The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a salable kind. Marshal McLuhan – 1962
Wait, what? 1962? He’s basically predicting the rise of the Internet over thirty years in advance of its arrival! Who is this guy?
Author Douglas Coupland’s pathography (a brilliant term the author has coined to describe the genre he envisions as a historical record of the subject’s life combined with a forensic medical diagnosis based on technology and breakthroughs that were not available when the subject was alive) reveals that McLuhan was many things, a philosopher, a professor, a rhetorician, a man considered by some the best talker in the world, and a communication theorist to name a few.
McLuhan wrote several novels during his lifetime in an attempt to study and find patterns within popular, oral, and cultural studies. The most famous of which is 1962’s “The Gutenberg Galaxy” in which, according to Coupland, he uses four stages to outline the social evolution of man from tribal society to modern humanity – and then back to tribal society.
Coupland does spend a fair amount of time on who McLuhan was and the things he accomplished in his lifetime and in this respect the book serves as a decent enough biography. One of the pieces that sticks out, sadly, is that this brilliant and strange man, studier and seeker of patterns in pop culture, thought of homosexuality as “the chief threat to contemporary morality” and viewed woman as constitutionally docile, uncritical and routine loving.” Granted these beliefs are somewhat a product of both his upbringing and his Catholic faith, but nonetheless these seem like shocking thoughts for a man who was so far ahead of his time in other areas.
The most interesting part of the pathograhy is the time Coupland spends on attempting to dissect what makes McLuhan’s brain tick. Coupland presents compelling evidence that his subject may have in fact been autistic or functioning Asperger’s autistic. He disliked disruptions, he disliked being touched, he loved ritual, he was obsessed with words and memorization, he would zone in and out of conversations, he would ramble during class lectures. Of course none of this is conclusive evidence that he was, but it does seem to point to an individual with a brain that is slightly different than the average person.
That is in fact the case physically because McLuhan’s brain was fueled by blood from his heart by not one, but two arteries at the base of his skull, a trait that is found mostly in cats and rarely in humans. Sadly this condition would lead McLuhan to have several strokes over the course of his lifetime, the last of which would essentially render him speechless.
There are at least two other biographies of McLuhan out there, but again, what makes Coupland’s stand apart is him attempts to get inside what made McLuhan’s brain function. He isn’t satisfied with simply filling in information about dots on the timeline of McLuhan’s life.
Does this kind of speculation make for a bad biographer or perhaps a good pathographer? I don’t know, but it does make for a very interesting read.(less)
Metaphor Spectrum: Confusion in the noun centre of the brain that leads to schizophrenic or delusional thinking:
Napoleon was a general -> Napoleon is great -> I think I am great -> I am Napoleon
“Player One” is a hard novel to pin down. If you’re familiar with Douglas Coupland’s previous body of work, then what you’ll find here is somewhat recycled material that’s a cross between “Girlfriend in a Coma” (lookout, it’s the end of the world as we know it!) and “Hey Nostradamus!” (lookout, he’s got a gun, we’d better start talking about our feelings!). What this novel borrows from the past though, it uses to ask some striking questions about where we’re all headed.
Coupland’s novels have always been obsessed with the way society interacts with technology and “Player One” is no exception. Here he fears that the rapid speed with which technology is currently changing is altering our perceptions of reality and of our selves for the worse. He wonders if the future is happening too quickly for us to keep up with and questions if we shouldn’t perhaps hit the pause button on innovation for a bit so we can all take a breath to absorb and enjoy our current state. The way he delivers these points to his audience is by introducing classic Coupland character types (we need to tell stories or we’ll all die!) into a fairly new and unique setting.
Trans-humane Conundrum: If technology is only a manifestation of our intrinsic humanity, how can we possibly make something smarter than ourselves?
There are plenty of books that are based on successful television, film and video game franchises and there are plenty of books that are about being a player in a video game setting, but I’m hard pressed to think of an author who so brilliantly looked backward into his past body and used it to create something so fresh. Coupland has taken all the best bits of his previous characters, spun them together, and dropped them into a five hour, end of the world, apocalyptic video game setting. It’s here that they’re all tied together by the mysterious “Player One” a bodiless voice who serves as impartial witness to the chaos that ensues.
Let’s face it, in 2011 we’re so desensitized to violence that sitting in front of our favorite video console “killing” others in whatever the latest mega-ht shoot’em up franchise is for hours on end is deemed perfectly acceptable behavior. That point is made crystal clear to us when the world starts its downward accent in “Player One” and our heroes barely bat an eyelash at the fact there’s a gunman they need to contend with or the fact that chemical toxins are being released into their air supply. It’s just another day at the airport bar for them. Life isn’t a game, so why do we continue to treat it as though the final outcome doesn’t matter?
Omniscience Fatigue: The burnout that comes with being able to know the answer to almost anything online.
We live in a world where Google is God and Coupland knows it. He’s quick to point out how heavily we all rely on our mini-computer, smart-telephone, mobile-3G, internet-ready devices in order to function on a daily basis. His characters are living through a very serious and very realistic set of circumstances and what do they do? They constantly check online to see what’s happening. Hello? You’re all holed up in airport bar with a gunman on the roof and toxic chemicals outside the door. You think you could put that computer away for just a half-second?
How did people ever survive without computers? Is technology really making our lives all that much better? Where are we going? Where will it all end? Coupland leaves us with more questions than answers and most of the questions he presents for us to chew on are not what quite what you’d expect.
Pope Gregory’s Day Timer: Doesn’t mean anything in particular, but it certainly would have been interesting to see.
“Player One” was written specifically for the 2010 Massey Lectures. Started in 1961, this yearly event features a noted Canadian scholar giving a week long series of lectures on political and/or cultural topics. Coupland was the first lecturer to write a piece of fiction for the series and the novel went on to be long-listed for the Giller Prize (a yearly literary award similar to the National Book Award).
As a reader it takes a little bit of work to appreciate and absorb all that Player One throws at you, but the effort is well worth it. Shut down your electronic devices and spend some time with this one for a few hours. You might be surprised where it takes you. Or if you just can’t bear the thought of powering down there’s always the ebook version or the audio podcast series of Coupland’s Massey Lectures available for your digital digestion. (less)
Nick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down” meets Chuck Palahniuk’s “Haunted” meets Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X.” Easily the best Doug novel in quite a few y...moreNick Hornby’s “A Long Way Down” meets Chuck Palahniuk’s “Haunted” meets Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X.” Easily the best Doug novel in quite a few years.(less)