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.

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

    Nursery Nurse

    £25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

    Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

    £21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

    KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

    £110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape