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Predicting the Digital Apocalypse: An Interview with Douglas Coupland

How Eric Hobsbawm and Marshall McLuhan influenced Doug's latest non-fiction work, The Age of Earthquakes.
April 20, 2015, 3:28pm
Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland. Image via Wiki Commons

Douglas Coupland is a Canadian novelist, visual artist, and a stone-cold silver fox. I know this because I recently met him in a Westminster hotel for morning coffee and to talk about his new book, The Age of Earthquakes—or, more precisely, the other books that influenced it. He's not an easy interview; he's one of those people whose minds seems to work so quickly that their measured manner of speaking can barely catch up. Before you've asked him one question, he's answering the next.

This is hardly surprising. Best known for his shrewd ability to analyze the world around him, Doug's written 15 novels—most famously Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, the book that more or less coined the titular term—as well as about a dozen nonfiction works. His novels, like Gen X and Girlfriend in a Coma, for example, read a bit like a hypochondriac googling the symptoms of late modernity; funny but paranoid portraits of disenfranchised characters, paintings of hyper-capitalist cultures so unsustainable they're doomed to collapse.

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Although it's nonfiction, Earthquakes hits on the same themes—only this time it turns out we're the main characters. Described as "a guide to the extreme present," and a "self-help book for planet earth," The Age of Earthquakes is a quick-fire compendium of thoughts from Doug—along with two friends, writer Shumon Basar and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. It's about the way in which the internet has effected our actions and behaviors, as well as the eventual impact our technology use will have on our planet's climate.

Pages from The Age of Earthquakes

Each page is laid out uniquely in terms of typography, with visual contributions from the likes of Rosemarie Trockel, Amalia Ulman, and Michael Stipe. Wry statements adorn each page: "Liking isn't voting"; "On the internet, until proven otherwise, always assume the person on the other end is a 40-year-old pony-tailed guy wearing a diaper"; "Before the internet we had a few memes a year."

So yeah, it doesn't really tell us anything we don't know, but that's the point: "What we were trying to do with The Age of Earthquakes is give it a universality," Doug says. "If you go through the book and pretend you're from 1995, it's just gibberish. It makes no sense at all. But for someone now, it's like, 'That's eerily close to how it feels in my head.' What I like about the book is that, when people read it, a very common reaction is, 'Oh God, that's what I was thinking. I'm not alone.' We tried to keep it as broad as possible—my mother or you or anyone else can read it."

Shumon, Doug, and Hans. 3-D portraits printed by Douglas Coupland and David Weir, photographed by Marc Falk. Courtesy of Penguin.

Doug tells me that Earthquakes was directly influenced by the work of another Canadian (and genius), named Marshall McLuhan, a media analyst cum modern-philosopher. McLuhan's 1968 essay into the effects of technology on culture, The Medium Is the Massage, predicted the internet long before William Gibson did. (And ages after Mark Twain did, but that one was a bit tenuous.)

Doug talks about his relationship to McLuhan's work like he's talking about an ex-girlfriend: all sighs and residual frustration. "I did his biography. I really didn't want to do it, but I'd said yes to a friend at Penguin and… well… you can't turn a yes into a no." At the time, 2011, he didn't really know who McLuhan was—so he started withThe Gutenberg Galaxy,which discusses, in depth, the influence of the printing press on modern culture.

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"It's incredible dense, it's in small type, and it was a very difficult and not particularly linear read. I had to do two pages at a time before I had to stop. I was writing like crazy in the margins, stuff like, "This is great!" "What?" "Boring!" But every time I got to a boring patch, he would always say something completely fantastic at the end of it."

If Galaxy was about print culture, The Medium Is the Massage puts its emphasis on rolling 24-hour news media and the way in which those kinds of information channels were, at the time of writing, becoming such an innate part of people's understanding of the world that the media was almost like a sixth sense, something we feel, something that envelops us. Hence the pun in the title. A stand-out passage is this:

Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of "time" and "space" and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale. Its message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. The old civic state and national groupings have become unworkable. Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than "a place for everything and everything in its place." You can't go home again.

