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Secrets of a Chinese Router Factory

It’s hard for me to believe I’m finally about to visit a Chinese factory.

© Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos

This is the second 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.

ASB’s router factory, one of several in China, is located just across Ning Qiao Road from the main compound of three early-1980s office towers. Along the street, I see stylish, upwardly mobile young people, very few bikes, and very few cars. We could easily be driving through an Italian suburb, with a bit of light industry thrown in.

It’s hard for me to believe I’m finally about to visit a Chinese factory. I’ve wanted to do this for decades. In my head I’m expecting a humongous prison with a bogus Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet attached, surrounded by fields of bok choy protected with barbed-wire fencing. Inside the factory? Lava. Whips. Charcoal. Manacles. Framed oversized photos of Patricia Nixon. What do I find instead? A long, low, pale yellow warehouse, where I meet the charming Emanuele Cavallaro, 52, VP of global manufacturing, who hands me a pair of anti-static shoe guards to ward against sparks that might damage fragile electronic wares.

Cavallaro’s office overlooks a very pleasant open-plan “Mad Men”-esque office space with a pistachio-green colour scheme. As he and I prepare to enter the factory proper, we discuss China’s manufacturing capacity. Cavallaro tells me his theory that China is now where Germany was in 1955. “Technologically, China’s leaped ahead 20 years in only five.”

Then he opens the factory doors and …

… and it’s among the most spotless places I’ve ever been. Dust-proofed, zero humidity and a pleasant 66 degrees Fahrenheit, 365 days a year. The space is vast, and inside it small groups of staff in pale blue jumpsuits minister to the shiny objects that pop out of one quiet robotic machine to be placed in another robotic machine. The entire place reeks of Japanese-level quality control, and wordlessly showcases China’s determination to stop being the Old China and quickly become the New China.

Cavallaro shows me the 7950 Extensible Routing System switching modules being created through what is called surface-mount technology. They’ll offer five times the density of existing alternatives while consuming only one-third the electricity.

With support for up to eighty 100GE ports in a single track, the 7950 XRS shatters current density norms and paves the way for scaling the service provider cloud infrastructure. (Those last two sentences were culled directly from the Alca-Loo website.) Regardless, these 7950 XRS units progress in front of my eyes from tiny individual components to an ever more complex solid-state finished product packed in boxes, ready for shipping. Everywhere I look, plasma TVs spray out statistics and oscilloscopic data confirming that everything is okay. If only the real world could be so easily monitored.

The factory is also quiet. Cavallaro and I can easily hear each other’s voices. I mention my worries about sustainability, and wonder if there’s anything China can do to bubble-proof itself.

He says, “Growth at six or seven percent is creating a lot of social issues, and it obviously cannot be maintained indefinitely. The government’s now trying to create internal consumption within China so as to diversify and stabilize the economy against foreign dependency.”

(The thing about China is that the language of industrial pep-speak is so relentless that it infects even the most banal conversations. Can I get you a drink? No, I’m already enbevulated, but thank you for your most generous kindness.)

I can’t help but wonder why this router factory is located in Shanghai and not in, say … Michigan. Let me rephrase that: I understand very well why it’s located in Shanghai, but not why there isn’t also one located in Michigan, where 10 million primates needing 2,500 calories a day are sitting on top of a cold rock in the middle of the North American continent, and they’ve got nothing to do all day except go online and watch porn, TED videos, and BitTorrented movies, and then maybe go turn a trick or score some Oxy out by the interstate, behind the closed Denny’s covered in weathered plywood. Is North America to become what China is now ceasing to be, a place where you might as well work for 30 cents an hour making baubles because there’s absolutely nothing else to do except shop from your jail cell?

