Nerds of the cyberstocracy

There may be something oddly prophetic in Douglas Coupland's novel Microserfs, writes Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Millions of man hours went into the coding of Windows 95, more than 7 million units have already been launched and Microsoft's quarterly revenues have jumped by 62 per cent to $2bn, making Microsoft's billionaire boss, Bill Gates, richer still. What has all that got to do with Canadian cult novelist Douglas Coupland - billed by the Wall Street Journal as "a major, authentic voice for a generation", after his first novel Generation X put Eighties America under the microscope?

Well, his new novel Microserfs takes a bitter-comic look, not at bond traders or merchant bankers but at the West's newest aristocracy: computer geeks - those ill-adjusted young programmers blessed with one good idea, who then sit back and watch the millions roll in.

Microserfs, however, is not so much about those men and women who would be Bill Gates, that William Randolph Hearst for the Nineties, as about super-geek Gates's influence on the rest of us. And the big question has to be, is Gates as important as the Western media makes out?

"Absolutely," insists Douglas Coupland. "Microsoft without Gates truly is nothing more than an office supply company. I didn't think this was the case when I went down there to research the novel. I thought the whole `Bill thing' was way out of proportion. But it isn't. It's probably even more potent in real life than it's portrayed in the book."

It seems that Gates is the Henry Ford of our age, and it is to Coupland's credit that he has captured a sense of this as his characters first work for, and then try to escape from, the monolith that is Microsoft. Of course, Coupland is already famous for cult novels that dissect our obsession with cities, big business and urban angst. So it is not surprising he's done it again, with a fable that says the geeks shall inherit the earth and that, on the whole, they deserve to.

Microserfs is written in the form of Daniel Underhill's computer diary, kept, inevitably enough, on an AppleMac PowerBook. Reading it is like taking a crash course in modern American culture, a culture shaped by computers, junk food, overwork, children's TV and worries about dandruff.

When the story begins, Dan is writing computer code 18 hours a day, trying to meet impossible shipping deadlines (shades of the late shipping of Windows 95). As the story progresses, Dan escapes from Microsoft's campus at Redmond, Washington to "start-up heaven" in Silicon Valley, California, discovering love on the way.

As Microsoft is not a company noted for its openness, I asked how Coupland got the local colour that makes this new book so convincing. It turns out he collected it on the spot, actually at Microsoft. "I spent six weeks doing a Gorillas in the Mist-type experience in Redmond, and four months in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley. I used to know a few 'serfs. Now I know dozens."

"It's all supposed to be top secret, but it was like one of those old Ian Carmichael, working-in-a-candy-factory films from the early Sixties with people sneezing into chocolate boxes and romping through TOP SECRET doorways. The campus is probably a sort of a gulag now, but it was a lark back then." ("Back then" meaning two years ago, when the book was being written.)

So what does "microserf" mean exactly? Well, it is the opposite of "cyberlord" - and the question that separates the microserfs from the ruling cyberlords is, "Are you One-Point-O?" (The number used to separate the first, ground- breaking shipment of any software from the less original versions that follow.)

Can we get away with ignoring Bill Gates, Microsoft and computers altogether? Coupland does not think so, nor does he think we should. "There's this odd paranoia in the air that somehow this new technology isn't going to democratise. This is pretty silly. In the end, all technologies become everyday. There was a big trendy wave of crusties touting themselves as neo-Luddites a few months ago, but then the term got as overworked as information superhighway. And besides, by running around telling people you're a neo-Luddite, you're running around saying, `I'm unemployable'. And who wants that?"

Microserfs reads like an end-of-the-century primer for those who would join the new nerd aristocracy. Because if, as seems probable, we're all going to become part of computer culture - whether we like it or not - then we might as well be Cyberlords rather than Microserfs.

`Microserfs' by Douglas Coupland, pounds 9.99, will be published by Flamingo on 15 November.

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