Coupland explores collective rewiring
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