature, and sky-scrapers shaped like Transformers, emerging like gods from the mists below them, quietly overseeing traffic jams that can linger for months. These towers will make magnificent ruins.

At their feet also exists a different type of Chinese byway: Empty roads in tranquil economic development zones, seamlessly paved, lovingly landscaped and tweezed, connecting to homes for foreigners and the local oligarchy. This would be Shanghai’s Pudong neighbourhood — or, as the expats there call it, “Pu Jersey” — on the south shore of the Huangpu River.

Shortly after I check in to my hotel in Pudong, I elevator downstairs to meet my tour guide. The mezzanine is a consumer fantasia mall entirely devoid of any customers. Its three silent floors are filled with surprisingly well-branded boutiques — Lego, Moleskine and Muji — as well as ones selling the finest French and Chilean wines. When I do see people, it’s near the hotel’s entrance: Expats with laptops savouring that most delectable of all luxuries in China, Wi-Fi connected to a Hong Kong server, bypassing the Great Firewall of China, allowing users to access Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Were these data parasites to be using a Chinese server, and were they to ask Google a question, their request would take a strangely long time to process. Instead of 0.25 seconds, 10 seconds might pass; that is, if an answer were to come at all. I’ve been told there are buildings the size of airports here, filled with bureaucrats who personally inspect all Google searches. Over the next few days I ask most people I meet, locals and foreigners, whether this is true. Nobody knows for sure, but there’s just enough hesitation in people’s eyes to make me think this isn’t just an urban legend, because where I come from Google searches simply never take 10 or more seconds.

I wonder what it must be like to scrutinize all of the things people search for on Google. You’d end up knowing all of humanity’s limits and extremes. Which makes me wonder what’s going to happen when the Internet finally does become sentient. Will this newly born super-entity, The Singularity, be our chummy new best friend, or will it blink its metaphorical eyes, take one look at us all, and say, “You know what? I’ve got better things to do than service all you idiots. I’m outta here,” then promptly pull the plug on itself?

I’m in Shanghai because Alcatel-Lucent has a large research and manufacturing footprint in China. Shanghai is where the company makes the routing and switching equipment that moves the data through its optical fibre pathways. It also is the home of New Jersey’s Bell Labs’ cousin: Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell (called ASB).

I arrive at the Chinese branch after a five-minute drive down a beautifully landscaped road created in the early 1980s, when this section of Pudong was selected to become an industrial development zone. ASB is a showcase of China’s move out of isolation and into the larger world. In the 1990s, foreign revenues were five percent of sales. This year they were 50 percent. Alcatel-Lucent is one of four big players in this industry in China, along with Nokia Siemens, and China’s Huawei and ZTE. Globally, one would add to this list Juniper, Ericsson and Cisco.

There really aren’t that many firms who make the complicated routers and switching equipment needed to handle the data flow required by our current society, and the forecast numbers for China are humbling. There are 1.3 billion people (three Americas’ worth), and 600 million of them currently have mobile phones.

By 2015, the government wants everyone in large cities to have 100 megabits per second of data speed, people in secondary cities to have 20 Mbps, and all other citizens to have 4 Mbps — the speed available to the average current user in, say, Cleveland or Atlanta. It’s a badly kept secret that the ideological bulldozer known as the next Five-Year Plan, slated to begin shortly, aims to give every Chinese citizen 100 Mbps. Yes, you read that correctly: It aims to give every Chinese citizen 100 megabits per second.

Who knows what lies in wait for the Internet’s next Great Leap Forward. Who knows what this speed will do to a society. Can we know? Can we predict? One might look to Google for the answer, Google being the only entity on earth that has its shit together as much as China, but even Google doesn’t know what will happen when you give such large numbers of people a large amount of speed. To this end, Google is currently wiring Kansas City to give all residents one gig per second of data because they’re curious to find out. If they’ve already learned something from the experiment, they haven’t shared.

This insane race for speed is actually the single weirdest thing I’m noticing about China and its drive to a near future where Wi-Fi and wireless merge, a bold and bright place where even a rice farmer can sit in a remote mountain cave and watch Anne Hathaway in HD starring in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and pause here and there to make sure he doesn’t miss any Anna Wintour references: A complete lack of McLuhanesque inquiry into whether this is actually such a hot idea, and what the societal fallout might be. A return to warlord feudality? A perpetual shopping mall? Shotgun-wielding hyperlibertarianism? This sort of reflection is nonexistent, or perhaps it has already been discussed high up the food chain and it was decided best not to share the results of the conversation with the public. All China knows now is: SPEED = GOOD.

Yet again I find myself at a seven-story, early-1980s building whose style is defined by missing light bulbs and benign neglect. I’m getting a déjà vu within a déjà vu, the same sense of creeping recognition I get when I fly too much, land in too many airports, and realize that being able to go anywhere you want, whether online or in a plane, can actually feel the same as going nowhere. I’m taken to a first-floor display centre demonstrating the home of tomorrow, which I’m told by two well-rehearsed and confident male tour guides will offer “a converged IT experience … interactivity driving the delivery of the right message to the right people.” In my mind I revert to elementary school and put on my highly worthy field-trip face.

The rooms in the house of tomorrow are quite well designed — like display suites in a premium condominium development. The furniture is far better than what most people have anywhere on earth these days, yet it shares one thing in common with most things everywhere: It was all made in China. Noting this, of course, triggers that butterfly-in-the-stomach feeling we all get when we wonder when China is going to — well, let’s just say it — economically crash and burn. Because it has to happen sometime. Maybe it will plateau and never crash, but that’s not mathematically possible, so … The worry about some sort of bursting bubble is as palpable in the air as the smell of braziered meats and low-sulfur coal. There is a saying: Every time you look at a product and see the words “Made in China,” somewhere in the American Midwest, a job dies.

