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Inside The Company That Built The Internet's Highways


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Douglas Coupland has written a book about a company that's not a household name but has laid enough optic cable to circle the globe many times. And if it were to vanish tomorrow, in many ways we would vanish to each other. Alcatel-Lucent is a French multinational, formed in 2006 when it merged with America's Lucent Technologies. Alca-Lu, as it's now called, has built the roads by which so much human knowledge, emotions, insights and misinformation now circle the globe over the Internet. During a visit to his plant in China, Mr. Coupland met an engineer that makes routers. He saw a picture of the man's son on his desk and wondered about the difference in their experiences.

DOUGLAS COUPLAND: I said, well, what's the big difference between you at seven and him at seven? And, oh, like, that's easy. He knows that the Internet is the real world.

SIMON: Mr. Coupland's book is "Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent." It's less a corporate history and more meditation on the future technology, a shaping force. He found he misses his pre-Internet brain.

COUPLAND: Oh, God, I do. When I say that, do you get a sort of tingle in your spine, going, oh, I know what he's talking about?

SIMON: (Laughter) I think I know what you're talking about.

COUPLAND: Well, I do miss my pre-Internet brain, but what I'm finding increasingly is that I'm forgetting my pre-Internet brain. I remember the way I used to do things - the way I used to think, the way I thought I about thinking - and now I'm in this whole new neural reality, I guess you'd call it. And human beings, there's no evidence that we're capable of simultaneous thought, but were getting much better at doing a lot of things very, very quickly. I kind of miss my attention span. I used to have a much larger attention span. I don't know where it went. It's just gone, poof. And I think that's more common than I would've thought a year ago.

SIMON: One of the things you write about here, you seem to both love and worry about the implication of increasing speeds on the Internet.

COUPLAND: I do. But here's an anecdote that maybe puts that question into certain perspective. I was meeting with the vice president of the Communist Party in Shanghai, and I said, well, you know, what's your plan, sir? And he said, well, our five-year plan is to ensure that every man, woman and child in China has, at the very least, five megs of connectivity. And in all the top 10 cities, everyone's going to have one gig a second of connectivity. So I said, you know, sir have you thought about, you know, the unexpected side effects of giving 1.3 or 1.4 billion people a gig a second? And he says OK, I know what you're saying, I know where you're going, but here's the thing - the future of the human race, at least in this century, is ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi everywhere all the time. And it's going to happen whether you or I don't want it to happen or not. And because it's inevitable, we might as well get there first. I'm like, woo boy that certainly put my little feelings into perspective there.

SIMON: Yeah, the misgivings of two people from literary tradition don't amount to a hill of beans in this world of increasing Internet speeds. Yes?

COUPLAND: Well, Scott, the thing about the Internet is, you know, you'd never ever phone up a friend and say hi, come on over to my house. Let's go on the Internet together. It just sounds stupid. So you have this intrinsically solitary act that, you know, all of us know from our, you know, daily rituals and our work life. And yet it has this amazing propinquity - is that the word - to create new kinds of groups, to reinforce other forms of group structures. And I do think that one of the great, probably the biggest question of our time, is going to be whether or not the Internet ultimately favors the individual or whether or not it favors the group.

SIMON: You even suggest in this book that because of the Internet, narrative might be breaking down as a form.

COUPLAND: Yeah. I write novels. I mean, that's part of who I am and what I do. And I grew up with the notion that, you know, your life, you're born, you have a life, you die, but there's some sort of larger overall narrative or meaning to it. And then what happens is that you go online and your time frames get, you know, chopped up from the relatively glacial time frames, let's say reading fiction - long-form fiction - and suddenly you don't really feel like an individual in sort of the 19th, 20th century sense of the word. You sort of realize that you're just one human being unit out of seven billion other human being units, and it's kind of humbling. And I think for, you know, people from the West, it's kind of come down but for a lot of people on Earth who are, you know, getting this technology, it's, like, a real step up in the world. Like, yeah I know I'm part of the ballgame now.

SIMON: Douglas Coupland. His new book, with photographs from Olivia Arthur, is "Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent." Thanks so much for being with us.

COUPLAND: I've loved it. Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.