Start-up Costs: ‘Silicon Valley,’ ‘Halt and Catch Fire,’ and How Microserfdom Ate the World

The notion that cutting the corporate cord to work for a start-up often just means busting out of a cubicle in order to shackle oneself to a laptop in a slightly funkier room goes unexamined; the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.

Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs is about the spiritual yearnings and time-frittering activities of youngish coders immersed in the drudgery of the software-development process, and how those activities become an expression of those yearnings. It was published 20 years ago this month, which as far as I’m aware makes it the earliest significant stab by a fiction writer at the Great North American Tech-Company/Start-up Novel. It predates Po Bronson’s The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Dave Eggers’s The Circle, numerous other neuroman-à-clefs, score-settling pseudomemoirs and murder-dot-com whodunits,1 as well as tech-sector TV shows like Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire, serials that pick up where the novels leave off.

Coupland’s evocation of the inner lives of programmers turning entrepreneur in mid-’90s Redmond and Palo Alto should, in theory, enjoy the reputational equivalent of what marketers call first-mover advantage. But I’m not sure it does. Nobody’s talked about it much in the last two decades. Coupland’s most famous book is still his first one, which named a generation (or two) and made Coupland (b. 1961) the most visible and visibly reluctant spokesman for his peer group pre–Kurt Cobain. Universal Pictures bought the film rights to Microserfs two years after it was published, and IMDb insists a low-budget movie did get made in 2011, but there’s no trace of it elsewhere on the Internet.2 Nor did it become a Fox TV show, despite a mention in Wired that one was in the works. Maybe the overall bagginess of the book’s epistolary narrative stymied potential screenwriters; maybe adapting a book whose first and arguably most important section is about the office culture of a nonfictional household-name software company then run by one of the richest men in America presented insurmountable legal challenges. Had the TV show taken place among the cubicles of “GloboCom” and featured characters speaking in reverent tones of their omniscient CEO “Gil Yates,” something would probably have been lost. As it stands, the only extant Microserfs adaptation I know of is the abridged audiobook, read by Friends star (and soon-to-be Windows 95 shill) Matthew Perry. I have it on cassette tape; it is maybe the most ’90s object I have ever owned, a curio as totemic as a lock of Alanis Morissette’s hair preserved in a flannel-swaddled vial of Crystal Pepsi.

Microserfs is written as a series of entries from the PowerBook journal of a 26-year-old named Daniel, who when the story begins is making $26,000 a year as a “bug checker” in Building Seven3 of Microsoft’s Redmond campus, living in a $235-a-month group house with other Microsoft employees, and dealing with anxieties professional and existential:

[F]ear of not producing enough; fear of not finding a little white-with-red-printing stock option envelope in the pigeonhole; fear of losing the sensation of actually making something anymore; fear about the slow erosion of perks within the company; fear that the growth years will never return again; fear that the bottom line is the only thing that really drives the process; fear of disposability…

He has trouble sleeping and maintaining relationships and struggles with a sense of alienation from the physical world. “I feel like my body is a station wagon in which I drive my brain around,” he writes, “like a suburban mother taking the kids to hockey practice.” There’s a case to be made that this — the disconnect between the mental and the physical as experienced by members of a caste of golden-handcuffed knowledge workers, and the possibility of greater harmony between car and driver, consciousness-wise — is the book’s real subject, rather than Microsoft or “tech” or start-up-house life. When Daniel and most of his housemates leave Washington and Microsoft for Silicon Valley to work on a Next Big Thing hatched by their programming-genius coworker Michael, the move precipitates a kind of spring thaw within the crew. Everyone renegotiates their relationship with their body in one way or another: characters take up shiatsu massage, come out of the closet, come to grips with childhood eating disorders, dress experimentally, grow their hair out, fuck and procreate, and work up the courage to meet their Net-chat crushes offline. The post-corporate work environment becomes a context in which these former brains-in-a-jar learn to feel the sun on their skin again — while building a revolutionary new software application called Oop!, which allows users to do object-oriented programming by manipulating Lego-like bricks and seems to anticipate Minecraft more than a little bit.

