Microserfs: the future ain’t what it used to be

When we think broadly about the role of technology in the society, it’s tempting to think about its impact on the future. Perhaps this is because of its early associations in fiction with utopias or, more prevalently, dystopias. And since it’s so young, relatively speaking, it’s sometimes difficult to become nostalgic about our early experiences with this once so terribly young technology. But that doesn’t stop us trying. I’ve bored several people over the years with tales of my top-loading VCR, which came complete with a remote control on a lead. As a casual/hardcore gamer (‘casualcore’?) with several years’ worth of time invested in games on anything from a ZX Spectrum to the PS3, I’ve been known to fondly remember the time I completed Sabre Wulf, say – and perhaps compare this unfavourably with its modern counterparts.

I experienced a challenge to this kind of nostalgia when reading Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs recently. Published in 1996, it seems oddly quaint by today’s standards, and represents a way of measuring how far – or how little – technology has changed, or changed our lives, between now and then. In some ways, it’s got worse. The main character, Dan, complains that he gets an unprecedented sixty emails one day. For many of us, this would seem like a birthday present, especially when you consider the Tweets, updates, feeds and messages coming from a variety of sources in a variety of formats.

But it’s the ubiquity of the web now and its minor role then that brought me up short. The web appears in the novel, but it’s largely muted: at one point a character tells us ‘it’s great, but not that great’. Looking between now and then reveals that now, the present – the novel’s future – is better than was hoped, at least technologically speaking. There can be no nostalgia where the future is brighter than the past – and perhaps that’s why we sometimes feel less nostalgic about using computers in their, or our, infancy. We’re too busy thinking about what we can do with them now and in the future, than to establish a golden age and lament its passing. Or – perhaps the rise of Web 2.0 will appear as such an idealised time in our future memories, when we look back and see what we’ve done. It’s difficult to recognise sometimes in the midst of it all that what we are doing now will seem quaint and slightly underwhelming perhaps, just Microserfs does to today’s reader. And this will happen soon.

One thing remains the same, however: the term ‘information superhighway’ was as naff then as it is now.

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