Cult author Douglas Coupland talks to Alan Rutter about the uncertain future of the printed word
In 1991, Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland’s first novel, Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture, provided the title for a loose global demographic and attained cult status just as the internet was beginning its seismic shift from geeksville to ubiquity. Since then his works have been laced with postmodern religion, pop culture, Web 2.0, and no small amount of cynicism and disaffection. His new book, Generation A, nods to his debut in title and structure, but also seems to be as close to a call to arms as Coupland has ever come. It champions storytelling as an antidote to the modern world’s bombardment of our senses.
Do you take a particular moral stance in this book? In my other books I tend to be, if not amoral, un-moralistic. I’m getting very interested in power structures, how they get used and abused. I’m definitely moving more in that direction. It’s good to know that I can change this late in the game.
What caused the shift? There were a series of biographies being commissioned – living Canadians writing about dead Canadians. It doesn’t get sexier than that for a plug. I did Marshall McLuhan [the philosopher and scholar who coined both the phrases ‘the medium is the message’ and ‘the global village’ in the ’60s]. The interesting thing about him is that he was this crusty old fuddy-duddy who explained, in elaborate detail, what the internet would be like and what it would change, including the way we perceive things.
What is changing? That the time that used to go into reading is taken up almost exclusively by the internet [and digital media] now. On an aeroplane recently, I had two novels in my carry-on luggage and I ended up just watching Entourage on DVD. You see people going crazy without access to their email. You get addicted – and the word addiction is key – to having information coming at you all the time, and when it stops, the withdrawal symptoms are extreme.
What will be the effects of these huge, rapid changes? During the ’90s, society didn’t change that much. Then – boom! In eight years we have absorbed Google, eBay, the complete digitisation of the financial system, PDAs [personal digital assistants, like iPhones]. We have just absorbed a s***load of information. You had people before who were isolated, yet now – although it happens online – they have a sense of community. More people are reading more diversely in that way. The democratisation of ideas and information is astonishing. Rather than getting freaked out and saying it’s all bad, I say give yourself some credit for handling what is a very complex situation.
But these rapid changes do have negative repercussions… One theory is that the instantaneous nature of information renders so many things obsolete. I was walking through a neighbourhood here and I saw the local phone company putting out phonebooks on people’s doorsteps. What is that about – a printed directory of phone numbers? Why would I need that?
You say people are reading more now, but can you see the end of the book as a physical object? I started working with books 18 years ago, and they’ve always been under threat. There’s this Kindle thing [the software and hardware platform developed by Amazon.com for reading e-books and other digital media], optical recognition technology and so on. In 30 years people may look back and say, ‘Oh, wasn’t that strange? People actually used to have walls that were covered with physical books.’ So even on the level of interior decoration, our perception of the bookcase is going to have to change. All you can do is put a brave face on it. The moment you start blaming the times you live in, it means your time is over. Generation A is published by Random House Canada. Available at Magrudy’s for Dhs85.