Douglas Coupland Analyzes Alcatel-Lucent in Kitten Clone

A search for meaning at a communications technology company

Loading the podcast player...

Stephen Cass: Hello, I’m Stephen Cass for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.” Many regular listeners to this podcast will know of Alcatel-Lucent, the sprawling multinational telecommunications company. As well as providing much of the wired and wireless networking infrastructure that supports the Internet, Alcatel-Lucent is also the corporate inheritor of the fabled Bell Labs, which invented critical technology such as the transistor, the laser, and the Unix operating system.

But despite its major role in keeping the modern world spinning along, Alcatel-Lucent is not well known outside the world of high tech. This inspired a nonprofit organization known as Writers in Residence to seek out a writer who could spend months visiting Alcatel-Lucent facilities around the world and reflect deeply on what he saw. The writer chosen was Douglas Coupland, the keen-eyed observer of modern culture who coined the term “Generation X” in his first novel in 1991 and who has since written many works of fiction and nonfiction.

The resulting book, called Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, is about as far from a typical corporate history or case study as you can imagine. Illustrated with photographs by Olivia Arthur, Kitten Clone dwells not on facts and figures, or the latest advances bursting out of Alcatel-Lucent’s massive R&D operation, but instead tries to find out what it means to have a global company of 60,000 people single-mindedly dedicated to making it easier, cheaper, and faster for anyone or anything to communicate with another. Joining me today by phone, from his home in Vancouver, to talk about Kitten Clone is Douglas Coupland. Douglas, welcome to the podcast.

Douglas Coupland: Oh, Stephen, can I just take everything you said and reprint it on the inside of the paperback edition? It was perfect. Thank you.

Stephen Cass: Oh, good. So how did you come to be involved in the Writers in Residence project, and what attracted you to covering Alcatel-Lucent?

Douglas Coupland: It was actually a little bit random. I got a call from someone I work with, Alain de Botton, who’s a Swiss writer who lives in London, England, and he’d spent a week at Heathrow Airport, literally seven days, sleeping, eating, everything at the airport. And he wrote this book called A Week at the Airport, which was, yes, about Heathrow, but it was also about travel and meditations on travel, coming, going, life and death, that sort of thing. And it was a very big hit.

And then he wanted to create a series and expand it. And I’d done tech books, obviously. There was Microserfs, came out in 1994. There’s JPod, which is 2006. And Alain wanted me to go into this company called Alcatel-Lucent, and of course I said, “Alca what?” And Alcatel-Lucent. We looked it up. It’s currently the 505th-largest company on Earth, and, well, okay. Let me think about this.

I thought about it, what they do and what they did, and it seemed like for a company that does so much to change and alter and maintain the texture of our society, very few people know about it. So it seemed like, okay, if I went in there and saw their systems, what would I see, and what would I think? That was the catnip for me, like, oh! A lot of ideas I didn’t have before.

Stephen Cass: So whether or not “technological determinism” exists is one of the recurring themes in the book. Can you say what you mean by technological determinism, and at the end of the day, do you believe it exists?

Douglas Coupland: Hmm. My interpretation of technological determinism is that, let’s say the special theory of relativity hadn’t been invented by Einstein, someone would have invented it sooner or later. If Google hadn’t happened, someone else would have done what they do. Television was going to happen no matter who invented it or whatever. So it’s sort of weird. And I’m sitting here in a chair in Vancouver, and I just know all these inventions are approaching me like an asteroid from outer space, and they’re going to arrive, and there’s nothing I can do to stop them. And I think that things are just going to happen, whether here or there, they’re still going to happen. That’s the simplest way of saying it.

Stephen Cass: Were you surprised that of the engineers and researchers that you talked to, who were spending their days creating ever more advanced communications technology, very few seemed to have given much thought as to what was being communicated with that technology?

Douglas Coupland: I mean, that was a real shocker to me. Because the people who worked at the R&D for Alcatel-Lucent are probably some of the smartest people on the planet. I mean, they have, like, four-digit IQs. They’re so smart. But no, they don’t actually ever think, and I really asked around, “Well, when you were inventing text messaging, or when you were inventing the cloud, did you ever think it might lead to things like cute kitten videos or selfies or whatever?” No, absolutely no interest in it. They just want to make it. And I kind of like that attitude, actually.

Stephen Cass: One of the features of Alcatel-Lucent that came through very clearly in the book was its deeply decentralized and multinational nature. Is it meaningful to talk about such a company as a single entity, or is it really more of an ecosystem of organisms operating interdependently, like a coral reef?

Douglas Coupland: That’s an interesting way of putting it. It’s sort of like trying to describe Los Angeles but only using the suburbs instead of the actual core of the city. It just is sort of a sprawling, Mexico City–like company. I would say after two weeks I realized, the thing about Alcatel-Lucent is that it really does live in the past, present, and future. And I began to use time as a way of looking at the company more than I did geography.

Stephen Cass: In Kitten Clone, you cast the New Jersey offices of Bell Labs as representing the past, and the offices in Shanghai as representing the future. How does the meaning of the Internet differ for people living in China versus the West, and how do you think that may guide the near future of the Internet?

