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September 13, 2006 ・ Blog

With JPod having recently come out, I decided to finally get around to reading its 10 year old (virtual) predecessor, Microserfs. By Douglas Coupland, both are portraits of distinct eras in North American software and tech history. Microserfs, written in 1995, follows the lives of a set of programmers that start out working for Microsoft and end up forming their own company in California.

What I like about Coupland is his knack for nailing specific subcultures and periods, and he does it brilliantly in Microserfs. And what makes Microserfs particularly fascinating to read right now is that the world he depicts closely mirrors whats happening among the California technorati right now: today’s “Web 2.0” is Microserfs’ “multimedia”.

The big similarity between these memes is how wooly and little understood they are. A scene in Microserfs has the characters at a party where there are loads of film and TV industry people. They’re all excited by this new multimedia thing and are desperate to get on board with it. Whatever “it” is. The main character remarks that this is the first time in history that the rest of the world is looking to the programmer geeks to lead the way. And in Microserfs, the phantasm of multimedia has fueled a huge surge in start-up companies, just as Web 2.0 has.

Multimedia didn’t really go anywhere on its own terms. In fact, the idea of computers seamlessly handling multiple sources of sound and moving images (if that’s an accurate reading of what multimedia is/was) has only recently become ubiquitous, and revolutionary – in the form of the (Web 2.0y) YouTube and its ilk. Perhaps we’ll look back at Web 2.0 in the same way: to see it as a necessary but formless step on to a more tangible and useful future.

Such contextualising is what makes Microserfs a wonderful document of a near-yet-ancient past. The characterisation is sharp and almost every page has some throwaway observation or mini-theory that made me chuckle with delight. But this only just got me past its lethargic plot. Despite things regularly happening in the story, they unfold in an extremely aimless way. While this gets the meandering placelessness of the characters’ attitudes across, it doesn’t make for a gripping read.

As a result, I’m not sure if I’ll read JPod yet. I’ve heard, too, that it’s harder work than Microserfs. Perhaps I should wait another 10 years to get the “3D glasses” benefit of hindsight…