Earlier, Paul Ross and I were discussing the French being French and the Norwegians being Norwegians. What about Michiganders being Michiganders? When I look at Detroit or Flint or Lansing, I am forced to ponder the meaning of being alive: We wake up, we do something, we go to sleep, and we repeat it about 22,000 more times, and then we die. In Michigan, a North American feels a sense of losing one’s coherent view of the world. In Shanghai, one senses calm hands holding the reins, even if the cart is going 10 thousand miles per hour. China skipped much of what the 20th century held for the rest of the planet, and now careens futureward. One wonders when China will start opening factories in the United States. It feels inevitable. The United States is ruled by politicians. China is ruled by economists.

I’m in a funk as Cavallaro and I leave the factory floor. I say goodbye to him and cross Ningqiao Road back to Alca-Loo’s corporate campus, where I’m to meet with Peter Xu, head of Pacific Rim Hardware Sales. He exudes the energy, optimism, and drive of the nation’s under-40s. His Western first name alone is a telltale sign of China’s quickly morphing society. I ask him what changes he’s noticed during his decade or so within China’s tech and business worlds. He pauses and thoughtfully replies, “Meetings. So many meetings.”

Ahhh … meetings. Those spiritual cattle-slaughter facilities where so many of our cherished dreams go to die hideous protracted deaths.

“China is now having to service the things that it makes, and with this service sector there’s a huge new upwardly mobile meritocracy — and this is important, that China start spending money within China if our economy is to stabilize and diversify. We have to start buying the things we make.” This seems to be one of today’s themes.

Xu’s office is filled with trophies and boxes of swag (“Here, have a handful of free pens”), and the space has the vibe of belonging to someone on the way up. He travels a lot on business, often within China, and what irks him most about his job is the places he has to stay while traveling: The countless 200-renminbi-a-night (about $30) hotels catering to China’s mobile working class, 200 renminbi being the amount China has decided is to be spent per night on business hotels. Xu is a smart guy — he searches like anyone else — and he knows what’s possible. Even a Motel 6 with a broken water heater and a freeway off-ramp to lullaby him to sleep would be better than most 200-renminbi-a-night Chinese business hotels.

There’s a framed photo of his 7-year-old son on his shelf. I ask Xu what’s the main difference between himself at the age of 7, and his son at that age. “Oh, that’s easy,” Xu says, smiling, “He believes the Internet is the real world.”

My final meeting is with Yangqio Chen and his assistant, Julia. Chen is VP of the local communist party, but is also president of ASB, roles that seem contradictory at first. But the West is run by politicians, while China is run by economists, which is why phrases such as “market communism” are no longer oxymorons.

Both Chen and Julia speak English perfectly. Chen wears a beautifully made blue suit, while Julia is in a stylish dress and jacket from the school of Chanel. The two are both ideologues and proud of the strides China has made. Says Chen, “After the political reforms of 1949, it took a great deal of time for well over a billion people to stabilize, but we did finally reach the point where men and women became equal, where regional politics were homogenized, and where everyone had something to eat and something to do. So instead of being a mess, we were unified. If you want to see how unified we are now, look at China, then look at India.”

I ask about the methods used to get China from the 1949 revolution to now. Chen says, “We looked and saw that we had to grow three things: Transportation, energy and telecommunications. The central government could either do it alone or they could open up — and so they decided to open up. That’s how ASB was born, through our initial partnering with ITT.”

Julia offers, “In 1980 a phone in your house took a year’s salary. Soon, every person in China will have a mobile phone and access to broadband.”

Chen adds, “We in China were able to jump over many generations of technology. By the 1990s, our landlines had caught up to those of the rest of the world. And then we started going mobile as part of a Five-Year Plan. The next stage is for everything to merge: No difference between local and long-distance, and 4G-PDX optical broadband to every home in the country. We call this project ‘Broadband China.’”

Chen continues, “Broadband is a new form of infrastructure. Penetration creates much more social potential in all areas of society, and we believe the changes are more positive than negative.”

