From Representations of Social Media in Popular Discourse (PhD thesis) by Pamela Ingleton:
I first encountered this piece in everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything, the accompanying volume to the first major survey exhibition of Coupland’s artwork curated by the Vancouver Art Gallery. I had the opportunity to view the exhibit in person when it visited the Royal Ontario Museum in March 2015. “Slogans” is so many things: vibrant, hip, commercial; unsubtle, reiterative, overwrought.
Produced within the same timeline as the work included in this thesis, it captures the discursive life of social media as I have attempted to trace it across popular culture, journalism and social commentary, not only within its statements but also in the manner of its utterance. While the placard description for the ROM’s exhibit suggests that it targets the effects of the “omnipresence of technology” more generally, I cannot help but see this piece as Coupland’s rather grim summation of the (perhaps not so) social experience of social media: ALL CAPS, bold, black letters of blatant, unrepentant messages signaling hollow social feeling—or a lack thereof.
His piece assumes a certain legibility on the part of both its creator and prospective audiences, relying on an assumed social media shorthand. When we read these statements, we are supposed to “get them,” resonating, as Stephen Colbert’s character would say, in our “gut.” Their presentation, towering as they do from floor to ceiling, in rows of contrasting and assaulting colour schemes, is intended to overwhelm, because, you know, we are being overwhelmed— consumed, even—by social media. Get it? We are not supposed to leave feeling good, unless, of course, we count ourselves amongst the offline holdouts who have staved off the social media onslaught. Because if “Slogans” is meant to represent a vision of life with and within social media, well, it ain’t pretty, even if the colours are.
In Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy K. Baym, referencing the work of Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas, proposes that “[t]he messages we communicate about technology are reflective, revealing as much about the communicators as they do about the technology” (23). Who, then, is Douglas Coupland, sloganist of 21st century technology? According to Sarah Hagi’s review of the Toronto exhibition, Coupland’s visual phrases are “meant to be provocative, but come off as something out-of-touch parents think navel-gazing young people tweet about,” a sentiment echoed in John Semley’s Globe and Mail review of Coupland’s Kitten Clone: Inside Alacatel-Lucent, a deep dive into the “mundane,” “unsexy” world of routers and cable that support Internet functionality:
It’s this sort of totally meaningless statement that typifies Coupland’s dusty media guru philosophy, reading like a Twitter spambot spitting out sub-McLuhanist pith. Coupland is a lively, sharp, and occasionally very funny writer. But this sort of techie-transcendentalist Zen koan stuff is embarrassingly Web 1.0, and accomplishes little beyond making him sound like an anxious, 19th-century Chicken Little who thinks electricity is some kind of sorcerer’s trick. (Semley)
Ouch. Both Hagi and Semley target Coupland’s age and out-of-touch-ness, and while I have no interest in setting up a full-scale examination of social media along generational lines, taken together, their critiques and Coupland’s work do a fine job of outlining the primary scope of this dissertation: popular social media discourse(s), fed by (aesthetic, moral, etc.) judgments of technological change and innovation, laced with fear and anxiety and chock full of a bunch of stuff that sounds meaningful but ultimately says very little. Coupland’s manipulation of ideas related to the human and “humanity” (e.g. “Humanity hasn’t been as mentally homogenized since the last ice age” and “I would like to speak with a human being please”), the severity of which is likewise mimicked in the critiques of his work, represents a gesture of discursive manoeuvring found in contemporary social media commentaries that I elaborate on throughout this thesis and particularly in its concluding chapter. Commentaries like Coupland, Hagi and Semley’s and the discourses used therein are precisely what are under consideration here, as opposed to the media they take as the objects of their analyses. This project is all about talking about how we talk about social media.
