In conversation with Douglas Coupland
From Idler 5, July 1994
Douglas Coupland’s Generation X wasn’t long out, and my friend Toby Young, then editor of the Modern Review, suggested we go to see him, as he was in town.
Coupland struck me as extremely nerdy. We chatted in the lounge of the Portobello Hotel in London, where he was staying (great hotel, by the way). He was also strangely aggressive, and refused to be taped at first. At one point in the interview he kicked me under the table.
A day later, Gav went up to his room and took a load of polaroids of him, which Coupland scrawled all over. This gave us a great illustration for the piece.
Reading it now, he was extremely prescient in his prediction that the nerd would take over the world.
He later sent us a fax saying it was the best interview he’d ever done.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Canadian writer Douglas Copeland wrote Generation X, Shampoo Planet and has just come out with Life After God. The Idler caught up with him in the Portobello Hotel in West London, where we were joined by man about town Tom Shone. Coupland was nervous about the tape recorder: we had a chat and then recorded our attempts to remember what we had said, which set him more at ease. What follows is a transcription of our conversation about our conversation.
Coupland: We started talking about Hal, and then artificial intelligence, and then Lego and the construction of entities that breathe.
Shone: Toilet paper.
Coupland: Toilet paper was right up there, I think. We politely asked Tom “Two Squares” Hodgkinson [representing The Idler] how many squares he used per pass and he said two.
Idler: It wasn’t two per pass, it was two per wipe …
Coupland: Well, in the industry they use the term “pass”.
Idler: So “pass” means just one wipe …
Coupland: You mean you use one?
Idler: This is so unfair.
Coupland: So Tom S. and I, first of all, were wondering if, like, maybe all our lives we’ve been somehow extravagant. And then, because Tom S. was unwilling to participate in this pornography of numbers which he was instigating, he said somewhat democratically and diplomatically that somewhere between Tom H.’s two and a Wall Street ticker tape parade was where we stood. And then we talked about paranoias. We were sitting here in somewhat simian manner looking at our teeth. What do you call that tooth there? I had tartar build-up on it.
Idler: I recommended Plax.
Coupland: Which I have never tried but must try.
Shone: And then we recapitulated on it when we were talking about paranoia.
Shone: Whereby one is frightened that one’s teeth are talking about one behind one’s back.
Coupland: Or people are talking about your teeth behind your back.
Idler: Tom S was talking about Tina Turner living on his block and I made a comment that was missed …
Coupland: Yes, you tried to explain a joke of questionable humour in the first place. Three times.
Idler: But you didn’t hear it, so how can you say that?
Coupland: At which point we deduced that point about diminishing humour returns …
Shone: Proportionately related to the number of repetitions in the gag.
Idler: You know what we haven’t talked about …
Coupland: No wait, wait, don’t introduce a memory! What else … oh, how when you randomly pull out a notion in conversation, sometimes it sticks and elicits a confession. Like: “I hear you’re a kleptomaniac.” “Who told you?”
Idler: You accused me of being into body piercing.
Coupland: I said “Tom tells me you’re into body piercing in a big way.” Sometimes that can really work. Then there was Stanley Kubrick and his new movie, which I can’t wait to see. It’s set in the future with Manhattan rising out of the water, and nanobots …
Shone: You wanted time to speed up so you could see it.
Coupland: I asked you guys if you were on Prozac and there were nervous giggles. You didn’t answer. Then I told you that everyone in Washington and New York is on Prozac right now.
Idler: You said it was good.
Coupland: Well. there’s no stigma. It’s like, Americans take you on a house tour and “Here’s the bathroom, what do you think?”
Shone: Then you came up with a pun on Prozac.
Coupland: Which never really went anywhere. But the thing about Prozac was how it was going to change your class system here. Your ruling class, because they know they’re going to go mad by the time they’re 35, so live decadently before then. And by the time they’re 30, they’ll be wearing a tutu and sitting on the backstairs with a musket waiting for the masons to show up. And so Prozac means that they’ll be buggy-whipping the serfs indefinitely. In the short term this is bad, in the long term good, because they’ll breed themselves out of existence, the same people won’t be replicating …
Shone: And you said how popular culture and being middle class are the only two things that glue everything together.