My frozen February bus trip to the silent, underlit time-stands-still New Jersey Bell Labs suddenly feels like it happened a thousand years ago. The locus of the future is China; it simply can’t be denied. Chen and Julia are radiant, and Chen’s last comment does, in part, answer my question as to whether the Chinese have discussed the political and social implications of giving high speed to the masses. I don’t know what their conclusions were, but their implementation can only transform our entire species, either directly or indirectly.

Oh, for a glass of mummified tap water to take me out of the present! I try to focus on mental pictures of the future, but I’m no longer sure what I’m seeing or feeling. It isn’t dread. It isn’t fear. The future actually feels like that awkward moment between when a practical joke has been played on you and the moment you realize that it’s a practical joke.

After leaving Chen’s office, I experience time sickness, as though I really have wormholed into the future. A few hours later, I’m at dinner in a glass tower above the Bund, a trillion dollars worth of real estate and LED lighting that blows Tokyo into the weeds. The steaks are from Argentina and cost $100 apiece. There are 30 different kinds of single-malt Scotch. The restaurant’s air is cool and fragrant, but the air outside the window is boiling and muggy and has that slightly damaged feeling, like when you see a big car with a large dent in it that makes you wince and say, “Ow.”

I’ve now spent months immersed in technology, and I have to ask myself what we, as a species, are learning about ourselves from all of this brave new reality that we didn’t know before?

Laphroaig? Why yes, thank you.

A few things come to mind. Humans are more curious than I might have given them credit for. Humans also like being connected to others far more than I might have guessed back in 1992. We’re good at finding the information we need when we really need it, and we have a better sense of humour than I might ever have guessed. And all of us have a deep need to be heard. On the other hand, I also think anonymity is the food of monsters, and the Internet allows people to indulge the worst sides of themselves with almost no fear of consequences.

Ice? Yes, please. (I inspect it to make sure it’s very clear.)

As I sip my drink, I look out the windows toward the power plants that are burning the coal from British Columbia that fuels the air conditioners and elevators and routers and switching devices and laptops and mainframes and hard drives and cell rechargers of Shanghai. The sky is chalky white from particulates, but the glowing skyscraper walls make the sky look like pink watery milk.

I wonder about religion. The Internet indeed generates and connects tribes and communities, but the people who are a part of these communities are also people who have, in turn, been modified and rewired by the Internet, and they can tell when something is being withheld from them. This gives me hope for the human spirit — but then I think of all the idiotic noisy groups spawned by the Internet, and my heart goes into despair mode. Ultimately, will the Internet favour individuals over the group (the cat scenario), or will it favour groups over the individual (the dog scenario)? The vote is still out on that one.

Of course we are now addicted to data speed. Take away even a fraction of the speed we currently use to keep our system going, and society will collapse. Or, fail to maintain our information infrastructure’s capacity and our societies will crumble. So much of what defines us and our various communities is made possible by unglamorous glass threads and electric switches purposefully located in the most boring, low-profile places possible.

I wonder if Alcatel-Lucent willfully fosters its own low profile. It is largely a company of good-natured scientists who are quite competitive among themselves and who like simplifying complex problems and then solving them and then moving on to the next problem. They are creating platform technology: Whatever you do with that platform is your business. All of the scientists I spoke with were almost endearingly surprised even to be asked the question of how people will use what they invent.

The bill? Yes, please.

It arrives at the table, and it’s shockingly high.

I catch my reflection in the glass, but it throws me off guard and, for a brief second I see myself the way others perhaps see me. I then think back two decades, and I think of how different I was back then in the ways I looked at the world and communicated with others. The essential “me” is still here … it just relates to the universe much more differently. What will the world look like when a doodad the size of a grape contains every piece of information humanity has ever created, and essentially costs nothing to make? What will the world look like when anywhere becomes everywhere becomes everything becomes anything?

We’re almost there.

I remember Peter Xu’s comment that his 7-year-old son believes the Internet is the real world. Right now, half of humanity — the younger half — believes the Internet is reality. And the other half ?

We simply haven’t yet reached the point where we, too, accept that the Internet is the real world. But we will.

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.

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