During an interview to promote Kitten Clone, Coupland recounts trips to Berlin and London and the scenes encountered there with tech-savvy youngsters in “egregiously hip hotels:”
I would walk through the lobby and everywhere I looked, in every chair and every table, there would be a twenty-eight-and-a-half-year-old holding a MacBook Pro and probably an iPad and had buds in their ears—sort of like pigeons on a telephone line—but everyone was doing their own thing but they were all doing it together. I think maybe this is some new form of socialization where, okay, you could be up in your room doing whatever you’re doing, but it’s still somehow a little bit nicer to be down here in my own bubble but surrounded by other people just like me inside their own bubbles. And then I realized, you know, maybe it’s always been that way it’s just that you’ve never seen it expressed this way before. (“Douglas Coupland”)
I am appreciative of this anecdote, operating as it does somewhat in opposition to the bold statements and sentiments of “Slogans.” While the scene’s depiction of a group of people “alone together” recalls the phrasing of another frequent new media commentator (and one decidedly pessimistic about social media’s everincreasing social integration), Sherry Turkle, Coupland’s subtle transition away from the doom and gloom of Turkle is significant, opening up the possibility of interpreting things anew. After all, if Chicken Little can pause for a moment to reflect a little more deeply on the status of the falling sky, then the rest of us can, too. I open with these contrasting Coupland cases because both Couplands are relevant to this study, and in fact their duality and interrelation offer a useful framing of the discourses and analyses to come.
From DOUGLAS COUPLAND: EVERYWHERE IS ANYWHERE IS ANYTHING IS EVERYTHING by Kyra Kordoski:
The mid-point of this circuit (part of Words into Objects) is covered with a collection of rainbow hued posters hung in grids, each bearing a Slogan for the 21st Century. The slogans are aphorisms, prophecies, questions, and pithy phrases focused mostly on pervasive digital connectivity and its psychological affects. Their tone ranges from bordering on sardonic to almost poignant. Of them, “I miss my pre-internet brain” probably comes closest to a being slogan for the exhibition itself. It points not just to the massive amounts of information we deal with, but to the 21st century’s massive relative increase in information, when compared to the 20th century. It also positions the brain, a bio-physical entity, as bearing the brunt of this shift, rather than the more nebulous ‘soul’ or even ‘mind’, a distinction which is emphasized by the finale of the show—a large-scale rendition of the artist’s own information processing organ. This particular slogan furthermore carries whiffs of the nostalgia imparted by the exhibition’s preponderance of now quasi-historical objects.
For a show so explicitly concerned with social implications of the digital, it is at very least notable both how little technology is used within the exhibition, and how little acknowledgement there is of contemporary new media and net art. Couplands Slogans are frequently about the internet without necessarily feeling like they are taken directly from the internet; despite the presence oversized smartphone barcodes in the Pop Explosion section, the formal affect remains solidly pop without veering significantly towards post-internet. Age of course can’t be pegged to medium or style, but the marked formal distance from contemporary digital culture does throw into relief the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have never, or have only very briefly, had a pre-internet brain to miss. anything is everything is patently not digitally native, which makes sense, as neither is Coupland, but his work here seems to be more specifically addressing the psychological experience of those whose adult brains span the transition from 20th to 21st century, a fact which complicates the ubiquity suggested by the exhibition’s title and claims of universal social conditions.
From I Miss my Pre-Internet Brain by Douglas Coupland:
The shuttle bus from the local hotel drops me off outside what appears to be an architecturally unmodified early Eighties facility for making robot housewives. But I’m actually standing in front of Bell Laboratories – Bell Labs, the research and development arm of the telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent. A sprawling collection of brick buildings the colour of a wet golden Labrador, Bell Labs stands in the centre of suburban New Jersey’s belt of once-utopian corporate campuses that began springing up in the Fifties, the acme of the military industrial complex era.
I’m discombobulated this morning: I forgot my iPhone, so have that homesick, disconnected feeling you get when you realise you’re phoneless. I’m also jet-lagged and I’m concerned because the date on the shuttle bus’s dashboard clock reminded me that it’s already February. Time is moving too quickly these days – and yet, at the same time, it’s moving too slowly. And it’s not just that I’m growing older. Quite simply, my brain no longer feels the way it used to; my sense of time is distinctly different from what it once was, and I miss my pre-internet brain. The internet has burrowed inside my head and laid eggs, and it feels as though they’re all hatching.
