Ghosts of the Machine

A nostalgic guide to the internet’s industrial foundations

A good travel book transports the reader to someplace exotic, only to spur reflection on the reader’s current circumstances. For some types of introspection, however, escape to the French Riviera or the highlands of Papua New Guinea might not be ideal. To reflect on our society’s hyperconnected, technology-worshipping society, a tour through one of the places largely responsible for our communications infrastructure seems appropriate. And who better to guide us through but the cultural brain of Douglas Coupland? In Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent Coupland collaborates with Olivia Arthur on a guidebook-as-art-object of the past and future of Bell Laboratories.

The book is part of a series. In 2009 the Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton spent a week at Heathrow that resulted in the book A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. De Botton went on to found Writers in Residence, a “not-for-profit organisation devoted to recording and describing key institutions of the modern world.” Writers in Residence has covered life aboard the USS George H.W. Bush and embedded with the bureaucrats of the International Monetary Fund. The latest volume is Coupland’s tour of Alcatel-Lucent (née Bell Laboratories).

Coupland’s goal is to introduce one of the most important and prolific sources of technology innovation in the 20th century to a wider audience. Bell Labs was a research division of AT&T primarily responsible for coming up with new ways to improve the quality and reliability of the phone system. Under the “monopolistic cloak” of AT&T, the Labs had the freedom to engage in long-term and theoretical research. Bell Laboratories is the birthplace of the transistor, lasers, UNIX, information theory and a host of other innovations. Since 1925 Bell Labs has garnered more than 33,000 patents and eleven Nobel prizes.

In the technology community, Bell Labs is a symbol of the industrialization of invention. Jon Gertner captured this notion in the title of his book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation—an excellent primer of some of the more important ideas and personalities to come out of the Labs during its heyday.

Despite its overwhelming contribution, Bell Labs is largely forgotten. Coupland thinks one reason for this is “corporate hillbilly genetics.” After the breakup of AT&T’s monopoly, Bell Labs was spun out of the corporation in the form of Lucent Technologies in 1996. A decade later Lucent merged with French telecommunications equipment provider Alcatel to form another faceless transnational conglomerate.

Another reason for Bell fading into the background is how innovation has changed in the past generation. The personal computer, and later the internet, provided a new platform for software-based innovation, which led to the perception of technological progress coming from centralized research facilities to give way to a distributed model with innovation coming from the edge of the network: from the proverbial tech start-up consisting of just two guys in a garage.

Coupland observed this shift in Microserfs and JPod, yet seems unaware of the more recent ambivalence toward startup culture as being shallow. “We wanted flying cars—instead we got 140 characters” is the motto of Peter Thiel’s venture capital fund. Thiel is a PayPal mafioso and beneficiary of startup culture, but he laments the lack of progress in his new book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Two guys in a garage are certainly not behind Elon Musk’s progress on reusable rockets, or SpaceX’s grander mission to send people to Mars. Centralized “idea factories” provide all sorts of innovation infrastructure not available to trendy startups. It seems a perfect time to harken back to the successes of Bell Labs.

Alas, none of this surfaces in Coupland’s book. In fact, Coupland is still trapped in the internet utopianism of the 1990s. He writes: “We get all our information from the same kitchen and there’s just one menu and it’s called ‘The Same Internet for Everyone on Earth’.”

In a world of filter bubbles, experimenting on human emotions by tweaking their newsfeed algorithms and widespread state-operated censorship regimes, this statement rings hollow. Furthermore, Coupland perpetuates the myth of the internet as a grand meritocracy: “Does that shock you? A woman in such a position of high authority? Just kidding. The tech world’s not like that. It’s all about brains and is pretty much entirely gender-blind; if you can cut the mustard, you’re in.”

Misogyny and sexism are serious issues in tech criticism, of which the rise of the “brogrammer” and online harassment controversies GamerGate and now ShirtGate are just some examples. Coupland’s analysis is not particularly up to date, but despite the sections of the book that are factually incorrect or tone-deaf, it is still a good read. Kitten Clone is a well-written pontification about our hyper-networked world. What are we learning about ourselves from all this technology that we did not know before we had it? “That is perhaps the biggest question about our age.” Coupland asks the questions, but provides no answers.

Kitten Clone is pure Coupland, and fans will enjoy the conversational prose sprinkled with pop culture references. He uses the first, second and third person to guide the reader through historical flashbacks, and even blacks out during technical conversations to talk to ghosts of characters from the past and future. It is like A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is the personification of a giant industrial research complex.

Writers in Residence partnered with Visual Editions to produce a book design that looks great and includes the unorthodox layout and typography that we have come to expect from Coupland’s books. Mere words are not enough for him. Like having a conversation with a high-spirited partner, Coupland uses visual clues to add emphasis to the content.

Evocative photography is key to a good travel book, and Magnum Photos alum Olivia Arthur has an excellent eye for the mundane, which works well for Bell Labs: windowless cubicle farms, woodpanelling, oatmeal-coloured carpets, and endless amounts of hanging wires and cabling. There are not many photos of people, and most of those are of middle-aged men in jeans and polo shirts. It is not until the last section about China and the future of Bell Labs where we are presented with photos of young people or women. I expect this contrast is intentional. The photos are bland and boring, which is the point, but might be a turn-off to some readers.

Coupland is world-weary (“all of these profound changes, and yet things haven’t changed”) and Kitten Clone is as much about his nostalgia as it is about what lies ahead. However, it is by visiting places like Bell’s old labs that we can realize we live in the future … or at least, a future.