On Microserfs
by Douglas Coupland

A fictional story about Microsoft/Silicon Valley personalities, this is an unabashed peep in the window of The Geek Family. The book is a good compendium of geeky culture; it's not pretty, but it can be fascinating. The narrator is the most normal representative of the team developing a virtual-lego game/toy program, and his daily diary, at selected intervals over an 18 month period, forms the unprocessed source for the book.

This is not the usual novel. The geeks have little connection with their own emotions, as shown by their use of nothing but inappropriately technical analogies to life's situations, and by their hair-trigger leaping action from thoughtburst to thoughtburst, with little pause for reflection. One must deduce their emotional response to the occasional casual shoe-drop statement, such as "X's chemotherapy is going well," when one has been hearing about X for chapters with no mention of illness. Such emotional boulders occasionally loom in the reader's path with no warning, and the narrator swerves us around them with no slackening of the headlong idea rush.

The book is defined by the characters' idea storms. For instance, the narrator's girlfriend tells him, while giving a massage,

One's perception of time's flow is directly linked to the number of connections one has to the outer world. Technology increases the number of connections, thus it alters the perception of having "experienced" time.
    It's a bell curve relationship. There's actually an optimal point at which the amount of technology one owns extends the amount of time one perceives or experiences."
    It's as if your brain holds a tiny, cashew-shaped thalamus going tick-tick-tick while it meters out your time dosage for you. There's a technological equilibrium point, after which, it's all downhill.
This sort of technobauble is what I call a coffee-house intellectualism, because it's so suitable for casual discussion over an espresso. It does contain a sparkling aspect that's engaging and sounds meaningful; but as one grows older and the same topics repeat, brought forth with wide-eyed wonder by one's chance college-age dinner companions, one realizes that however clever, such superficialities are cheap trinkets rather than real gems of wisdom.

Microserfs is a filled to the brim with these geegaws. While fascinating as an anthropological study, the implied relevance of the character's insights to the reader's life is faintly repugnant. The underlying implied attitude is that these quality items, spun off by superbrains in rare moments of relaxation, are provided here as charitable largesse for those who would, unaided, take years to reach a similar brilliance of intellectual revelation.

The characters don't appreciate that compared to an ant or a bee or a cat, or a god, humans are intellectually identical. Whether average or genius, we have language, history, and a bit of reasoning. Our conversational starbursts, however sententious, are uniformly cheap.

Forming a transcendant thought is a tougher task. First one must harvest an entire thought storm, as grown by wide-ranging discussion. Next one must press the topic-related juice from the clumsy surrounding matter. Finally comes the fermentation, a pondering and processing to enhance the topic's subtleties. The final pithy wisdom is something of worth.

Take the "perceived time flow" topic of the above quote as an example. I have partaken of seemingly scores of coffee-house conversations about this, all of which bring up the same idea-trinkets over and over: perceived time is linearly related to number of events experienced; the information explosion changes it; Minsky's Actor theory relates; the 3-second-to-long-term-storage, and chunk, theories of memory tie in; blah blah blah. One could write a book listing all these tawdry superficial analyses, but it'd be annoyingly light reading.

And that's exactly what Microserfs is, annoyingly light. Its surface introductions to hundreds of worthy topics can be provacative, but there is no plumbing of the glimpsed depths. The book gains value because of the quantity of its gimcracks, and I accept that a book that elicits questions can theoretically be as intriguing as one that provides answers, but ... it was still annoying.

Still, I read the book for the vision of the Microsoft culture, and it delivers in spades, with Silicon Valley thrown in as trump. The geeks ring true, and even though I am one myself, I was in continual aghast oooh! that a gaggle of geeks could flock together with such unabashed abnormality. Is this the inevitable emergent behavior of any critical mass of coders?

Substantive changes:
    June 26, 1996: created.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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