Kitten Clone

KITTEN CLONE: INSIDE ALCATEL-LUCENT
By Doulas Coupland

Kitten Clone is the third in a series of books published by Writers in Residence, an imprint “dedicated to recording and describing key institutions of the modern world.” The thinking behind the series being that these are institutions whose inside workings aren’t widely reported on.

The collaboration by Douglas Coupland and photographer Olivia Arthur draws a portrait of Alcatel-Lucent, one of the tech industry’s major players and a company that provides a lot of the infrastructure for today’s Internet.

It’s not a corporate history (thank heavens!) so much as a report on the state of Alca-Loo’s soul and a musing on what the Internet has done and is doing to us, full of the sort of freestyle musings – some of them insightful and profound, others banal or contradictory – that Coupland is famous for.

Though primarily concerned with the ubiquity and invisibility of modern technology (just think of “the cloud”), it’s a book that’s structured around discreet units of time and space, with chapters that look at the company’s past, present and future by way of visits to its different global headquarters and interviews with employees.

There is an air of determinism in this grounding. The office buildings, for example, were designed so as to lead to certain effects, like increased socializing. And of course the company’s product is today’s pre-eminent driver of McLuhanesque technological determinism. The Internet is the tool that shapes its maker:

Never has an invention so quickly been adopted by the entire species and then, once having been adopted, gone on to bend the species to its will – the servant has become the master.

Coupland has seemed less interested in writing fiction of late, a development that I think is better for everyone. Kitten Clone is his best book in years, with only a few of his familiar, grating miscues. One of these is his attempt to popularize names that will stick to social phenomena, as though trying to recapture the branding success of Generation X. I don’t think “blank-collar worker” (the anonymous wreckage of the middle class that is now sinking into skill-less prolehood) is likely to catch on in the same way.

But as interesting as much of it is, Kitten Clone is a sad book as well. In the first place, despite being a huge and very wealthy company, Alcatel-Lucent is constantly shedding employees and its research is being guided more and more by the bottom line. Worker morale doesn’t seem high.

Also sad is the fact that its glory days are behind it, with the oatmeal-carpeted corridors of the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey appearing to Coupland as existing “under a massive bell jar in which time has gone static, and there is the distinct sense here of being, if not embalmed, trapped in the past.” The “sense of invention . . . the sense of futurity – the sense that by working in tech you were somehow building a better tomorrow, a cooler tomorrow, a smarter tomorrow, a more democratic tomorrow” exists now only in China.

And China, just beneath its modern façade of wealth, gives off an “overpowering sense of damaged brilliance,” a place that seems destined for speedy ruin.

The people we meet seem decent enough, and very smart, but you don’t have the sense they share the same belief in the future as previous generations of tech pioneers. The impact of their industry on the environment, and the general sustainability of the digital revolution, is a shared concern, but aside from improving the energy efficiency of their devices no one seems to have any real idea of how to fix things.

A question Coupland keeps returning to is “What are we learning about ourselves from all of this new technology that we didn’t already know?” The disappointing answer seems to be: nothing. If the Internet is a tool that shapes its maker it is also one that was made very much in its maker’s image, a machine driven by the economic imperative to supply human demands. Given an economy capable of sustaining those demands we might then expect the future to lead to more – much, much more – of the same.

Notes:
Review first published December 6, 2014.