2011 Oct 16 The Ultimate X-Man: A Chat with Novelist Douglas Coupland
Bookworms, nerds, artists, general enthusiasts: We've got your man. Douglas Coupland, artist, author of Hey Nostradamus! and coiner of the term "Generation X," is coming to Beijing this week via Shanghai, where Art Labor Gallery is hosting an exhibition of Vancouver artists, entitled "By Sea, Land & Air, We Prosper: New Art from Vancouver, Canada."
On Tuesday, October 18th, the famed novelist, renaissance man and champion of the seven-day-work-week comes to The Bookworm to discuss his latest publication, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! His biography of Marshall McLuhan (recognize the terms "global village" and "the medium is the message?" — here's your culprit) takes on the ideas of the media theorist, who commented on the effect of electronic media on our senses and culture. McLuhan also gets major visionary points for predicting the Internet before its arrival.
We caught up with Coupland in anticipation of his appearance at The Bookworm, where he'll be speaking about the relevance of McLuhan’s predictions and how they've become a reality within our time. He'll also be on hand to talk about his unusual biography, which takes into account McLuhan’s theories and can claim MapQuest and Wikipedia amongst its sources. Here's our attempt to parse out his thoughts on Beijing, its future — and, of course, the letter "X."
We know labels aren’t the point, but humor us: What generation are we on now, and can you share some insights about today’s disenfranchised youth?
That’s such a broad set of questions all rolled into one. I think the largest perspective on this line of thinking is that since 2000, pretty much everyone’s brain has been rewired by the Internet much along the same lines, so that you have social and generational uniformity in a way that might be unimaginable 50 years ago. I find that my older friends – in their 70s and 80s – now think about, and are concerned about, the same sorts of things that friends in their 20s do. For example, everyone forages for music now, regardless of age or what their generation was in the past. We’ve gotten used to this, so it’s slightly invisible, but this is an extraordinary development. We have a global monogeneration.
Which legacy of "Generation X" (the concept, not the book) would you most distance yourself from?
None of it. It’s like trying to distance myself from being left-handed. It’s a part of me and who I am.
Your hometown of Vancouver joined Beijing as a post-Olympics city soon after 2008. If the two cities had a conversation about this experience, what do you think they would say to each other?
Good: Wasn’t it a blast! Bad: Man, those IOC people are deeply deeply creepy.
You’ve written a lot about how we’re shaped by technology. In light of the voluminous public response to Steve Jobs’ passing, where do you think technology will take us in the next ten years – mentally, emotionally, physically?
Humans made technology, not aliens from outer space, so whatever we make, and whatever we do with what we make, can only ever be an expression of our humanity. I think the biggest tech issue right now is whether the tribalizing tendency of the Internet is ultimately a force for secularization, or a force that wants to be exploited by orthodoxies, whether political or religious.
How has China’s role in technology surprised you over the years?
China skipped many generations of interim technologies and got to the newest ones with no need to deprogram old habits, and no need to amortize old technologies. That’s very freeing.
Being well-versed in architecture, what do you think of Beijing’s starchitect building, the Bird’s Nest?
It photographs beautifully. It’s maybe H&D’s finest piece.
Koolhaas’ CCTV Tower?
I know Rem and it’s the Rem-est building ever made. That’s a very good thing.
Are we overcompensating for something?
Not at all. You had an Olympics and you wanted to put your best foot forward. Vancouver doesn’t have a single building from the Olympics that you might want to put on a postcard. That’s really depressing, and I feel like we blew a big opportunity.
Many who visit Beijing for the first time describe it as overwhelming – for its dense population, the inhuman scale of its urban planning and its anaerobic pace. What other cities around the world have you been in that you think might prepare you for this?
I’m unsure what to expect. In a way I feel like a doctor has just said to me, “I’m going to give you a very powerful drug called 'China’ and its effects are going to last seven nights. Have fun.”
Are you hoping to gather material for future projects while you are in Beijing? What will you be looking for?
I’m keeping an entirely open mind. More than anything I want to see the flea market and am hoping it’s open the days I’m there.
If you could write the Generation X for China, what kinds of characters would you write, and where would it be set?
I’ll have to wait until I’ve been there to decide.
What's the stupidest thing anyone's ever said about you?
That I live in Scotland, have no furniture and collect meteorites. About ten years ago, whenever I did a book event, that would be my introduction and it drove me nuts. But then I got to thinking about meteorites and wouldn’t it be interesting to collect them, so now I actually do. They’re fascinating objects.
What worries you more: people overthinking or underthinking your work?
Not thinking about it at all.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen someone make out of Legos (besides a skull)?
I think I’ve seen everything you can make out of Lego at this point. I was at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, and they had an exhibition of Lego skyscrapers, and after the show they had a kids room where they were encouraged to make their own skyscrapers. What was most interesting was when one child would cannibalize a previous child’s building and incorporate it into their own. It was beautiful.
What's the first Lego set you remember having?
345: Modern House.
You’ve done a lot for the letter “X.” What can it possibly do to repay you?
Dinner and drinks and an apartment in Monaco.
Coupland will speak at The Bookworm on Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 7.30pm. RMB 20-30. Expect an interactive book talk and a Q&A afterwards.