"Kitten Clone" by Douglas Coupland, Random House, 2014.
I have a high regard for Coupland's 1995 "Microserfs", a chronicle of housemates who are programmers at Microsoft in its heydey. Some follow the irrestible attraction of Silicon Valley part way through the book. I was fascinated because it rang true to me, though I have no basis for this impression. But Philip Greenspun is a bona fide hacker and he judged "Microserfs" to be right on, even though Coupland relied on a mere one-week immersion in Microsoft. Greenspun contrasted this with "Soul of a New Machine" of which the author did not get it, in spite of having been embedded for months in the computer company where the New Machine was developed.
"Kitten clone" is a reportage of Alcatel/Lucent, a biggish company, at the time ranking 461 in the world-wide list of companies from big to small. Alcatel bought Lucent in 2006. Sounds like Alcatel discarded most of its own activities and involved itself in those of Lucent, which it picked up as a bargain. All I learned is that Alcatel was a French telecom company (hence the suffix "tel"). Could it be that the "alca" has to do with "Alsthom", which I remember seeing on magnificent locomotives with Amsterdam-Paris trains? There is indeed an ancestor of Alsthom named "Société Alsacienne de Constructions Mécaniques", which moved to Belfort in 1871.
On the Lucent side there is also interesting parentage. For a bit over half a century, 1920's through 1980's, there was a powerhouse of science and engineering named Bell Labs, which made inventions that changed the world (they really did, though the phrase makes one puke because of all those worthy humdrum organizations advertising themselves that way). Inventions made at Bell Labs include information theory, the transistor, the laser, the Unix operating system, digital communication through glass-fibers, cellular-based wireless communication. Bell Labs could do this work under the umbrella of the AT&T monopoly. When Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan made it fashionable to wreck valuable institutions, AT&T became a conspicuous target. It took about a decade for its demolition to be completed. At the end of the process Bell Labs had ended up in "Lucent" (a name out of nowhere, no doubt tried out on Focus Groups), a listed spin-off from AT&T with a rapidly declining market value. Lucent was picked up as a bargain by Alcatel.
Markus Hofmann, head of Bell Labs, is interviewed. He summarizes the challenge presented by "Nobody expected your thirteen-year daughter to watch high-res vampire movies on a hand-held mobile device while waiting for a bus. But that's what human beings want and that's what human beings need." I document here that you can find this in the upper half of page 38, in case you don't believe that Coupland wrote that the head of Bell Labs said this. In its glory days the mission of Bell Labs was to provide the US with the best possible telephone service, which was considered important for diverse reasons: the economy, the military, and the good life generally. No longer such parochial stuff, now it's Bell Labs in the service of humanity.
Coupland worries about what the products of computer technology is doing to people. Young people, that is, because they are the kind of people affected.
It's ironic that the world of computer programming, possibly the most necessarily linear of all human pursuits, creates products that turn people into increasingly nonlinear thinkers. [page 58]
Or increasingly nonlinear nonthinkers? "Nonlinear" sounds good, something over-thirties should want to be, but can't. The fact is that the world of computer programming creates products that are picked at random from an enormous universe of possibilities, most of which are toxic to humans because the universe happens to be indifferent to human needs. Coupland is aware of this:
There exists in our society an urban legend of the crazed game wizard who can burn through all levels of Diablo III in two hours, and how he goes on to become a jet-fighter pilot, his wits honed by two decades in the basement, drinking Pepsi and eating ramen noodles. In fact, the Air Force only wants physically fit, highly rational, icily even-tempered pilots. [pages 58-59]
This summarizes what Coupland takes away from Bell Labs. Physically and mentally fit, highly rational, scientists and programmers making it possible for your thirteen-year daughter to watch high-res vampire movies on a hand-held mobile device while waiting for a bus. Debasis Mitra, a top scientist at Bell Labs, worries about "eating our seed corn" (page 67.2). Admittedly, this is in the context of inventions, but the phrase haunts me when I see what this technology is doing to young people.
