Book review: Douglas Coupland’s Bit Rot – inside the dark heart of the information age
The line between art and technology is becoming ever more blurred. Perhaps part of the reason is that by force of necessity, art always follows money, and in 2016, technology is increasingly where the money is. As the greatest of internet behemoths, it stands to reason that Google would get involved as a patron of the arts, like financial behemoths always have done; Google are merely the Medicis of the 21st century.
Their patronage has not been without controversy. When the Google Cultural Institute opened as an offline, bricks-and-mortar space in Paris in 2013, the French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, due to host the inauguration ceremony, pulled out at the last minute in protest at some of Google’s tax practices. “I don’t wish to appear as a guarantee for an operation that still raises a certain number of questions,” Filippetti said.
Douglas Coupland is a writer who understands these connections well, and his new collection has its basis in that rarefied literary form, the art catalogue; it was an accompaniment to an exhibition which drew on a residency at the Google Cultural Institute, in fact. Coupland was trained at art school and has exhibited in numerous countries; Bit Rot was his major solo exhibition in Europe, at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam. It was by all accounts a diverse range of pieces and forms, some by Coupland, some from his personal collection, all seeking to represent his mindscape, “a tapestry of associations and stories which collectively address themes such as globalisation, terror, pop culture, the internet and social media”.
The phrase “bit rot” refers to the degeneration of digital files and pieces of software – a (factual) counterpoint to the idea of digital permanence. Far from the internet and home PCs, tablets and smartphones creating a permanent record of all our activity, in perpetuity, in fact, even our digital footprints can slowly fade into dust.
The collection sees Coupland reflect the familiar sensation of internet use in the formal composition of the book itself – a messy but diverting selection of more than 60 short stories, essays, even a full pilot script for a TV programme. Always a technological zealot, Coupland, a Canadian, had recently became convinced that he had to transform his writing to reflect this.
“The way I was writing wasn’t keeping up with the pace of the culture or the pace of the way we perceive and live in the world,” he told The Globe and Mail, last month. “I wanted to create a sensation in fiction that you get when you’re online and you fall down a rabbit hole and you’re like, what the hell just happened, and you fall down another rabbit hole.”
Bit Rot attempts to provide the literary equivalent of having 30 tabs open simultaneously on your web browser; three things you started to read, a dozen you feel you ought to, videos, audio, numerous thrumming communication channels – the sensation of being overwhelmed by sheer weight of content and ideas, and their variation in form – never bored but always distracted, and insatiable.
“Even when you take a holiday from technology, technology doesn’t take a break from you.” Coupland writes in George Washington’s Extreme Makeover, describing an attempt to separate himself from the digital world and secure “a dreamlike brain holiday”, switching off his devices and plunging himself into a long, stuffy biography of Washington, and thus another era.
Coupland fails to achieve this escape, because details of Washington’s perennial ill-health, infections and bad teeth prompts him to imagine the makeover of the title: he fantasises about whisking the first American president to 2016, to benefit from all the modern day balms, medicines and other treatments we take for granted. The argument is that even when we try to escape from the present in body and mind, we will fail.
The appeal of going off-grid, taking a holiday from the white noise of modern communications, is one many will recognise; who hasn’t at some point said “I’m turning my phone off” with some degree of satisfaction?
Unfortunately – perhaps inevitably – Coupland’s scattergun approach to our scattergun brains secures its share of misses, as well as hits. After the pithy four-page essay about Washington and healthcare technology, the 50-page long pilot script for a TV show about the same subject is a bizarre, if occasionally funny inclusion. The dental treatment, injections and plastic surgery that ensue just seem like a long-form labouring of a perfectly succinct point; it seems likely that the desire to throw another writing form into this stylistic melange trumped whether it was actually worthy of inclusion. Perhaps this is at least thematically appropriate – quality control is not the internet’s strong point.
Some of the fiction is decidedly sub-par, too. A short story about a murderous cult who want to kill celebrities, just because they are celebrities, reads like the work of an adolescent who is going through a deep phase and rejecting a world of Kardashians in favour of a bit of a Camus.
“The only thing our diseased culture believes in is fame,” declaims one of the killers. It’s tempting to look for a deeper level of sardonic ironising beneath the surface of some of these very basic parables – but not always easy to find one.
Coupland, of course, is known – perhaps too well known – for his ability to nail the western cultural zeitgeist, rising to prominence when only 30 with his best-selling debut novel Generation X, which was a notorious periodic break, a distinction of the early 90s grunge generation from their go-getting 80s forebears. It was in this novel that Coupland popularised the term ‘McJob’ – an identification of post-industrial precarious employment (in service jobs like those on offer at McDonald’s) that has since become commonplace. At his best, Coupland can pinpoint the near future as well as the present.
When these soothsayer-as-entertainer skills come alive in this collection, it is because Coupland employs his sardonic humour to pastiche the rapidly evolving possibilities of our digitally-enhanced humanity. An App Called Yoo is written as a kind of sales pitch for his invention, an app which parodies some of the most intrusive and privacy-violating functions of current social media and web technology.
Some of the functions seem imaginative: you turn on Yoo and you are transported into the view of a car driving down the street where you grew up; fragments of songs and movies you have seen recently are weaved into the Yoo experience, along with others you might like; a voice reads aloud a drunken email you wrote to a former crush, but never sent.
If there is an objection to this, it might be that none of this seems particularly, or at all, far-fetched. For those of us with an Android smartphone, Google (on which Yoo is clearly based, even replicating the logo) can display a map of the places we have travelled to and how long it took, on any day, for the entire period we’ve had a Google account. Algorithm-driven recommendations, from adverts to YouTube selections, are growing in efficacy and prominence all the time – and as the AI gets better, become all the more profitable for internet corporations.
Perhaps these capabilities are developing so quickly it is putting the forecasters of the near-future into obsolescence.
Coupland is at his best when he muses on new opportunities and challenges presented by technology. In the title essay, he considers the changing role of the museum or university archivist, collecting the papers and works of eminent writers, politicians and suchlike – and how those legacies will be transformed now that there are laptops stuffed full of incredible minutiae lying around. Some of this material, he says, will not be the kind descendants and estates will consent to make public. Will these digital legacies be allowed to degrade, or disappear? Who should be involved in curating them, picking “what is historically valuable without straying into the laptop’s scarier neighbourhoods?”
Does absolute broadband corrupt absolutely? There is a fashionable and slightly moralistic tendency among users of social media to defend the medium – and by extension, the vast array of people using it – from the carping of (usually) elders and refuseniks; and to contest the idea that humans are being changed for the worse by technology.
They tend to do this with memes. One frequent lamentation is that selfie culture shows digital natives are beset by vanity and in a state of arrested development. Oh really, respond the Twitter evangelists, you think the selfie generation are vain? When, 200 years ago, those with the means to do so would pay vast sums of money to be painted, looking as handsome as possible, astride a horse?
Yet technology is undoutbedly changing us. And while it always has done, it hasn’t always moved quite this fast. If there is one thing Coupland is unarguably right about, it is in the general impetus behind Bit Rot: that thinking through how we are (or aren’t) changing under the blue light of the Wi-Fi signal is an essential task for us, and for our digital legatees.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review.