Microserfs is the story of several Microsoft employees working at the software giant and living primarily in Redmond, Washington, and Los Altos, California. Microserfs is a snapshot of the tech industry in the mid-90s and was tremendously influential for me. This is the second time I have read the book, and I am as far distant from the employees (in both age and industry experience) now as when I first read it.
Microserfs was influential on my entire career. The lifestyle and friendships described in this book were incredibly influential to me. I’m not sure what genre Microserfs is – an epistolary novel? – narrative anthropology? – a modern knight-errant story? – but the adventures of Daniel, Bug, Michael, Karla, and Abe spoke to me then and are still familiar now.
Re-reading Microserfs I was struck by two things that were invisible to me the first time: the (apparently) shallow characterization and the theme of transcendence.
Anthropology and Shallow Characterization
I think it’s from the lack of characterization that it’s possible to view this as a work of anthropology. When I first read Microserfs decades ago, I immediately identified with the characters. Reading it now, I feel I really have met and talked to people very similar to these characters. The motivations and narrations of these characters are accurate to how similar people actually think. The closest literary example of this I can think of are The Inheritors by William Gibson and The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, two very different books that both have a narrator that does not address thoughts or feelings the protagonist(s) did not have during the action. The characters at times sound like mouthpieces for the author, but that is because people can often sound like mouthpieces for thoughts and ideas in the zeitgeist as well.
These are the people I wanted to be in the late ’90s.
When I referenced Microserfs in my impressions of JPod, I mentioned transhumanism as a theme, but now I think the focus is more human and more essential. You can see this in how technology is used and discussed throughout the book. There is a great desire to build a “1.0,” to be on the ground floor, and to build something new. External pressures, such as validation from superiors and investment money, are introduced as the story progresses.
This makes sense of the climax at the end of the book. The scene is peaceful, and assistive technology – a Macintosh connected to some input devices to help a disabled character communicate – is featured prominently. The characters pursue technology not just because it is cool, novel, or respected but because it lets humans be closer to other humans.
I think this human focus on technology is the core of what made Kitten Clone, the author’s impressionistic book about Alcatel-Lucent, so moving. Beyond the excitement and glamour of technology is the drawing together of people. As of the time of writing, Alcatel-Lucent (now absorbed by Nokia) seemed like an extreme example of a company no longer lauded for breakthroughs, no longer glamorous to work for, but everywhere in bringing people together.
I’m glad I read Microserfs those decades ago, and I’m happy I read it again. I wonder if I will love it even more on another reading decades from now.
I read Microserfs by Douglas Coupland in the Audible edition.