Douglas Coupland is a tough interviewee to direct. He speaks as if his mouth is catching up with his mind, his thoughts coming to fruition in the moment, with nascent ideas weaving into complex concepts on the spot.
Some link to the previous sentence, others whirl off on a tangent, tracing multiple lines of meaning through his constellations of thoughts. It is, for those familiar with his books, exactly how Coupland writes.
Nowhere is this truer than in the polymath’s latest release, Bit Rot. A compendium of snippets ranging from short fiction to biography, allegory, and even a 50-page teleplay, Coupland’s collection is—like much of his work—a unique appraisal of modern culture, addressing technology, religion, death, violence, love, and the environment.
“A lot of the sections were written around the time of my novel Generation A, but they didn’t make the final cut,” Coupland tells the Straight over lunch at a secluded White Spot. “While I was drafting that book, the world was changing faster than me. I found out that I had to get my shit together, and had to reinvent how I write—in terms of language, but also in terms of diction.
“We all know that sensation of going online and falling down the rabbit hole when you’re browsing the Internet, and suddenly you’re in the centre of the Earth thinking ‘How did this happen?’ Bit Rot explores what happens when you view fiction with that same sense of quick discovery—where the information is almost fractal-like, or a series of interacting tessellations.”
The book’s nonlinearity is liberating. Jumping between philosophical musings on memory and comedic anecdotes about visiting the mall, Bit Rot sits somewhere between a string of TED talks and a three-hour binge of “recommended for you” Netflix choices.
That unpredictability is, Coupland says, exactly the point. Arranging his passages in a mishmash of styles and ideas, the author taps into the way people have processed information since the advent of the World Wide Web.
“The only way that we can avoid being overwhelmed by the modern world is by attempting pattern recognition,” the writer suggests. “This really clicked for me when I was writing my Marshall McLuhan book. You might not find any patterns initially, but you have to keep looking. Technology and the speed we receive information has changed the way we perceive the world.
“I like to use the phrase ‘my pre-Internet brain’. It’s something I think about often, because I really don’t remember what it was like—and it’s not just me. I was recently in San Francisco, where I used to work for Wired, and none of the Wired people could remember their pre-Internet brains either. All we know is how it feels to think now.”
Coupland’s fascination with recalling life before the digital age is telling. If, indeed, it is possible to distill the writer’s eclectic collection, woven throughout the book is one main theme: the precarious dichotomy between the organic and the technological.
Exploring ideas like the link between natural and processed foods, choosing to live outdoors after a terrifying encounter with a horror movie, and cleaning up the beach after an oil spill in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, Coupland’s reflections repeatedly address the interaction between humans and their inventions.
“Somehow we’ve managed to create a world that’s oddly creating us,” the writer muses. “When you engineer a new medium, you never know how it’s going to affect culture. Like with radio, which gave us Hitler and the Beach Boys.
“Now we’ve made technology that is so intensely personal and solitary, yet has this amazing ability to create all kinds of groups of people. It’s able to enforce all kinds of tribal orders, and make new ones.”
Despite exploring the delights and perils of technology in thoughtful and witty detail, however, Coupland offers no value judgments about our increasingly automated world. A humorist and observer, he takes the temperature of the present instead of trying to change it.
“Like most people my age,” the writer says, “I feel like there’s some way of looking at the world and receiving it which is rapidly vanishing. It’s not good or bad—it’s just a fact. So I’m straddling both sides of the fence, trying to understand everything.
“In Grade 11 and 12, when calculators came in, for example, we were told it would be the end of mathematics, and that we wouldn’t need our math books anymore,” he continues. “And of course it just made math better. Now, instead of these calculators, kids have all these other technologies. And I don’t see why it won’t push us to better heights.
“It’ll be different from what I know, or what you know, but I’m not reflexively negative about it. These things do change so quickly.”