Welcome to the early 21st century, a world where the future somehow feels like… homework.
What’s really happening is that, after more than 10,000 hours of exposure to the internet and digital technologies such as my iPhone, my brain has been rewired – or, rather, it has rewired itself. Science has a name for this process: Hebb’s Law. When neurons fire together, they wire together. It’s no coincidence that the 10,000-hour rule has recently entered our culture’s popular imagination, explaining to us that after doing something for 10,000 hours, you become an expert at it, because that’s how much time your brain needs to fully rewire itself to adapt to a new medium.
Ask yourself if you’ve spent 10,000 hours on the internet, then think about your own brain. It’s clear there’s a new neural reality. If you’re in doubt, look at people younger than you. Do they interact with other people and the world differently from the way you did when you were their age? Of course they do. So, sometime between then and now, big changes have occurred. Our attention spans are collapsing: we want movies; we want music; we want unfiltered information. We want season four of Dexter. And we want it all now.
I think of this while watching Bell Labs workers bustle into the building. They’re flowing up mainly from the lower parking lot where they parked a fleet of silver, white and black sedans. Many are carrying briefcases and messenger bags containing laptops – these days you bring your own computer to work.
I enter through gold-tinted glass doors on the west side of the building, and the early Eighties fantasia continues. The high-ceilinged concrete space is filled with display cases filled with artefacts filled with astonishing significance: the world’s first transistor (1947); the world’s first laser (1957); a replica of the world’s first satellite (1961). A plasma television displays in real time the current number of patents generated by the building’s occupants: 29,002 as of this morning.
Most of us have never heard of Alcatel-Lucent but, essentially, it builds and maintains a huge chunk of the internet. The company was formed in 2006 by the €25 billion merger of France’s Alcatel and the American firm Lucent Technologies. It employs 80,000 people in 130 countries and has annual revenue of €16 billion. Alcatel-Lucent helps us transmit our voices, our movies and our data between landlines, mobile devices and the internet.
In this sense, it’s a platform company: it doesn’t provide content, it provides channels. You likely interact with Alcatel-Lucent hundreds of times a day without knowing it.
Alcatel is an embodiment of the new Western neural condition, and at the same time is its mirror. It is transnational, decentralised and emotionally neutral. It feeds on information, has a perpetual urge to upgrade and is always dissatisfied with the present. It exists purely to go forward. It demands and fosters ever more speed; ever more information saturation; and, especially, ever more networks.
In the old days, people communicated across distances with church bells or sent each other paper missives by way of a postal service; if the need was urgent, there was the telegram, which still required a person to bring the message to your door. These days, we do it with networks. A network is not something you buy in a box. It is a sprawling, messy, planetary machine with countless interdependent parts. There’s wire and fibre to carry traffic – enough optical fibre has been laid to circle the globe 11,000 times – and there’s an astonishing amount of highly unglamorous equipment and devices such as switches, routers and satellites overseen by governments and regulatory bodies – all so you can look up the lyrics to Bon Jovi songs any time you want and then buy novelty smartphone ringtones on impulse.
Of course, a global network is not something out of science fiction that would run forever if people disappeared from the planet. The network needs millions of people to define it, build it, maintain it, manage it and adapt it to meet the ever-morphing demands of seven billion human beings – a number that is only growing.
Fleetingly, I wonder if the Bell Labs building has free Wi-Fi, but I wonder that wherever I go now.
The glamorous Deb McGregor takes me on an elevator from the cafeteria to a fourth-floor office that’s a flawless hybrid of neutrality and casual neglect. I’m gratified to find out that this office does not belong to Markus Hofmann, head of Bell Labs Research. Hofmann is a cheerful man in his late fifties who tells me the office we’re in belongs to nobody. “We don’t really go for offices here in Bell Labs admin. Your office is basically wherever you are,” he says. “We use whatever one is empty.”
