Review of Bit Rot by

Book cover for Bit Rot

Here Douglas Coupland goes again, trying to break our brains and our library cataloguing systems. Is Bit Rot fiction or non-fiction? It’s a collection of both! Oh noes! It contains short stories, including some previously published in Generation A (which I read almost 7 years ago, so I have zero recollection of any of it), and essays and assorted musings. In general, this is Coupland’s most up-to-date published writing on how we’re dealing with the rapid pace of technological progress.

I’m not going to talk about many of the specific entries in this collection, because there are so many. And, to be honest, they tend to blur together. As anyone who is familiar with Coupland’s work knows, his writing has a smooth quality to it: a little bit of prognostication, a little bit of paranoia, a little sideways weirdness. His voice and his ideas are always compelling. I think where he and I part ways, and where I often find myself disappointed, especially in his fiction, is our viewpoints on what constitutes a story or a novel. Coupland has a much looser, much more experimental attitude towards narrative—and that’s fine and valid if that’s what he likes. But it means that when his stories depart from the more conventional modes of storytelling that I enjoy, my brain has to work harder. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

Before I talk about a few of the high points, I’ll take issue with one particular contention. This is quoted on the back of the Random House hardcover I read and comes from the essay “3 1/2 Fingers” (read it here). Coupland describes his feelings and sensations around having to rewire a handwritten-trained brain to first type on keyboards and then use touchscreen, smartphone keyboards:

But I can see that our species’ entire relationship with words, and their mode of construction, is clearly undergoing a massive rewiring. I bridge an era straddling handwriting and heavy smartphone usage. Young people like my friend’s daughter with her emoticons and rampant acronyms are blessed in having no cursive script to unlearn – with the bonus of having no sense of something having been lost. That’s a kind of freedom, and I’m jealous. Part of accepting the future is acknowledging that some things must be forgotten, and it’s always an insult because it’s always the things you love. We lost handwriting and got Comic Sans in return. That’s a very bad deal.

Although I understand the sensation he’s identify, I have to disagree with the assertion that exchanging handwriting for Comic Sans is in any way a “bad deal”. Yes, I know it is cool to hate on Comic Sans, and I used to be one of those people. But I’ve learned that a lot of people anecdotally like Comic Sans for its readability. And more broadly, what we have gained is not just Comic Sans per se but the ability, with the touch of a button, to alter the display of any piece of writing on our screen—to change its typeface, its size, its line-, letter-, and word-spacing, etc. That’s a superpower! And to do that, all we had to exchange was handwriting? My handwriting sucks! I’m down with that.

Fortunately, there is plenty in this book that doesn’t cause typographical arguments with the reader. One of my favourite stories is the longer entry “Temp”, quite understandably about a temp, Shannon, and her involvement with a company under negotiations to be bought by Chinese investors. I just love Coupland’s portrayal of Shannon, as well as the other characters. It reminded me a lot of his novels like JPod, and it has some great lines in it, such as, “It was a Quentin Tarantino standoff, where everyone holds a gun on everyone else, except there weren’t guns, just words and emotions.” Plus, it has a genuinely upbeat ending. Many of the essays and stories in this collection, while interesting, are not things I’d like to reread. “Temp”, on the other hand, is something I could see myself revisiting.

I also very much enjoyed Coupland’s musings on the economic angle of technology. Some of his writing about paper money and “flushing out” old money is a little absurd. But “World War $”, which you can read in its original form on the Financial Times website, is a succinct summary of how digital capitalism has broken money:

How is money damaged? It is damaged because me having photons faster than yours by a few millionths of a second is enough to make me appallingly rich – again, for doing absolutely nothing except hacking into money itself. It’s hard to have respect for this kind of system. Often the latency issue is presented to the public as a “Wow, isn’t this cool!” moment when, in fact, it’s sickening, and is partially why the world began to feel one-percent-ish five years ago. Reasonably smart people inhabiting the Age of Latency are milking those still stuck in the pre-latent era.

Coupland is talking with reference to the 2008 financial crisis, and he is absolutely right here. Traders have hacked money to make more … well, money … and now this house of cards is crashing down. We shored it up 8 years ago, but that doesn’t mean we made the structure any less fragile.

In at least two instances, Coupland also belies our desire to perceive technology as alien or Other. He reminds us that technology, being by definition a creation of humans, is itself an expression of our humanity—all of it, the good and the bad qualities. So technology is not alien but instead one of the most human things in existence. I really like this perspective and this reminder, since it is very tempting to view technology as a black box or a dehumanizing force.

This is perhaps why I continue to return to Coupland as a writer despite occasionally finding his novels bizarre or less than enjoyable. Unlike some technology writers, Coupland does not evangelize, nor does his condemn. Coupland is not sounding the warning bells, but he hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid either. He is just a tourist in the 21st century—like a man woken from cryogenic sleep being introduced to new ideas far ahead of his time. Coupland possesses a refreshing mixture of cynicism and optimism that makes his analysis feel very genuine and thought-provoking.

I received access to a copy of this from NetGalley, because apparently Blue Rider Press is publishing this on March 7. However, it has been out in hardcover already (in Canada, at least) for a while, and I received a physical copy for Christmas (thanks, Dad!). So I actually read the physical copy. But I appreciate the ARC, if that’s what you would call it, as well!

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