Douglas Coupland on the future, 3D printing, and the irrelevancy of human beings

douglas couplandWe’re about 20 minutes into our chat when Douglas Coupland calls me stupid.

Well, alright, not me personally, but the type of individual who might harbour an attitude I’d just tentatively expressed.

The subject we’re discussing is the future, which is at the heart of Coupland’s fascinating new work of non-fiction, Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent (Random House Canada). The book – a large-format affair liberally illustrated with photographs by Olivia Arthur – is a bit of a hybrid: a look inside the eponymous tech company, which is responsible for the design and maintenance of much of the modern internet, and a meditation on our species’ fixation with technology, its products, and its effects.

There is arguably no major Canadian writer better positioned to undertake this project: as a novelist, Coupland has been at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist since the early 1990s, when his debut introduced the reading public to a shorthand designation for an entire generation (along with such now-ubiquitous terms as “McJobs”). His novels Microserfs and jPod cast a satirical eye on tech culture’s denizens and obsessions. And as a non-fiction writer, he contributed a biography of media theorist Marshall McLuhan for Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians series.

Kitten Clone is the third in the Writers in Residence series, which grew out of Alain de Botton’s book A Week at the Airport, chronicling the author’s experiences living for a week in London’s Heathrow Airport. Botton “had the idea of putting fiction writers in situations where a person might not normally have access,” Coupland says, “or a situation people didn’t even know was a situation.”

Both are true in the case of Alcatel-Lucent, or “Alca-Loo” as it’s known on the U.S. stock market. “What they do is absolutely essential, integral to our life’” Coupland says. “If they were to disappear tomorrow, your iPhone wouldn’t work, nothing would work.” And yet, despite its centrality to our very way of life in the 21st century, precious few people – until just recently, myself included – can even claim to be aware of the company’s existence.

“They really do think of themselves as plumbers,” Coupland says, referring to Alca-Loo’s employees. “And you only think of plumbers when you need one.”

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