Did you see Trump fired Comey?
Did you see Trump gave secret intel to the Russians?
Did you see Trump told Comey to stop investigating Flynn?
Did you see they’ve appointed a special counsel?
Did you see Trump called the investigation the biggest witch hunt in American history?
Did you see / Did you see / Did you see. It’s the new soundtrack of American life. The repetitive thump undercutting every American breakfast, the throbbing beat accompanying every American commute, and punctuating every American workday, dinner date and bedtime.
The beat, like all beats, is rhetorical. But for most of us living on the media coasts, the answer would be yes. You did see. Your Twitter news feed isn’t so much different than anybody else’s. Your gym or airport lounge no more or less likely to have installed a gigantic flat screen television, tuned permanently to CNN. Your friends and colleagues are no less or more hooked on the cataclysmic reality TV show that is American presidential politics. Right or left, young or old, woke or bigot, we’re all in this together.
Did you see Sherriff Clarke is joining the Trump administration?
Did you see the Department of Homeland Security says Clarke isn’t joining the Trump administration?
Did you see? Did you see? Ooomp-tsss / ooompf-tsss / ooompf-tsss…
Even if you wanted to escape the beat – dig your fingers into your eardrums and shout lalalala – you can’t. I know this because I recently deleted all of my online accounts, threw my smartphone into a lake (not a real lake, a drawer-shaped wooden lake) and started leaving my laptop in my office at the end of the day.
Wednesday night, half a block from the office door, I passed two startup kids in startup hoodies. One saying to the other: Did you see Trump’s speech to the Coast Guards?
Wednesday is pub trivia night. Dan Raile and me; our two-man team against the world. I arrived a few minutes early – there’s too much background noise to eavesdrop on other conversation, no CNN on the TV just some trippy TV show where kids win big prizes by shooting basketball hoops from the back of motorcycles. Jarringly, just for a second, the beat seemed to stop. Until…
“Did you see the House Majority Leader apparently accused Trump of taking money from the Russians?”
Dan doesn’t even have Twitter. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him with a smartphone.
Yesterday morning I was woken up by my girlfriend with these words:
“Did you see Roger Ailes died?”
Did I see it? The man had died while I was asleep.
Does matter. No reason to think the beat wouldn’t have penetrated my dreams like an alarm clock or a street fight heard through an open window.
Don’t misunderstand me: I like the beat. I find it comforting. Those occasional brief moments of silence feel as unsettling as a heart palpitation. I’m no less hooked on the reality show than anyone else. But occasionally I want to at least believe in the possibility of silence. I want to know I still have the option – as I wrote back in 2015 – to step out of The Room.
Douglas Coupland’s has a new book out. It’s a collection of essays and republished short fiction called “Bit Rot” which, as every reviewer feels obliged to explain, describes the phenomenon of digital storage media gradually decaying over time. And it’s an especially apt title given the fate of whatever floppy disk once held Coupland’s talent and relevance.
Anyone who has read the Upgrade will know I’m not a huge fan of Coupland. I’m not a fan because he makes ludicrous claims like this (in the Financial Times)…
“I write novels and I write about my observations and I produce all sorts of artworks, but I never write about myself.”
…presumably hoping that no FT reader even picks up one of his novels and reads an opening line like this one from JPod…
“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”
But I will happily admit that Coupland did, for a very brief period, capture the voice of a particular subset of a particular generation. A generation which, I also acknowledge, he was first to brand as “Generation X.” The Coupland generation embraced technology only in the hope of smothering it; they were aware of its dangers and they were deeply cynical about corporate culture and its encroachment on our private lives. Most importantly, they felt powerless. In her excellent review of Bit Rot, Slate’s Laura Miller identifies the defining traits of Generation Coupland as “cynicism, irony [and] a melancholic sense of having been sidelined by major forces of social history.”
As such, Coupland was part of a band of “corporations have taken over the world, and I want off” writers that also included Brett Easton Ellis and Mike Judge and Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh.
“Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers… Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, stucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that?”
The things you used to own, now they own you
“TV and the Internet are good because they keep stupid people from spending too much time out in public.”
