“The year is 1871. You are French and you are about to fondle a kitten.” Douglas Coupland has a talent for opening lines that are both funny and contextual. Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent opens with a whimsical story about a Frenchman going to work for the engineering company that eventually contributes some “corporate DNA” to one of the largest telecommunications company on Earth. As the technical first sentence of this book (in its introduction) asserts, you probably haven’t heard of Alcatel-Lucent. I hadn’t. Yet they own Bell Labs and are reponsible for servicing and innovating massive swathes of that thing we call the Internet. (If you are reading these words, chances are you are using the Internet to do so, unless you’re a transhuman picking through the wreckage of a library of the post-apocalyptic future devoted to print archives of what was once called the World Wide Web.)
If you want to have a book written about the Internet’s physical presence and how this has changed us as a species, you really can’t do much better than Douglas Coupland. I know him best as a novelist, and one who writes about the current impact of technology on our lives. But he’s also a non-fiction writer. And a visual artist. And a designer. This versatility makes him particularly suited to a book like this, which is part interviews, part description, and part meditation on Alcatel-Lucent and the Internet they helped to build.
Before I talk about Coupland’s writing, let’s talk about the book itself. The Visual Editions version of Kitten Clone is gorgeous. This is one of those books where the physical object is itself a work of art. It’s 25x18.5 cm of high-quality, smooth paper. The photo with “Inside Alcatel-Lucent” written on it that you see in the cover image is a kind of tiny dustjacket (a dust-wrap?) that folds out from either side of the inside cover, so you can use it as a bookmark, or just set it aside entirely when reading.
Olivia Arthur’s photographs are a poignant companion to Coupland’s text. She is the photographer he has been waiting for his entire life: I would buy re-issues of his novels with her photographs accompanying the prose. The photos portray the complexity and detritus that accumulates in an organization as old and reborn as many times as Alcatel-Lucent. Seemingly disorganized forests of wire disappear into connectors on the wall. An unidentified employee crouches over something that looks like a microwave oven on a worktable. Someone standing in the Murray Hill anechoic chamber, which looks pretty sweet. Maybe my favourite photos are a pair, on recto and then the verso page respecitvely, of an older man in front of a chalkboard covered in equations. Essentially, what makes Arthur’s photography so powerful is how it reminds us of the inherent physical complexity of the Internet. We easily get used to the ephemeral and omnipresent nature of our net connection, and the smooth intangible qualities of software and apps; sometimes we forget the hundreds of thousands of kilometres of marine fibre-optic and all the infrastructure on land that actually makes the Internet work. And when we do remember, it’s tempting for us to imagine gleaming towers of ivory, gunmetal grey, and smooth black data centres full of racks of happy servers. Real life is much messier. Even more than Coupland’s prose, Arthur’s photographs attest to this.
As far as the book itself goes, I was actually hoping for a little more. Coupland visits a few different hubs of Alcatel-Lucent activity: Bell Labs in New Jersey; the headquarters in Paris, France; and offices and factories in China. He interviews some of the scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and businesspeople who are working to invent new technologies, improve existing ones, and make money off the Internet. Along the way he hammers out a couple of recurring points.
Firstly, and related to what I said above about Alcatel-Lucent, Coupland talks about how the people at “Alca-Loo”, as it is apparently called, have this perception of themselves as plumbers of the Internet. He feels they underestimate their importance or impact. At the very least, he feels we average people should be more aware of what Alca-Loo and companies like it do, and I would agree. Few people are aware of how fragile our global network actually is compared to how much we do with it. There is little doubt that we have come to depend on the Internet in an amazingly short time compared to other major inventions, such as printing, or even the steam engine. If all our Internet connections went down tomorrow, most of us might survive, but it wouldn’t be a pretty apocalypse….
The Internet has changed us as a species. I read Kitten Clone just prior to the start of Desert Bus for Hope 8, a livestreaming charity marathon. If you haven’t experienced Desert Bus, then you won’t understand—but you can check out its website, or maybe watch some archived footage, to see the incredible craziness and fun that these people have while raising money for children. The only analog equivalent would be a television donation drive done by telephone—but, as usual, the Internet has taken such an idea and transformed into a barely recognizable twenty-first century equivalent with cats, and GIFs, and an interactivity television and telephones couldn’t hope to provide.
