Cou­p­land ex­plores col­lec­tive rewiring

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Greg Di Cresce

DOU­GLAS Cou­p­land doesn’t duck big ideas. In­stead, this Cana­dian au­thor rock­ets head­long into them. His spec­u­la­tive plunges can leave one feel­ing as if they’ve just watched a Warner Brothers car­toon character dive from a 60-me­tre plat­form into a damp sponge. In Kit­ten Clone: Inside Al­ca­tel-Lu­cent, Cou­p­land gives the damp sponge a se­ri­ous work­out. Here the au­thor, who wowed read­ers with his first novel, Gen­er­a­tion X: Tales For an Ac­cel­er­ated Cul­ture, plays tour guide in a genre-bend­ing ef­fort that’s both non-fic­tional trav­el­ogue and cor­po­rate bio, with a sci­encefic­tion wrap­per. Os­ten­si­bly, Cou­p­land’s visit to Al­ca­tel-Lu­cent (Alca-Loo) is to pro­vide a peek into the plumb­ing of the In­ter­net. Alca-Loo is a global cor­po­ra­tion that got its start in the lo­co­mo­tive business in France’s Al­sace re­gion in the mid19th cen­tury. It grew, gob­bling up such prop­er­ties as Bell Labs (for­merly Bell Tele­phone Lab­o­ra­to­ries) to be­come a ma­jor player in the fiber op­tics game. This is the plat­form from which Cou­p­land leaps. Chan­nelling me­dia the­o­rist Mar­shall McLuhan, he con­nects this sprawl­ing web of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy to the lit­eral re-wiring of the hu­man brain. What’s more, Cou­p­land finds in the In­ter­net what might be called the global mind of hu­man­ity. The In­ter­net is be­com­ing hu­man­ity — or, rather, hu­man­ity is be­com­ing the In­ter­net. “When I started re­search­ing this book, I thought that the In­ter­net was a metaphor for life,” Cou­p­land ex­plains in Kit­ten Clone’s in­tro­duc­tion, “now I think life is a metaphor for the In­ter­net.” How’s that for a Bugs Bunny-like dive? From here, Cou­p­land takes read­ers on an en­ter­tain­ing ride through of­fices, hall­ways and labs of Alca-Loo, be­gin­ning in Berke­ley Heights, N.J., stop­ping in Paris, France, and end­ing in Shang­hai, China. While this trip takes place in the present, he frames it tem­po­rally: Past (Bell Labs in New Jersey), Present (Paris head­quar­ters of Alca-Loo), and Fu­ture (Shang­hai Bell). By us­ing this frame­work, ably sup­ported by the pho­tog­ra­phy of Olivia Arthur, Cou­p­land looks to but­tress the logic of his won­der­fully un­com­fort­able — and darkly com­i­cal — vi­sion of hu­man­ity’s fu­ture as In­ter­net. What does this fu­ture look like? This is where the kit­ten of Kit­ten Clone en­ters the pic­ture, and where Cou­p­land ties off the sci­ence-fic­tion wrap­per on this work. He jumps to the year 2245, and tells a story of a fa­ther and son (who is a clone of his fa­ther) who to­gether clone a kit­ten. When the son is wor­ried his boss may catch him with this kit­ten — where he works is a “No Small Mam­mal Zone” — he mat­ter-of­factly eats it at his fa­ther’s urg­ing. What are we to make of this car­toon­ish con­clu­sion? Is it that In­ter­net “hu­man­ity” is some­thing that’s at once ex­ceed­ingly in­ti­mate and dis­turbingly cold? That when life is eas­ily re­pro­duced, it’s eas­ily con­sumed? At one point in Kit­ten Clone, Cou­p­land de­scribes what the fu­ture feels like. “(It’s) 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.” So maybe this is all a prac­ti­cal joke. Then again, maybe we bet­ter start de­vel­op­ing a taste for Puddy Tat. Greg Di Cresce is a Win­nipeg jour­nal­ist and a stu­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tion his­tory.

Kit­ten Clone: Inside


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