Nearly a dozen years ago, Douglas Coupland published his third novel, Microserfs, at a moment where everyone knew the future was about to happen, but no one knew quite what it would look like.
After moving to Seattle a month ago to work on the campus depicted in the novel, I returned to the same book that many years ago intrigued this Midwestern twenty-something, to see how the world (and my perspective on it) has changed. I have several conclusions, which I'm aggregating for a longer analysis. In the mean time, I have gathered the notes that I scribbled in the margins of the book. Below is a mish-mash of observations about cities, companies, and Microserfs, then and now.
+ The basic plot arc of Microserfs is that an ensemble of 'softies quit their jobs and move to San Fran to create a new software start-up. They begin building something called Oop! (can this sound any more like present?), which actually is a pun off object-oriented programming, but is essentially a 3D modeling program which you can use to create pretty much anything. The idea is loosely inspired by Legos, but in the intervening decade nothing has been invented to compare it to -- until I recently saw Will Wright demo his new game, Spore.
+ Even though the inaccurate predictions are less numerable, they say more about the mid-'90s than the accurate ones.
+ The descriptions of Microsoft campus life -- right down to the soccer fields and hidden paths -- are still quite accurate. The detail that seems to have changed the most is the relationship of employees to Bill. He was apparently a Geek God in 1994, whereas now he's more of a beleaguered Yoda. It's good we skipped over the anti-trust days though.
+ There's a great observation early in the book about how Microsofties don't put bumper stickers on their cars. This is still startlingly true, and it gives campus a sort of post-political feel. Or at least as post-political as 20,000 Audis lined up in a cement parking garage can be.
+ Except for occasional baby pictures and markup boards, Microserfs don't decorate their offices. At all.
+ At the beginning of the book, Apple is at the top of the world -- the computer company that all geeks aspire to. By the end of the book, the boys from Cupertino are sliding into oblivion, rumored to be bought out by Samsung. How many times has Apple died and been resurrected?
+ Quick quiz: what was the subtitle of Coupland's first novel, Generation X? Bzzt. "Tales for an Accelerated Culture." So much for slackers.
+ Off-topic: Has anyone else noticed that Ginsberg's "Howl" needs an update? I'll take a shot at it: "I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by Aeron chairs, tattooed hyper fresh, dragging themselves though Ikea on Sundays looking for an angry futon." Perhaps this is where a Wiki could help. Wiki Howl!
+ It seems unfathomable now, but this book was published before Windows 95 even came out.
+ Know what else people forget about this book? It's written in diary form. And you know what else? Less than a third of it happens in Seattle -- the rest occurs in Silicon Valley, except for the second-to-last chapter which is in Vegas (at CES).
+ Microserfs places Seattle in opposition to San Francisco. While there is still a tension between the Emerald City and Silicon Valley, Seattle now posits itself in relationship to Los Angeles.
+ Since moving here from Minneapolis, I constantly find myself appending rows to a grid that I've drawn in my mind with two simple columns: Minneapolis | Seattle. When I decide which city has "won" a particular feature, checkmarks get added to new rows of the mental grid. Traffic, for instance, of course gets a Minneapolis check, while food goes to Seattle. Daily papers, Minneapolis; weekly papers, Seattle; malls, Minneapolis; record stores, Seattle; pizza, Minneapolis. I already have hundreds of rows in my micro-niche grid. By the way, Seattle's Ikea totally sucks.
+ I am convinced this book could not exist today -- not in its current form, as fiction. Our first-person culture would undoubtedly force it into a memoir. Or perhaps Scoble is the modern equivalent. Microserfs even hints at its historical future by being structured like a journal. We all speculate about how blogging is changing journalism, but one should ask if memoirs are doing the same thing to fiction, especially in light of Freygate. Exploring this, you see, is partially why I moved to Seattle, and I hope to devote more thinking in this space. To be continued...