Coupland: Yes, and so why do middle class people hate themselves so much? Who has divided and conquered the middle class to fill them with such self-hatred?
Shone: We restratified it a bit.
Coupland: You guys, being British, know more about class distinctions than I do. Then you guys lapsed into British code for a while, and I felt slightly alienated …
… and hurt. But it was O.K., I was able to get over it. And there was the way sometimes you can be right in the middle of remembering something and you know as it’s happening that you’re forgetting it.
Shone: And I was rather cruel, saying that it was the beginning of the end for you.
Coupland: Yeah, because is this what it’s like getting older? When you grow older and you wake up and your day becomes a serial amnesia, a continual process of forgetting. You said, that’s already starting with you, and I said, that was pretty cruel.
Shone: What else? Erm … amnesia.
Idler: The low standard of Internet newsgroups.
Shone: You said you’d had really dull conversations.
Coupland: I’ve never really found one that’s interesting … all these Oscar Wildes out there are just waiting to spew their bon mots into the ether …
Shone: You’re extemporising a bit here.
Coupland: I know but, it’s … NO EXTEMPORISING … no, all right: but invariably, they’re pointless. You got flamed on the Net because of shameless self promotion … O.K., that was later on, but we can circle that back into this. Did you get flamed for being commercial?
Idler: No, I got flamed for saying, “isn’t this guy a bit of a nerd?”
Coupland: Well, nerd’s not pejorative on the Net. It’s an absolute compliment on the West Coast. Even geek is becoming so, too.
Idler: The cool/nerd distinction is collapsing, or already has …
Coupland: On the West Coast it has. Now we really are deep in, this is interesting. Looking at it from a Desmond Morris standpoint, how can you tell where the power is? You realise that the nerds are the people who are going to have money and power in the future. So, from a Darwinian standpoint, they are the survivors. So the species’ survival energy attaches itself to them as winners. I guess ultimately that’s what cool is all about, the people most likely to propagate the species. Let’s call Desmond, he’s British.
Idler: When do you think nerds started becoming cool?
Coupland: Two and a half, three years ago.
Idler: Here recently there’s been a noticeable scramble towards nerditude.
Coupland: What is the Anglo-nerd?
Idler: Undergraduate physics boffin, spotty, with glasses, very uncool and unsociable.
Coupland: Oh, you know what we talked about: “clean enough!” as a fashion statement. How when you first get your wash back from the laundry you have pretensions towards coordination, and then slowly but surely the elements become more random until it finally becomes kind of hip, through sheer randomness?
Shone: And you said that’s pretty much what grunge was.
Coupland: That’s just the way people have always dressed there. And there was the beverage equivalent of grunge, the drink we called the Toby Young, which is cranberry juice, Redoxin and tap water. There was the Tom Shone, which was melted Ben and Jerry’s chocolate ice cream with eight tablespoons of brandy and half a pint of thick clotted cream. It had to be very cold and you had to have the image of a great big French whisk which would somehow purify this disgusting goo, this redemptionless goo. It’s so strange, I have no memory. We were talking about that in the cab last night weren’t we …
Shone: Were we?
Coupland: About how personal memory is always the first to go, and corporate memory is the last. So you’ll remember Marlboro long after you’ve forgotten your family. So is it possible to copy memories like a Macintosh file and restore them somewhere else in the brain? Is the desktop metaphor biologically applicable to the human system?
[Coupland says he has to go to a magazine office on the other side of town]
Idler: I think it’s in E1.
Coupland: Is that how things work here, by postal address?
Idler: Yes we’re in W11 and people will know the character of the area.
Coupland: That’s like in Los Angeles. If you say, “you’re really 818″ it’s pejorative, it means you’re from the valley. 310 is now better than 213. And when the area codes were invented in the early Sixties, they had rotary phones and zeros took the longest to dial and ones took the shortest time to dial. So areas of greatest importance got the lowest: New York was 212 and L.A. had 213. And then you had areas like Nova Scotia which is 702, or Hawaii which is 808.
So we’ve remembered what we remembered. [Looking at Shone] I think I have sweater Envy – that’s my dream sweater. But I have so little shopping energy.