Microserfs was fiction grounded in embedded reporting; it began its life as a magazine story for Wired. More than one outlet had offered to send Coupland to Redmond, ostensibly to write about its burgeoning population of Gen-X-aged techies. “They really just wanted me to spy on Bill Gates and write about that,” Coupland told an interviewer in 1994. “I said that I wouldn’t do it … I got Wired and John Battelle to write it into the contract that I was to write a piece about Microsoft and not Bill Gates.” Speaking to the New York Times that same year, he described his sojourn among the code-monkeys as “a ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ kind of observation. What do they put in their glove compartments? What snack foods do they eat? What posters are on their bedroom walls?” Wired ran Coupland’s first Microsoft piece — which would become the opening chapter of the novel — in its January 1994 issue. Coupland himself appears on the cover, fronting a quintet of serious-faced men and women presumably representing Generation Microsoft. He’s wearing a yellow spandex cycling shirt and a few days’ worth of stubble and looks a little like a bike messenger who’s been asked to stand in for a celebrity. The background is blue sky and everyone’s looking off into the middle distance; it’s like a Leninist Sears portrait.

 

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The story inside presents Coupland’s anthropological notes on young Microsoft, right down to the snack-food question — when Michael suffers a professional setback and sequesters himself in his office on page two, Daniel and his gym-rat coworker Todd procure flat food (Kraft Singles, fruit leather) to slide under his door. The ironic thing about the story is that while it’s not the de facto Gates profile Coupland felt other magazines pressuring him to do, it’s certainly about Bill Gates, in that it’s about Microsoft employees for whom the boss is a kind of holy ghost. One of the fauxBarbara Kruger–isms punctuating the hardcover of Coupland’s previous book, Life After God, was, “You are the first generation to be raised without religion”; in Microserfs, those unused belief-muscles find purpose again through faith in Bill. Here’s Daniel, stopping between buildings to consider the mist above the company soccer field: “I had this weird feeling — of how the presence of Bill floats about the Campus, semi-visible, at all times, kind of like the dead grandfather in the Family Circus cartoons. Bill is a moral force, a spectral force, a force that shapes, a force that molds. A force with thick, thick glasses.”

One reason why Microserfs is a strange read that feels epochs and not just decades old today is that its vision of Gates has been superseded in the culture at least twice — first by the image of Gates as a Hank Scorpio–esque corporate shark that emerged from the Senate hearings into the Microsoft–Department of Justice antitrust settlement in the early ’00s, then by Gates’s rebirth as benevolent mega-philanthropist, underwriter of NPR programming, and provider of clean water to the developing world. Another reason is timing. The novel was published in 1995, but Coupland did his reporting (several weeks at Microsoft, and later several more in the Bay Area tech-start-up scene) in 1993 and 1994. Rather than an on-the-ground account of the first tech boom, then, Microserfs is an inadvertent time capsule of the moment just before the explosive growth of the consumer-facing Internet transformed society’s relationship to technology.

In that sense, the story and the subsequent book are thematically consistent with the earliest issues of Wired, which are notable both for their blue-sky, smart-drink futurism and for what they don’t see coming. The magazine was a year old when the Microserfs cover story ran; the “Net Surf” column in that same issue makes note of the growing popularity of something called the “World Wide Web.” It’s described as “a distributed system that presents the user with documents full of hypermedia links to other documents or information systems. Selecting one of these links, the user can then access more information about a particular topic.” Reading an explanation like this in 2015 is not unlike reading the Wikipedia description for water, “a transparent fluid which forms the world’s streams, lakes, oceans and rain, and is the major constituent of the fluids of living things”; the fact that the Web needed describing at all tells you something about the extent to which the future was still being negotiated as Coupland researched and wrote this book. In the old Net Surf columns, the future you’re living in by reading this article on your computer or phone glimmers on the horizon, but long-dead jargon words like finger and telnet and point your gopher are still in everyday use; in Microserfs, Daniel dismisses the whole concept of the “information superhighway” as a manufactured trend. “This highway — is it a joke? You hear so much about it, but really, what is it … The media has gone berserk with Net-this and Net-that. It’s a bit much. The Net is cool, but not that cool.

