Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Inside Douglas Coupland

It was on a bitter and blustery autumn evening that I arrived at the Centretown United Church to hear Douglas Coupland talk about his new book,  Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, about multinational telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent. Admittedly, a few weeks prior to the event I had never heard of Douglas Coupland before. While he has a cult following in his native Canada, the fact that I hail from jolly old England may have something to do with the fact that his name had never crossed my path.


Regardless of this, I was instantly enthralled by the author whose acerbic wit and hilariously accurate pop culture references had waves of chuckles reverberating through the church. The discussion was led by Ottawa Citizen columnist, Mark Sutcliffe, whose opening question – “how has the Internet changed our brains?” – set the tone for the rest of the evening. Coupland responded that he feels as if the human attention span has somehow dwindled into two and a half minutes, the length of your average pop song for instance, and how he finds himself lost in endless two and a half minute cycles online. I can relate to this assessment having found my own attention span drastically reduce in the past few years from increased Internet use.


In regards to the worldwide usage of the Internet, Coupland noted that humans have begun to build a “global mono-class,” having “rewired our brains in the same way” and thus creating “homogenized thinking.” It’s as if we are building a new country, virtually spanning the globe. Coupland expressed melancholy that ours is the last generation that will know life without the Internet; we straddle two centuries as if they were different worlds – the old and the new. We have now “entered a state of timelessness” no longer defined by decades. The growth of change has increased so exponentially in the past few years; inventions that used to take decades to come to fruition are now created and implemented in a matter of years. We used to believe our children’s’ lives would be much like our own but now the current state of affairs is much different.


Though describing himself as an optimist, Coupland’s answers veered towards the idea that this new “smupid” generation presents a problem – that despite all the technological innovations, it has never been easier to play dumb. Using the analogy that inventions are like asteroids, hurtling towards the earth at great force whether we want them to or not, Coupland connoted the idea that technological progress will be damaging to the human race. Does the Internet offer a wider learning experience or is it holding us back? I suppose the answer can be found in whichever hand the iPad lies in; just because you are able to catch up on celebrity gossip and watch cat videos all day doesn't mean you will.


Coupland revealed he is teaching himself French via Google Translate, and urged the audience to challenge themselves, do what fascinates them, and constantly look for their next learning curve. Though the internet is a solitary endeavour, at the same time it creates and fosters both local and global communities. The ultimate question for the human race is, “will this technology favour the individual or the group?” Will we be able to use the Internet to enhance our human interaction or will it serve to isolate us further from one another? It was these questions that were left ringing in my ears long after the discussion was over, as the wind whistled me home.