Dork Talk: Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland: Stephen Fry has a broken arm, so I was asked to fill in for him. Ten days later, a FedEx box full of thousands of dollars' worth of toys arrived at the front door and I thought to myself, "Man, what a cushy gig this is!"

Stephen Fry has a broken arm, so I was asked to fill in for him. Ten days later, a FedEx box full of thousands of dollars' worth of toys - GPS and navigation systems - arrived at the front door and I thought to myself, "Man, what a cushy gig this is!" (Note to Canada customs: thank you very much for holding hostage that crappy little vase I bought on eBay last month while you waited for me to pay three dollars in duty - while these glittering baubles sailed through with a cheerful nod.) Of course, the punchline here was that, when I tried using this swagstravaganza, none of it worked. North America is not the EU; nothing was adaptable.

What I essentially experienced this week was an ultra-high speed lesson in techno-obsolescence. Instead of taking 18 months to become doorstops, my new machines arrived pre-obsolete. They now reside in a Rubbermaid bin, along with my Museum of Old and Incompatible Cords, Adapters and Laptops. In about five years, when the bin fills to overflowing, its contents will be sent to the local landfill to be unearthed in one billion years by whatever species it is that supplants us.

All this got me to thinking about the relationship between time and gadgets, because there is a relationship between the two, and it's not just about the 18-month tech cycle or the decomposition-proof materials that will allow my swaggy new Casio Module 3070 wristwatch to be around when the sun goes supernova. Any gadget we use invariably morphs our perception of time's passing.

These shifting perceptions of time are what give eras in human history their specific textures. I was in Austin, Texas last spring and bumped into a friend from my stint at Wired magazine in the mid-90s. The encounter went along the lines of, "John - I haven't seen you since... eBay! I haven't seen you since... Google! I haven't seen you since... BlackBerrys!" The point was that the use of decades and calendar years to mark eras is over. Time is measured in tech waves, and not only do these tech waves demarcate eras, they also define them.

I remember in the 80s when cellphones first started to pop. I remember how, if you saw someone using a cellphone on a street, you immediately thought they were an asshole: gee, my phone call is so important I have to make it right here and right now! Twenty years later, we're all assholes. We're assholes at the supermarket's meat counter at 5:30pm, phoning home to ask if we need prosciutto; we're assholes driving in traffic; and we're assholes wandering down the streets. And with cellphones and handhelds, we collapse time and space and our perception of distance and intimacy.

Is this a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. The advent of cellphones may, in the end, be no more relevant than the ability of laptops to change our written documents into ones using cool new fonts. But then it's hard to imagine the current boom in procedural crime dramas without the cellphone. Cellphones have, if nothing else, turned TV crime writers into lazy sloths.

When I think of the 90s, I remember waiting for 10 minutes for small files to download and visiting the reference library every other day to locate a piece of info Google now gives me in 0.0258 seconds. And now, when I think of the post-90s, I remember turning on my computer one day with an email from a friend saying, "Check out this cool clip on YouTube." That was a year ago and I can now barely imagine life without being able to watch a blurry version of Haysi Fantayzee's Shiny Shiny on command.

I'm rambling here. Curse you for breaking your arm, Stephen Fry - you've forced me to confront modern demons. And I'd write more about it, but someone just sent me a link to a site with really cute baby animal photos ... which could also possibly be a very raw porn site in disguise. You really never know. We are a dreadful species indeed, and deserve whatever it is our techno-baubles do to us.

Douglas Coupland

The GuardianTramp

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