But whereas Easton Ellis and Judge and Palahniuk have retained their cynicism (if not their relevance – as Miller points out, voices of a generation never do), Coupland has gone native. Today the man who wrote that the Internet is good because it keeps “stupid people from spending too much time out in public” is a grateful financial beneficiary of the Google Cultural Institute. He recently announced an “art and written project on post-Google art and post-Google society.” Also: Douglas Couplan fucking LOVES Uber – unironically and passionately – and has no truck with those who fear sexual assault in the back of one. Here he is in the Financial Times, again… (And also self-plagiarized in Bit Rot.)
Yes, but you could get raped by an Uber driver! They could be psycho murderers… Well, you could get raped by any driver, really. So why are you focusing only on Uber? That seems strangely convenient… There’s no real argument to not have Uber drivers. They are superior to taxis in all possible ways.
In the words of Douglas Coupland, he has become that asshole.
He has also become lazy, although he’s dressed his indolence up as “with it”ness…
As he told the Globe and Mail…
“I wanted to create a sensation in fiction that you get when you’re online and you fall down a rabbit hole and you’re like, what the hell just happened, and you fall down another rabbit hole.”
Or, to put it a different way in the Guardian…
“I asked myself a few questions: how can I imbue fiction with that same fractal sense of falling down a rabbit hole that we all experience when we’re online?”
Oop, no, you’re right. That’s the same way. Like I said: Lazy.
And that’s a shame. Because the last thing we need are more writers who want to mimic the Internet. Who want to embrace Snapchat or Slack or Uber in their work not to smother them, but to feel their warmth. To provide an easy veneer of “realism” to their cast of millennial characters whose biggest technological dilemma is how to respond to an unsolicited dick pic, or whether their Uber will arrive on time to get them to their next plot point.
The last thing we need are rebels-turned-joiners like Coupland who recently boasted “I don’t miss my pre-internet brain. I no longer remember it.” Writers who have been nodding along to the beat for so long that they can no longer imagine – no longer have any interest in imagining – what the world might be like without it. As Miller points out, that’s how every asshole writes today. That’s Thought Catalog.
Generation X was a revelation because the kind of people Coupland wrote about didn’t have a platform on which to publicly vent their alienation. Now they have more platforms than anyone can count. Not surprisingly, everything in Bit Rot has the half-baked texture of a Facebook post (“I sometimes wonder what selfies would look like in North Korea”), because nearly everything that Coupland has ever written settles at about that level.
So where are they? The twenty-something Couplands or Palahniuks or Welshes of today who are able to imagine an alternative to – a rebellion against – the technological beat they’ve been exposed to their entire lives? They must be out there – I fully expect (and welcome) a barrage of emailed links – but where?
Not on the front tables of my local book store (which does, pointedly, feature copies of 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale and Fight Club.) Not in my most recent Book of the Month Club package (recent selections included a Slack-n-Uber-packed novel called “Start Up,” which also featured prominently in last week’s New York Times Book Review.) Wherever they’re hiding, it isn’t in plain sight.
Perhaps the problem is that millennials – as a generation of writers – don’t have enough to rebel against. When two millennials (Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump) are pulling the strings in the White House, assisted by a memeified alt-right movement that fights its greatest battles on Facebook. When Facebook itself (proprietor: A. Millennial) is vying to become the world’s first trillion dollar company. When it’s just as likely that your boss will be a 20-something tech bro as a 50-something “bleeding ponytail” who is “is gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Saturday.” What’s a Voice of a Generation writer to do when he or she looks in the mirror and realizes that The Man looks a lot like him or herself?
And perhaps this is another Teen Vogue situation – where we have to look to the next next generation – Gen Z, or whatever they’re called – to find the next voice of opposition to all that. Perhaps in the coming years we’ll see a slew of books – novels, essay collections, and the rest – from today’s teenagers, calling for a return to silence, or at least a change in beat. A mass rejection of smartphone and selfies and Tinder and hoodie-wearing billionaires who won’t even cover your gas money at the end of your twenty hour Uber shift. Perhaps we – that is, those of us on the Gen X/Millennial rim – are too close to see it, or too dependent on its products and its taskmasters.
Perhaps we’re too hooked on the beat to remember what it was like before it started, or to imagine what it might be like if it stops.
Did you see Anthony Wiener is pleading guilty?
Did you see Steven Miller is writing Trump’s Islam speech?
Did you see Trump called Comey a “nut job”?
Did you see Comey has agreed to testify?