Coupland’s book begins on a “grim February morning” in New Jersey, where Bell Laboratories, one of Alca-Loo’s key holdings, has its head offices. From there, Coupland takes us to Alca-Loo’s Paris headquarters, and then to China, which the author describes to me as “sort of the march of the future and the incandescent glory of tomorrow.”
What is it about China that serves as a bellwether for the future, I ask. Coupland points to the end of his book, which features a meeting with Yangqio Chen, the vice-president of Shanghai’s communist party, who outlines China’s five-year plan to provide ultra-high-speed broadband to the richest parts of the country, and to ensure that even people in remote regions can get at least five MBps. “Which is the most I can scrape out of any of the providers in Vancouver at the moment,” Coupland says.
“I was fresh on the heels of McLuhan,” he continues, “and I said, ‘Sir, have you thought about the side effects?’” At which point his Chinese interlocutor interrupts. “‘I know what you’re getting at. Here’s the thing: the fate of humanity for the next century – no matter who you are, what you think, what you believe – is ultra-high-speed broadband. Everywhere, always, all the time. You cannot stop that, because it’s going to happen.’”
Coupland compares our current technological moment to an asteroid speeding toward Earth. “It’s going to collide and there’s nothing you can do,” he says. “And people say, ‘I refuse to believe it; there’s no asteroid approaching.’ And then wham! they get hit.”
But does the metaphor hold? An asteroid on a collision course with Earth is out of the control of humans, whereas technology is our own creation. As such, do humans not have the ability to determine its uses, and what aspects of it we want to hold on to versus what aspects we’d rather not retain?
It’s at this point that Coupland calls me stupid.
“In China, they’ve decided they might as well get there first, because it’s inevitable,” Coupland says. “You can sit there and say no, but it’s going to happen. And you’ll be wrong. You are wrong. It’s going to happen. It will happen. And if you say it’s not going to happen, you’re stupid.”