For over 25 years, Canadian artist and writer Douglas Coupland has trained his sights on pop culture. The internet—not the user interface, but the technical guts—stars in his newest book, Kitten Clone. Using visits to Alcatel-Lucent sites in France, the U.S. and China as a springboard, Coupland reflects on “what the Internet is doing to us”. Among other things, he ponders the possible emergence of “blank collar” workers as well as the imminent end of the story as a framework for thinking about our lives.
Much of what is written about the Internet focuses on the surface, users’ interactions with and reactions to the info tsunami roiling across our screens at work, at home, everywhere thanks to mobile devices. Kitten Clone, a recently-published non-fiction work by Douglas Coupland, explores the bowels of the Internet’s, its decidedly utilitarian, far-from-sexy, inner workings, and the dreary settings devoted to wiring the world.
Between stops on his worldwide junket, and sometimes in distracted moments during interviews with key web wonks at Alcatel-Lucent (aka Alca-Loo), Coupland reflects on the many ways the Internet effects our lives including the usual suspects: ever-increasing speed, perpetual connection, information overload, and the rewiring of our brains. He breaks relatively new ground when he explores the rapid and profound dismantling of long and deeply-rooted processes, institutions, and cultural practices, social structures once thought to be immutable.
Two aspects particularly intrigued me: the tectonic shift transforming our working lives and the possibility that, in a post-literate world, stories will lose their power to describe our lives.
In North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, workers were once divided into two nifty categories: blue collar and white collar workers. Typically, blue collar workers handled manual tasks and worked for hourly wages. They also believed in and belonged to unions. Union membership has dropped off since a peak in the mid-fifties but the stereotype endured.
The typical white collar worker didn’t get her hands dirty. She probably had a university degree and worked in an office (later, a cube farm). White collars earned a salary and eschewed unions (unless, as in Canada, she worked for the government).
In Kitten Clone, Coupland envisions a world where work is no longer blue and white. Ever creating neologisms and terms, he predicts the emergence of “blank collar” workers, a “global monoclass of citizenry adrift in a classless sea”. Never to enter the heady reaches of the rich, blank collar workers will “rely on a grab bag of skills to pay the rent” and hopscotch from one career to the next until, finally, they die “from neglect in a government-run senior care facility”.
Pair this forecast with the imminent death of a cogent life story, and the future looks very grim indeed. “The narrative flow of our lives has somehow been stripped away.” And what are we left with? “[A] citizenry who want their lives to be simultaneous, fluid, ready to jump from link to link …”
Coupland’s take on story is especially striking since, in the past few years, marketers have latched on to story as the holy grail. Marketers don’t write copy anymore; they craft stories designed to sell just about anything.
Last October, Kevin Spacey (yes, the actor) delivered the keynote speech at Content Marketing World 2014. His topic: the importance of story. Like you, he said, I strive “to make a connection with my audience.” And how does he do that. “It’s always been about the story … the story is everything. It’s our job to tell better stories. Audiences have spoken. They want stories.” For folks in Montreal who want more of Kevin Spacey cum marketer, mark your calendars. He will be coming to C2MTL next May.
I wonder if Coupland is right, if the story frenzy will prove ephemeral, the brilliant guttering of a flame before it goes out. Or, perhaps, marketers, the contemporary madmen of consumerism, are destined be the storytellers for future generations of blank collar workers living simultaneously fluid and jumpy lives, eager to buy something, anything once they’ve scaped together rent money.