In Dave Hegeman’s review of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative
Class and How it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (which I wrote about in this entry), he wrote this about the cities and enclaves that attract a mix of techies and “creatives”:
Welcome to the brave new world of economic prosperity, technological progress, and alienation. The coffee may be good and the music cool, but there is a spiritual and relational emptiness at the core of these hip new neighbourhoods which is bound to reveal itself in due time.
Reading that part of the review, I was reminded of a character in an Encyclopedia Brown story who wished a curse on all the ships of the world after getting food poisoning from a submarine sandwich.
This got me thinking about a half-remembered exchange from Douglas Coupland’s novel, Microserfs. If you go to a geek’s house, you’re quite likely to find a copy of it
in one of their bookshelves (probably alongside copies of A Brief History of Time and Ender’s Game). The book is generally thought of by programmers as chillingly accurate; I remember reading it sometime during the first few weeks of my first job as a CD-ROM developer and thinking “I know these people! I’m reading about us!” I later found out that Coupland did some pretty intensive research into geek lives: he had Microsoft arrange for him to live and hang out with with six employees they had selected for six weeks.
I dug up my copy of Microserfs and found what I was looking for near the beginning of Chapter 2 (titled “Oop”). In the conversation, Dan, the book’s narrator (who is
painfully introspective in that way that Coupland narrators tend to be) is asked a big question his housemate, Todd, one of those coders whose life is either coding or furthering his studliness through working out, his Toyota Supra and one-night-stands. (A little more backgroud: Todd’s parents are the sort of religious fundamentalists who have an innate distrust in science and technology and constantly try to get him to leave the high-tech world and come back to the fold.)
In walks Karla, Dan’s new girlfriend, who gets the best lines in the book.
The Cablevision was out for some reason, and Todd was just lying there, flexing his arms on the floor in front of the snowy screen. He said to me, “There has to be more to existence than this. ‘Dominating as many broad areas of automated consumerism as possible’ — that doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.” Todd?
The speech was utterly unlike him — thinking about life beyond his triceps or his Supra. Maybe, like his parents, he has a deep-seated need to believe in something, anything. For now it’s his bod…I think.
He said, “What we do at Microsoft is just as repetitive and dreary as any other job, and the pay’s the same as any other job if you’re not in the stock loop, so what’s the deal…why do we get so into it? What’s the engine that pulls us through the repetition? Don’t you ever feel like a cog, Dan?…what — the term ‘cog’ is outdated — a cross-platform highly transportable binary object?
I said, “Well, Todd, work isn’t, and was never meant to be a person’s whole life.”
“Yeah, I know that, but aside from the geek badge-of-honor stuff about doing cool products first and shipping them on time and money, what else is there?”
I thought about this. “So what is it you’re really asking me?”
“Where does morality enter our lives, Dan? How do we justify what we do to the rest humanity? Microsoft is no Bosnia.”
Karla came into the room at this point. She turned off the TV set and looked at Todd square in the eyes and said, “Todd, you exist not only as a member of a family or a company or a country, but as a member of a species — you are human. You are part of humanity. Our species currently has major problems and we’re trying to dream our way out of these problems and we’re using computers to do it. The construction of hardware and software is where the species is investing its very survival, and this construction requires zones of peace, children born of peace and the absence of code-interfering distractions. We may not achieve trascendence through computation, but we will keep ourselves out of the gutter with them. What you perceive of as a vaccuum is an earthly paradise — the freedom to, quite literally, line
by line, prevent humanity from going nonlinear.”
She sat down on the couch, and there was rain drumming on the roof, and I realized that there weren’t enough lights on in the room and we were all quiet.
Karla said, “We all had good lives. None of us were ever victimized as far as I know. We have never wanted for anything, nor have we ever lusted for anything. Our parents are all together, except for Susan’s. We’ve been dealt good hands, but the real morality here, Todd, is whether these good hands are squandered on uncreative lives, or whether these hands are applied to continuing humanity’s dream.
The rain continued.
“It’s no coincidence that as a species we invented the middle classes. Without the middle classes, we couldn’t have had the special type of mindset that consistently spits out computational systems, and our species could never have made it to the next level, whatever that level’s going to be. Chances are the middle classes aren’t even part of the next level. But that’s neither here nor there. Whether you like it or not, Todd, you, me, Dan, Abe, Bug and Susan — we all of us the fabricators of the human dream’s next REM cycle. We are building the center from which all else will be held. Don’t question it, Todd, and don’t dwell on it, but never ever let yourself forget it.”