Douglas Coupland: 'I miss my pre-internet brain'
The internet has made it possible to find the answer to almost any question within seconds. But at what cost?
9:00AM BST 14 Sep 2014
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.”
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.===========================================
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