In China, with its in-your-face sense of the power of sheer numbers, you quickly realize how plausibly secondary the United States and Europe are becoming on the global scene. A sales executive I spoke with in an airport lounge a few weeks back told me that in U.S. high schools, teachers show you a map of the world and tell you to locate France. If you even point to Europe, then you get your high-school diploma. In China, you have to identify all the arrondissements of Paris and give a highly technical analysis of the paper fibres used in the map, as well as an analysis of the toxicity of the inks used to print it in order to graduate.

The home of tomorrow’s TV is displaying the finale of “American Idol,” which I’d actually like to sit and watch (“And the winner of ‘American Idol’ is …”). I start to tune out while my guides rattle on about how high-speed data will transform citizens living within a future based on “market communism.” This future largely has to do with Chinese advertisers targeting the right Chinese consumers, which is kind of … depressing. One would hope China might do something different with targeted data other than nurture shopping — possibly something gruesome and eye-opening, but different nonetheless.

Seated on a comfy leather sofa, watching the end of “Idol,” I muse upon the seven billion people on earth, and how almost everybody these days voraciously devours every unbundled fragment of our creative past, either by watching it as a YouTube clip or by sticking it in a plastic envelope for sale on eBay, and how we seem to be consuming far more culture than we create. I’m wondering if everything before 2001 will be considered the Age of Content, and the time thereafter the Age of Devouring.

I look at the display home’s cupboards and wonder if one of them contains a box full of adaptor cables, battery packs and spare power cords. Probably not. But this reminds me of why I’m actually here: Alcatel-Lucent and the wiring of the planet. It dawns on me that Alca-Loo’s main job is to untangle the world’s electrical cords, and to do so as quickly and quietly as possible, the same way you might point out an overflowing toilet to a plumber while saying, “Just make it all go away. Here. I’ll throw money at it. Just make it work again!”

I head up to the third floor to meet Luoning Gui, senior VP of research and innovation, and head of Bell Labs China. Gui began as an engineer. His English is flawless, and he discusses a recent trip to Holland to negotiate a deal with a telecom there. During the course of his negotiations, he found himself thinking, “You know, there’s an awful lot of work here in Shanghai just for one country. We add one Holland’s worth of customers a month onto China.”

I ask Gui what surprises him most about the new China versus the old China, and he says, “Golf. I never thought I’d see a golf course in China. And now it’s a huge thing. BMW is having a Masters Tournament in Shanghai this October.”

This isn’t an answer I might have expected, but that’s why we ask questions. As sustainability is on my mind, I ask him if the present pace of Chinese development is sustainable. He smiles and says, “My daughter is nine, and she asked me, ‘Can you fold a piece of paper over 50 times? No. It would be 1,200 miles thick.’” He pauses.

So there’s my answer — I think.

The Chinese recognition of the need to be green is a strong recurring theme during my time here. Everyone knows the air is disgusting and the water is life-threatening. People at all levels of society realize that greening needs to be done and that it’s inevitable. The only problem is that it’s difficult, expensive and unprofitable to implement, which is why it doesn’t happen very much anywhere, let alone in China.

Gui and I discuss the work done by ASB’s research facility, which is a patent-generating machine: 5,981 patents since 2002 from just over 100 researchers, who are encouraged to share data and projects with other Bell Labs across the planet. Of that number, 1,824 were made in China, the rest being secondary filings from inventions originating in the United States and Europe. With some pride, Gui says, “In the past, ideas and technologies were a one-way street into China, but the number of patents generated by Shanghai now equals those from New Jersey.”

In Mervin Kelly’s long 1947 hallways, geographic proximity enforced cross-pollination; now, that hallway is the Internet and Lufthansa, British Airways, Air Canada and Cathay Pacific, and the cross-pollination comes from interdepartmental spreadsheets specifying which Bell Labs employee is researching what.

When asked about the amount of basic research done in China, Gui says, “Any project development time that might go beyond two years is iffy. We are an industrial research lab, and we can feel the breath of our competitors on our necks.”

Gui’s seeming casualness about the absence of basic or fundamental research is unusual in the industry, and may be a brave face put on for a nosy visitor. With so much competition, most companies are running as fast as they can just to stay in the same place, let alone go forward. But without some fundamental new way of manipulating the 144 universe that might be discovered with pure research, new technological developments will hit the wall. And this might be a good thing.

As I’ve said, haven’t we all wanted to take a year or two off to digest the technologies we already have?

Before I leave Dr. Gui’s office, I comment on the number of young people in the Shanghai branch. He explains that when creating research teams, the company likes to mix young staff with old, “to break patterns.”

When you were born in Chinese history is pivotal in determining your sensibility. If the Western world had the whole Generation X and Y experience, mainland China has what it calls “born in the ’80s” or the “post-’80s.” These are 240 million adults born after the government’s implementation of the one-child policy. As a group, their upbringing has been so different from that of their parents that, within China, one generation looks on the other more as another species than as a different generation. Everything about the post-’80s’ existence is different from those born in the Mao Zedong era: Liberalized politics, a higher quality of education, nonexistent sibling relationships (and the Napoleonic sense of entitlement that comes from that), but mostly technology — computers, the Internet and mobile phones. If one ever needs proof that technology rewires the human brain, simply speak to anyone in China older than 50.

I ask Dr. Gui how his paper-folding daughter is different from him and his generation, and he tells me, “My daughter challenges everything I say. She’s of the newest generation, and her school is ultra-democratic. It used to be that the teachers selected which students would receive awards. Now the students elect the winners.”

Once again, not the answer I might have expected.

This is an excerpt from “Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent” (Visual Editions), available here. Reprinted by permission of Visual Editions. All rights reserved.

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.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.