Douglas Coupland: I live in Canada, which is pretty similar to the states, and we all have our Wi-Fi provider, or wireless provider, and you get maybe 5 megs a second, or 6 or 7, or if you’re lucky and you live in Kansas City with Google Fiber, you get a gig, and then you’ve got China. And I was speaking with the vice president of the Communist party in Shanghai, and they have this plan whereby, depending on who you talk to, the next three, four, five years, every Chinese citizen, including children and people in mountain valleys, are going to have a minimum of 5 megs a second of connectivity, which is what I pretty much get right now. But people living in the main cities are going to have a gig per second, and secondary cities maybe, you know, 30, 40, 50 megs a second.

I’m always interested in the unintended side effects of technology, and so I asked the guy, “Wow, here you are providing all your citizens with connectivity,” and in my head I’m thinking it’s a five-year plan, and it’s China, so it’s going to happen. “Have you thought about the unintended side effects of giving absolutely everyone so much speed?” And he said, “Yes and no.” And the thing is, is that the future, no matter where you go on Earth, is high-speed everywhere, all the time, 24/7. It’s going to happen. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, so you have technological determinism there. And so it’s the inevitable future. China might as well get there first. That’s why we’re doing it. And I thought, wow! That’s really something, boy! So that’s their way of looking at it, and I think here in North America, we have five or six or seven telecom companies battling it out to make sure that speeds stay as low as possible, and as much money as possible can we milk out of the system, and I think there are two very, very differing ways of looking at wireless providing.

Stephen Cass: So Kitten Clone features a lot of, I guess what could be called narrative typography, as well as jocular asides, interior thoughts, all mixed up with descriptions of the various Alcatel-Lucent research sites that you visit, and interviews with the people that work there. Photographs overlay each other and splay from page to page. The result is something that’s really difficult to imagine in any medium other than that of a physical book. Why create such an artifact about a digital communications company?

Douglas Coupland: Great question. Let me think of the most apt response here. I think with the book series, Alain really wanted people to visit and be inside the space that they probably never ever would otherwise see or experience or know about. And I entered the whole Alcatel-Lucent experience thinking that it was a very centralized experience, and that there was a center, and that the center controlled all of the periphery, and everything was in control. And what I realized is that the company is basically about sprawl. It’s like Brazil. It’s about Mexico. It’s just this thing that just goes on and on, and there is no actual center. And I thought, Wow, how are we going to put that—do you put that in a website? Do you—how do you handle that? And in the end, I think the format of the book, the sprawl in itself mirrors the sprawl of the company. I think if I was doing something like Boeing, it would have been a very different book, for example.

Stephen Cass: How did you work with photographer Olivia Arthur?

Douglas Coupland: Oh, Olivia’s a terrific photographer. She’s with Magnum, and they’re sort of the Harvard of photography. And I would go into an environment, and I would make my notes and write what I was going to write, and then, because she’s a genuinely creative person, I trust her with my notes and said, “Here’s what I found, so maybe if you could reflect on that, but also, what are you going to see?” And she has an amazing eye, and she finds strange things that I would never have noticed, and it’s a very happy relationship.

Stephen Cass: In another break from tradition, none of the photos in Kitten Clone have captions. What was the reason for that?

Douglas Coupland: I think part of the reason for that is that the editor didn’t think they were necessary, or somehow they might actually distract from the 21st-century reading experience that she wanted to create for whoever was reading the book. In one sense, too, the photographs, they evoke a laboratory, or a router-making factory, so they’re quite generic in that way. They’re not quite Shutterstock or clip art, but there’s a generic feeling to them, even though they’re very specific. It’s hard to describe.

Stephen Cass: You write that you found Alcatel-Lucent and the tech industry in general to be a technical meritocracy. How would you respond to the criticism that high-tech companies have received, that they have narrow cultures that is resulting in the exclusion of women and minorities?

Douglas Coupland: I don’t know about minorities or women. I think the women I spoke to certainly saw the company as a meritocracy, and I think half the guys in tech come from Indian subcontinents, so I’m not quite sure if it’s exclusionary that way.

Stephen Cass: So without giving anything away, the book ends with a brief sojourn to the year 2245, in which the Kitten Clone of the book’s title encounters an unpleasant situation. With that in mind, would you say that you’re an optimist or a pessimist about the years to come?

Douglas Coupland: I think I’m an optimist. The whole title Kitten Clone, it comes from an interview with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. “And Sir Tim, is there anything about the Internet that genuinely surprises you?” He paused for a second and thought, “Yes, kittens. Kittens really surprise me.” And I think I just wanted to take a company so neatly cut into three pieces, their past, present, future, and just have a through narrative, a very light version of someone like David Mitchell or someone like that. But just to get you through time in a way that makes you see patterns that might not be there unless you actually stood back in time and look at things going “A, B, C,” in a row.

Stephen Cass: Well, Douglas, thank you so much for joining us today.

Douglas Coupland: It’s been a pleasure, and thanks for all the obvious time you took to make good questions. I appreciate it.

Stephen Cass: Thank you. We’ve been speaking with Douglas Coupland about his latest book, Kitten Clone, all about Alcatel-Lucent. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Stephen Cass.

This interview was recorded Monday, 15 September 2014.

Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Photo: Byron Dauncey

Read more “Techwise Conversations” or find us in iTunes.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.