So far I have talked as if there were only one Bell Labs, the one in New Jersey, US. But in fact, there are now Bell Labs in China, Germany, Belgium, India, Ireland, France, and South Korea. There is a huge difference: the eight Nobel prizes in question were to Bell Labs scientists in the original Bell Labs in New Jersey. The original Bell Labs, the one visited first by Coupland, is in the original, now ghostly, 1960's building in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It is partly deserted, with janitorial services apparently severely curtailed: littered hallways, dead vending machines. Yet it is here that the top brains do their daily stints of high-powered cogitation.
The Bell Labs in New Jersey is dedicated to breakthroughs in science, like new algorithms, or maybe quantum computing. Coupland's tour of Alcatel/Lucent is not restricted to Bell Labs locations. He stops off at headquarters in Paris, where he gets a glimpse of the scope of the company's activities: the entire infrastructure of the internet, which nowadays includes telephony, mobile and otherwise. He lists alphabetically 48 marine cables, from ACS Alaska-Oregon Network (AKORN) to Yellow/Atlantic Crossing-2 (AC-2).
The book is divided into three parts: Past, Present, Future. Bell Labs in New Jersey, the scientific spearhead, is in Past. France and Canada are in Present. His visit to Alcatel/Lucent Shanghai Bell (ASB) in Pudong, Shanghai, China is the sole occupant of part three: Future. ASB is both a considerable research facility, lately generating patents at a clip comparable to New Jersey, and a manufacturing facility turning out the routers that switch the zillions of information packets per second from one fiber-optic cable to another. Even a quick little Google search involves hundreds of packets, each jumping from router to router a few dozen times along different routes. The internet needs a lot of routers right now. By the time your thirteen-year old daughter standing at the bus stop ... ..., the internet will need a whole lot more routers.
The thirteen-year old ... (yeah, yeah, I know) is clearly a perversion. But consider the Five-Year Plan aiming at giving every Chinese citizen access to 100 megabytes/sec wireless internet? Consider this in the context of the huge problem of rural China continuing to empty itself into its chaotic cities. That will account for a large proportion of demand for routers. Another reason for manufacturing routers in China.
Speaking of perversions: North America has plenty of unused glass fiber (say "dark fiber" and you sound more knowledgeable). But between Chicago and New York your packet needed a few dozen switches at routers. The options market is in Chicago and the stock market is in New York. For trading options based of stock prices, the round trip time is the quantity of interest. For an additional twenty dollars a month or so your cable company provides access to the internet, which gives you the required information in the blink of an eye. The architecture of the internet is a marvel of ingenuity in making a lot happen in this blink of an eye. It cuts up your message message into lots of packets each of which is sent through the internet independently. The internet is democratic: no packet has priority; their time in transit varies randomly. Bad luck for traders in a hurry.
The only way to go faster is to by-pass the internet with a dedicated Chicago-New York cable. The new cable, laid by Spread Networks, reduces the round-trip time by a factor of ten. But with the vanilla service of your typical cable company package the round trip is already down to a tenth of a second! Whatever the enormously expensive "low-latency service" of Spread Networks can do is to reduce round-trip time by at most a tenth of a second. Those who believe in free enterprise above all will have you believe that this tenth of a second somehow benefits society. They have some explaining to do.
If Spread Networks did not get their gear from Alcatel/Lucent, chances are that they are in for the new direct link between traders in New York and London.
The Alcatel/Lucent facility where their routers are made is world-class, in a world containing Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and Germany. The facility is staffed with young, well-educated people. A comparison with the Chinese factory shown in Burtinsky and Baichwal's 2006 film "Manufactured Landscapes" is witness to the dizzying rate of change in China. Little wonder Coupland places his visit to ASB in part three: Future.
How is a review supposed to end? A recommendation to read the book or not to bother? Of course it depends on who you are. I, for one, found it fascinating. But then, I am tainted with being intrigued by the internet ever since 1975 when I first saw a map of the internet. It contained half a dozen nodes. I ruefully noted that my university was not among the select few. On the other hand, the copy of "Kitten Clone" that I read is borrowed from an 85-year old friend who got his degree in law at an ancient European university and who is blissfully untainted by any contact with computer technicalities. He was fascinated.