Hofmann, still a competitive water polo player, has spent 13 years at Bell Labs. He hails from Germany and has a PhD in computer engineering and a master’s in computer science, both from the University of Karlsruhe. He is highly involved with the IEEE (pronounced I-triple-E, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), a professional technological association headquartered in New York City.
He looks like a school principal who’d discipline you without resorting to corporal punishment, and his eyes tell me that, at any given moment, he’s probably figuring out the natural logarithm of his Visa card number or what his lunch might look like connected by strings into the fifth and/or sixth dimensions.
Hofmann tells me that the company’s administration practises what it preaches. “We create global communication systems, and we use all of them ourselves.” I mention that the nomadic existence of the Alca-Loo staffer is certainly different from Microsoft’s 80-hour-a-week staff being ball-and-chained to a Douglas fir tree in Washington State. Hofmann smiles. I look at the desk, where I notice a Trump Taj Mahal pen that reminds me I’m in New Jersey. I ask Hofmann what Bell Labs is currently working on and how it fits into Alcatel-Lucent.
“Bell Labs is a toolbox. Every day we ask ourselves: ‘What do we want to build?’ And we can ask this knowing that what we build will have real-world deployment through Alcatel-Lucent.”
The best books of 2014
Genuine fun fact: in 1992 when I handed in a manuscript, I was reprimanded by the editor for using a fax as part of the plot. “Not everyone can afford a fax machine, and including it here seems elitist and unfair to readers who can’t be expected to either afford or understand what a fax machine is.” In general, I try to include up-to-date technology in novels. Rather than dating them, it time codes them. People picking up, say, Microserfs two decades later enjoy the book for its tech fidelity as for anything else.
I ask Hofmann what he thinks the long-term effect of access to so much information is going to be. “Currently, all Bell Labs staff members remember the pre-digital world; our ideal remains a hand-held plus a pen and paper. But that’s us. Obviously, we’re seeing more and more smart young people absorbing massive amounts of information, and we’re unsure what the long-term effects will be.”
I mention my theory of “omniscience fatigue”. Thanks to Google and Wikipedia, for the first time in the history of humanity, it’s possible to find the answer to almost any question, and the net effect of this is that information has become slightly boring. (We have to face the fact that God might actually be bored by knowing all the answers to everything.)
Hofmann gives a dry chuckle. “We need deep, solid foundations and deep thinking to reach our next human level,” he says. “Yet time is now the ultimate consideration. You can’t go deep and solid without giving ideas time. But manufacturing competition is crazy, and we have such quick feedback now.”
This schizoid new future doesn’t seem to disturb Hofmann. His enthusiasm says he’s more than willing to face it head-on.
One can look back on the print era and witness true poignancy: readers the world over were determined to see their lives as stories, when, in fact, books are a specific invention that creates a specific mindset. Most people can’t find the larger story in their lives. Born, grew up, had kids, maybe, and died… what kind of story is that? There’s a maxim in the world of urban planning that if you let your city be planned by bakers, you will end up with a city of bakeries. If you have a culture whose brains are “planned” by books, you’ll have a citizenry who want their lives to be book-like. If you have a culture whose brains are “planned” by digital culture and internet browsing, you’ll have a citizenry who want their lives to be simultaneous, fluid, ready to jump from link to link – a society that assumes that knowledge is there for the asking when you need it. This is a very different society from one peopled by book readers.
Yet the residual need for one’s life to be a story persists from the print era, especially in people born before 1970. Print-era holdouts see the non-linear children of the web as shallow and emotionally impoverished. Young people “born digital”, with no vested emotional engagement with books, view print holdouts as souls adrift in a useless sea of nostalgia.
This is an edited extract from Douglas Coupland’s Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, published by Visual Editions at £25
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