The Internet has changed us as a species. This is Coupland’s second theme, and it might seem obvious, but it’s an idea that bears unpacking. His interviewees always stress that the demand for data, for bandwidth, for connectedness, came as a huge surprise to the engineers and designers of the Internet. The Web and related infrastructure took off in a way that the people who first built it couldn’t anticipate. That’s an interesting tidbit that isn’t immediately obvious even to people who acknowledge the Internet’s impact. Coupland mentions some of the tantalizing, cutting-edge science being done to advance the infrastructure of the Internet and computing.
So, finally, Coupland touches on the curious equilibrium that exists between pure research and the need to find applications for technology. He mentions how Bell Labs, back when it was owned by AT&T, operated as a government-sanctioned monopoly, because the rollout of a national telephone grid was “too valuable to be left to the free-market research and development system.”
Let me reiterate that for a moment, because I think it’s difficult for people my age, who are watching the net neutrality debates in American media, to understand the significance of the above. The US government, back in the day, protected AT&T from competition and funded pure research into telecommunications.
Nowadays the Republican party—who are, technically speaking, now “the government” are actively working to undermine any attempts to ensure that everyone in the country is connected to high-speed Internet.
What the hell happened, America?
There are many reasons to lament the rise of transnational corporations. Coupland mentions Alca-Loo’s patents often but doesn’t talk about the dark side of technology and software patents. Yet there is a palpable sense of relief in this book about the fact that, as a multinational headquartered in France, Alcatel-Lucent is somewhat cushioned from the craziness happening in American tech regulation right now. Both Coupland and Arthur manage to communicate the spontaneous miracle that is the Internet and how its incredibly rapid evolution is … well, fragile.
Coupland makes a few remarks I have to disagree with. As his introduction to meeting Bell Labs’ Chief Scientist, he says:
Yes, that’s right: Alice… a woman. 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. [Emphasis mine.]
It’s nice to think that Coupland’s anecdotal Lady Scientist can obliterate sexism in tech, but as The Agenda recently discussed, it exists. The tech world is not gender-blind, and it’s wishful ignorance at best or outrightly disingenous at worst to suggest that it is.
Later, Coupland says that according to Shawn Brennan, a “customer support engineer” at the Kanata office:
… whether someone is kept on is based purely on their contribution, reinforcing my perception that the tech universe is as close to a pure capitalist intellectual meritocracy as our species has ever created.
Hahahahaha … I snorted when I read this passage, and I still can’t help but laugh derisively a little. I’m not even sure where to start dissecting the levels of wrongness here. The idea that the tech industry is a meritocracy is just another myth promoted by successful people within the industry who do not want to acknowledge the privilege and success that helped them. As with any other industry, women and people of colour face a larger barrier to success and funding. It’s dangerous to ignore this and promote myths like the meritocracy.
I’m disappointed that in an otherwise beautiful and meditative book Coupland falls back on his male privilege rather than more critically examining this aspect of the tech industry. Then again, Kitten Clone isn’t about the tech industry so much as it is specifically about Alcatel-Lucent, and maybe the expectation was that he would say nice things.
There are plenty of reasons for one to read or buy this book. As I’ve said a few times, it’s just really, really good looking. It is a perfect book for the coffee table, so even if you can’t read (how are you reading this?) you can still look at the photos and show it off to your friends. If, like me, you are interested in the workings of the Internet, this book has shares an inside look at aspects of a company that is heavily involved in the Internet. And it’s laced with Coupland’s characteristic bold yet heavy weirdness.
I enjoyed Kitten Clone, even if it didn’t deliver quite the jolt I was hoping for or the perspective I wanted to see. It’s descriptive rather than interrogative; it’s thoughtful but not necessarily full of fresh new insights. Above all else, it combines the visual and the verbal to help chronicle a point in time in the history of our species where we are changing our society at a global, rapid scale. And who knows where that will lead us?