As you can see, McLuhan describes the internet with incredible clarity for 1968. He describes it later on as what will be a "Global Village." The only thing he couldn't put his finger on, says Doug, was the interface. "The interface is very hard, even for very smart people." So, for example, McLuhan seemingly knew that people would be interconnected from their homes in every way, he just didn't quite know how. "As you go through the book you can notice, 'That's Paypal!' or 'That's eBay!' or 'That's the New York Times online!' You can actually go through every successful media company in the world one by one. But because he didn't know the interface, he'd try to describe it poetically or metaphorically, and that's what made him sound like an idiot."

Doug continues, "I think it's a credit to academia that they didn't write him off and that there happened to be something there—he was just 40 years ahead of his time." Earthquakes,he tells me, was conceived as a kind of update: "We began this project, collecting ideas or statements which, if you read them to someone now, knowing the technology of our time, they'd think, 'Oh, of course.' That became a small project that grew into a larger project and then we decided, well, why don't we do a book?"

Page from The Age of Earthquakes

The Medium Is the Massage wasn't the only work that influenced Earthquakes. In Doug's 2013 essay collection, Shopping in Jail, Earthquakes co-author Basar mentions in his guest intro that Doug "wishes he wrote Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes." There must be a connection, given the titles. I heave a copy out of my bag and Doug laughs. "Of course," he says, "Eric Hobsbawm is one of my favorite writers. He and JG Ballard. When I first met up with Hans and Shumon Basar together, we started talking about that book and we started talking about Eric Hobsbawm like total fanboys."

Six hundred pages long (I scarcely made a dent), The Age of Extremes is Hobsbawm's analysis of the "short century"—the years between 1914 and 1991, or the fall of the Soviet Union. I ask Doug why it was ripe for a kind of sequel. "I think Hobsbawm's right about the way he analyses history—both of his books were really trenchant, which is not a word I use often. He was the editor of Marxism Today, which I don't think exists any more, and I'm largely apolitical in many ways—I'm the ultimate swing voter—but you talk to people now and they say, 'Marxism is dead,' and I think, 'it's not, because it's all about power and wealth and how that gets distributed.'

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How, though, does this manifest in Earthquakes? "Take the early 20th century up to right now, everything's just this flow of electrons and then suddenly you have algorithms and one of the biggest side affects of algorithms is the middle classes collapsing or imploding. The 'developing world'—which is a patronizing term but for the moment we'll use it just because it makes sense—are told, 'Oh, we're moving up in the world.' But no one's moving up and no one's moving down, we're just moving into this new thing, which is what I call [in Earthquakes] the 'blank-collar' class: unless you own the means of production or are amazingly charismatic or have an actual skill… you're just faking your way though life."

My understanding of Earthquakes is that the point is to remind us we exist beyond our online selves, that we need to take personal responsibility for the way our internet use affects the planet, and that we must not be made lazy or de-individualized by the kind of false collective consciousness the "Global Village" instills. Activism won't happen by accident.

"What's happened with the internet as it plays itself out is that it creates new forms of crowds and amplifies new forms of crowds," comments Doug, "but it's also this fantastically solitary activity. This area that used to be called 'activism'—what used to have two or three people is thousands of people, and maybe they're racing each other. That's just one of those weird inevitable mathematical ramifications of technology—there's so much activism but everyone's erasing each other."

The fact of the matter is, our energy consumption is perpetuating global warming, and beyond its pop-social-psychology, this is the crux of Earthquakes. "In the 1960s and 70s, pollution was really terrible. If you look at old movies in LA or New York or London, the sky is gray and it was really bad. And once or twice Marshall McLuhan said, 'I do worry about pollution' but that was all the worry he ever gave the world." Doug sighs again, "He never really talked about individual rights or whatever, but I wish he had." Earthquakes, it seems to me, finishes the job.

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The Age of Earthquakes is out now from Penguin.