Microserfs hit stores in 1995, which turned out to be a pretty big year for Net-this and Net-that. Yahoo, Amazon, and Craigslist were founded; Javascript, the MP3 compression standard, cost-per-click and cost-per-impression advertising, the first “wiki” site, and the Internet Explorer browser were introduced. Netscape went public; Bill Gates wrote the infamous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo to Microsoft executives, proclaiming in the course of 5,000-plus words that the Internet was “the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.” Meanwhile, at any time between May and September, you could walk into a multiplex not yet driven out of business by Netflix and watch a futuristic thriller like Hackers or Johnny Mnemonic or Virtuosity or The Net, movies that capitalized on the culture’s tech obsession as if it were a dance craze, spinning (mostly absurd) visions of the (invariably sinister) ways technology would soon pervade our lives. Microserfs isn’t as hysterical as those movies, and its vision of the coming world is much brighter, but in its own way it’s just as wrongheaded and nailed-to-its-context.

 

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“What is the search for the next great compelling application,” Daniel asks at one point, “but a search for the human identity?” Microserfs argues that the entrepreneurial fantasy of ditching a big corporation to work at a cool start-up with your friends can actually be part of that search — that there’s a way to reinvent work in your own image and according to your own values, that you can find the same transcendence within the sphere of commerce that the slackers in Coupland’s own Generation X4 eschewed McJobs in order to chase. The notion that cutting the corporate cord to work for a start-up often just means busting out of a cubicle in order to shackle oneself to a laptop in a slightly funkier room goes unexamined; the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.

This, to paraphrase Portlandia, is one of the dreams of the ’90s — that our work selves and our true natures could be one and the same. 1995 also marked the debut of Fast Company magazine, whose first issue shouted “WORK IS PERSONAL” in type as big and bold as the publication’s name. Inside that first issue, ideas about boom-time productivity and hipness and the search for meaning hung out and did whatever.

“As far as I’m concerned, having to change your life when you arrive at work each morning is tantamount to slavery,” says the head of an Intel microprocessor fabrication plant, who adjusted his hard-charging management style after suffering a heart attack at 36. (“To this day he visits cardiac units every six months,” we’re told, “‘just to look at the gray faces and remember.’”) Kathy Ryan, then AOL’s “Vice President of Cool,” explains her title: “Often you’ll see it spelled k-e-w-e-l. It’s used when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, when interesting graphics, low prices, innovative concepts, and interactivity all come together. That’s kewel.” She then names a bunch of kewel websites that no one will ever hear of again. The only vision of the future of work that doesn’t sound like a New Economy opium dream comes courtesy of Hatim Tyabji, then the CEO of VeriFone, who answers a question about his demanding and (back then) unusually email-driven management style as follows:

All I can say is that every person has to come to terms with himself or herself in the context of this new environment. Let’s say it’s Sunday, and you’re at home. You walk past the den or bedroom, wherever your computer is. Are VeriFone people more likely than other people to log on? Absolutely. Am I expecting that? To some extent, yes. But I’m not demanding that. You have to decide … Now the reality is, if you are a global company, you can’t say ‘It’s Sunday in the United States so I’m not going to think about work.’ If it’s Sunday here, it’s Monday in Australia, and people there may need you. So it’s a never-ending cycle. I make no bones about that.

We are all more like VeriFone people than we used to be. Mobile-device commercials appropriate the rhetoric of freedom to sell us the devices that will enable our jobs to reach into our lives at any moment, long after we’ve left the office, for the day or for life. More often than not, WORK IS PERSONAL not because we’ve turned it into a space where we can be our best selves but because it bleeds into and colonizes the part of the day we’re supposed to spend living and loving and finding ourselves.

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