Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Douglas Coupland's Kitten Clone


There is a cartoon on the web showing a stick figure sitting at a computer, thinking to himself:


An x64 processor is screaming along at billions of cycles per second to run the XNU kernel, which is frantically working through all the POSIX-specified abstraction to create the Darwin system underlying OS X, which in turn is straining itself to run Firefox and its Gecko renderer, which creates a Flash object which renders dozens of video frames every second.


Because I wanted to see a cat jump into a box and fall over.


I am a god.[1]


Divine status conferred by the viewing of cat videos; it is an image very much in line with Douglas Coupland’s project in Kitten Clone. On a journey through the multinational IT company Alcatel-Lucent, Coupland explores the phenomenon of the Internet at a point where its growing adoption and burgeoning speed are significantly impacting how humans do things and even relate to one another. His hope is that conversations with a technology giant responsible for building many of the physical components comprising the Internet will illuminate these effects and serve as “a stepping stone into a larger meditation…about what data and speed and optical wiring are doing to us as a species.” 


Kitten Clone is divide into four parts: a fictional scene in French Alsace in 1871, followed by descriptions of visits to global Alcatel-Lucent offices to explore the past, present, and future of the Internet. The past is examined at Bell Labs (New Jersey, USA), where much of the basic research underlying modern telecommunications was done starting in the mid-twentieth century; the present at facilities in France (Paris, Calais) and Canada (Ottawa); and the future at operations in China (Pudong, Shanghai). The book “has a “surfy” feel to it”: 87 of 176 pages are photos by photographer Olivia Arthur, the format intends to mimic web pages and thus how we see and use information on the Internet. At each stage, Coupland gives his thoughts and reflections on Internet technology, the industry creating it, and its impact.


The book has some successes. A range of themes are examined that are relevant to a society where information technology is increasingly pervasive: the simultaneous bewilderment and awe felt by lay people towards technology and those who produce it; the rapid and widespread adoption of high-speed Internet; the underfunding of long-term scientific research, even when focussed on technological (and thus industrial/business) ends; the growing view that fast Internet connectivity is a utility akin to the power grid; and the removal of class distinctions through Internet use and availability. Arising from these themes are a host of good questions. Is “technological determinism” true, the idea that “humans exist only to propagate ever-newer technologies”? What have we learned about ourselves via the Internet that we didn’t already know? And what will all of this bandwidth do to us? Interacting with the people who build the Internet (rather than Internet users, web designers, or cultural critics) also provides an unusual perspective on these questions.


Coupland achieves the “surfy” feel that he sought; Kitten Clone really is reminiscent of a web page. Too much so. Each stage of the book visits a new place, scans it, makes some observations, asks some questions, and quickly flits to the next location and collection of images; the forms of the web are mimicked without redeeming their failings, much of the discussion floating on the surface of subjects of great depth. Coupled with that, and all too fitting, the prose is too often and too obviously overdone. Describing the Head of Bell Labs Research, Markus Hoffman, Coupland writes that

[he] looks like a school principal who’d discipline you without resorting to corporal punishment, and his eyes tell me that, at any given moment he’s probably figuring out the natural logarithm of his Visa card number or what his lunch might look like connected by strings into the fifth and/or sixth dimensions.


This is trying too hard to be clever without advancing the book’s project at all.


Coupland’s questions and pool of interviewees are mismatched as well. Being a telecommunications engineer myself, and knowing many others, this is no surprise. Most of my peers in the technical disciplines would readily admit to having no good answer for the question of what the Internet is doing to us, for the simple reason that they don’t see it as their role to address such topics. Coupland is quite right that technically trained voices have a place in the conversation, but few will have the tools or interest to engage it; in terms of their training, their perspective, and the demands of their work, it is just not on their radar.


What technical people tend to do instead is acquiesce to common narratives about technology and our relationship to it, and Coupland does the same. One striking example is his discussion of narrative itself:

The now-fading notion that our lives should be stories is a psychological inevitability imbued in readers by the logic of the book and fiction as a medium: focus; sequencing; emotional through-lines; morals; structure; climax; denouement. One can look back on the print era and witness true poignancy: readers the world over were determined to see their lives as stories, when, in fact, books are a specific invention that creates a specific mindset.


That is, the use of narrative to express meaning is an outgrowth of the printed word that is being lost in the Internet Age. To see such a contentious thesis offered without supporting evidence is actually stunning, particularly when one reflects that tribes of the Amazon basin, playwrights of antiquity, and present-day technological determinists are united in being incorrigible storytellers. Asking how our tools of communication, such as broadband Internet, affect the stories we tell and how we tell them is very much to the point; rejecting narrative as such is not. Another example is his discussion of technological determinism. To Coupland’s credit, he poses the question of whether or not we shall be ruled by the Almighty Bit, but he does little to explore that question or what alternatives might exist. Indeed, when we read early on that “[l]ooking at human history and the history of technology, there’s a certain sort of inevitability to its parade,” one suspects that the fix is in.


And it is. Coupland offers an answer to his key question in the end. In a closing mini-narrative depicting a future where kittens are cloned and synthesized in mere moments but are eaten as soon as their presence becomes inconvenient, we learn our fate: we shall have unimaginable technological power, and be monsters. The Internet will rewire and reprogram us, causing us to forget much and learn little about ourselves and our world. The meditation ends not with a bang but a fatalistic whimper. We shall be slaves, with hardly a shot fired.