It seems quaint that Douglas Coupland’s latest work should arrive in so prosaic a form as thinly sliced trees bound between slightly thicker-cut trees. After all, the Vancouver visual artist, writer, and designer – now in his 50s – has always been something of a futurist, a McLuhanesque figure for those born after the baby boomers. Surely his new work would be better suited to a 3-D hologram or an encoded chip that readers could embed in their necks for direct neural upload.
Instead, what we are offered is a plain old book containing a wildly disparate collection of scenes, vignettes, B-sides, stories, and outtakes – some fiction, others not – the author has been amassing since 2005. The ostensible theme involves the ways in which our 21st-century brains – shaped as they are by smartphones, emojis, kitten videos, and 140-character Twitterosophy – are different from our pre-Internet, analogue brains, which were shaped by books, cursive writing, and other putatively outmoded forms of communication.
An abbreviated list of the 66 subjects on which Coupland offers insights in Bit Rot includes: oil spills in Vancouver’s English Bay; Internet porn; homicidal cult members; smoking; hoarding; airports; cheapness; pot; Uber; and the middle class. There is also a bizarre 52-page script for a TV pilot in which George Washington gets an extreme makeover, and a trenchant yet LOL-worthy take on modern office life.
Here, one character nails the volatility of our social-media-driven, highly curated online lives: “Truly modern citizens are both charismatic and can respond only to other people with charisma. To survive, people need to become self-branding charisma robots. Yet, ironically, society mocks and punishes people who aspire to that state.” Elsewhere, geographical name-dropping results in a kind of readerly torpor: “Last summer in Reykjavik”; “I was visiting Hall 6 of Paris’s annual trade fair”; “Okay. So I’m in Berlin.”
Bit Rot is a collection very much of its time. There is a lot of reflection on technology, and musings about whether it will ultimately prove to be our saviour or our demise. This is all to the good, but such content can also be gleaned 24/7 from your Twitter feed or TV news.
The most interesting material crops up when the author plays economist and focuses on the conjoined role of money, jobs, and technology in spawning the current gig economy. Earlier in his career, Coupland gloomily predicted we would all one day be Microserfs, but with traditional jobs going the way of the fax machine, that may turn out to be our aspiration rather than our nightmare.
Fans of Coupland’s cheeky, time-mashing, brand-conscious prose will find this book a rollicking read with just enough doses of the surreal; for others, it will appear occasionally funny, with periodic razor-sharp descriptions, but ultimately overstuffed. There’s a reason some material remains on the cutting room floor.