Robots help us understand human nature. Hiroshi Ishiguro

“People in 2001 looked exactly like the people in 2012”

Artist and novelist Douglas Coupland popularized the term “Generation X” and is a keen observer of modern life. We do recycle previous generations’ culture, he says, but that’s a blessing, not a curse.

The European: Mr. Coupland, you recently wrote that our current Zeitgeist is that we have a lot of “Zeit” but not much “Geist”. Did you mean that in terms of innovation?
Coupland: I don’t mean it in terms of cultural or technological innovation but more in the way that we today have so much history coexisting at the same time that it cancels out our ability to have a sense of immediate presence, a sense of the present moment being specific in cultural history, in lineage.

The European: The present is the past?
Coupland: We still create culture and it has a lot more competition these days. This is most obvious in music. Back in the 1970s, you bought your records from your local record-dealer and your taste in music would be frozen for the rest of your life. Your preferences would stay the same. Today, nobody stockpiles music in that way any longer and the way we listen or buy music has dramatically changed. Everybody has a continuous music experience now. Everybody listens to everything.

The European: Do you welcome this change in attitude?
Coupland: I think it’s better to broaden your horizon and listen to some new stuff, but the abundance of available music also makes it much harder for musicians to make a living. But I welcome the fact that there is more music being released and that the music of the past has become so easily accessible.

The European: British cultural critic Simon Reynolds argues that this accessibility has spurred a “Retromania”. People have always romanticized the past, so why is Retro now all of a sudden such a widely discussed topic?
Coupland: I don’t think Retro is a new thing. When I was in High school, “Grease” came out and all of a sudden the 1950s were back in style. Retro in its current form has been going on since at least 1975 and I don’t think that the phenomenon gets more attention today than back then. The only thing that has changed is the amount of Retro, the stockpile of the past.

The European: The pool of information has increased.
Coupland: And that in turn fosters the attitude to concern yourself with what has been going on in the past. There is more material you can refer to.

“It’s not pirating; it’s inspiration”

The European: But why would you refer to the past when you can create in the present? What is the allure of Retro?
Coupland: Because it is much easier, simple as that!

The European: But isn’t it keeping us from leaving our own cultural mark?
Coupland: That is a valid concern. I always use the following example to illustrate the problem: Imagine that 20 years from now, you went to a 2010-revival party. What costume would you wear?

The European: That is the central question of our debate! What would you wear?
Coupland: Until recently I would have argued nothing special but I guess you would go as a Hipster.

The European: Which in turn is nothing genuine but just a compilation of different things from different eras.
Coupland: I don’t think so. Do you think that Grunge was authentic in terms of music and style?

The European: I do.
Coupland: But when Grunge happened, people said that it was merely recycled punk. So there is a general tendency to argue that something new is just the copy or continuation of something old. New fashion or music is always built on the past. It has always been like that and will probably remain so. It’s not pirating; it’s inspiration.

The European: So there is still innovation?
Coupland: To some extent yes. Two years ago, I was down in Florida for a conference and the famous sci-fi author William Gibson was there and we started talking about 9/11 and how people in 2001 looked exactly like the people in 2012. The only difference was that in 2001, nobody was holding a smartphone. That was the only thing that gave the year of the event away. If you look at pictures from the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s, you can tell which year it is, but it seems to me, that we have lost that ability because looks haven’t changed that much over the last 10 years or so. What has however changed is the way we look at the world.

The European: How do you mean that?
Coupland: We now see everything through our iPhone lenses, which gives us the sensation of accelerated time cannibalism, a sense of exaggerated hyper-specificity of style. I recently witnessed a bunch of teenagers playing punk, proper 1978 punk, and thought that it was probably more of a style than music thing. There are style tribes, and things like Instagram are driving this. If we didn’t have Instagram to give us all the cues, we would be working a bit harder to create a genuine 2014 instead of one that coexists with everything else.

The European: In your book “Generation X”, you coined the term “Historical Underdosing” to describe living “in a period of time when nothing seems to happen”. Are we currently witnessing that?
Coupland: I wrote that in 1989 and back then this whole Retro thing wasn’t as important as it seems to be now, but even then it was already too much for many people. I don’t know if we live in such times, but there is a general feeling that we are.

“Countercultures weren’t necessarily a good thing”

The European: Singer Amanda Palmer thinks that Retro is just a means to avoid the present. Would you agree?
Coupland: Not really, I think there is engagement with the present but on a different level. We live a perpetual Halloween. We are wearing costumes 24/7. Yes. What’s interesting is that when people dress up like that, they not only go back in time but also express their inner self far more joyously and creatively than their predecessors. People look at the Retro trend and say “Oh, this is so lazy, this is so boring”, but I disagree. People are trying harder to express themselves and history is a good means for this. They can look at different eras and decide what represents them the best.

The European: Do you think that it is even possible to copy the uniqueness of an era?
Coupland: I don’t think people strive for that. People emulate but they do not imitate. The Sixties-clothing of today is different than the Sixties-clothing of the 1960s. There is no historical rigour. It’s not the Smithsonian. That’s why it can be called innovative. It might not be brand-new but it’s still new. If it is recycling, than it is innovative recycling.

The European: What do you think characterizes this decade and makes it unique?
Coupland: We have never been smarter, but we never felt stupider.

The European: Cultural innovation used to go hand in hand with cultural movements. You recently wrote that “today, we don’t have movements, we have memes”.
Coupland: It’s true but at the same time I think you just want to write a long, depressing German article (laughs). But I partly understand your pessimism. Memes are so short-lived and gone in a moment and we like that because we can digest a large number of them in a short amount of time. Back in the 1960s, you didn’t have that so you created something that has a longer lifespan. But countercultures weren’t necessarily a good thing. We regard them as authentic and real, but overlook the fact that their authenticity came at a price. They were genuine because they were uniform. Today, we are much open and free in what we like or wear.

The European: How would you represent this decade visually?
Coupland: Imagine a gigantic tumblr. archive with thousands of Gifs and pictures, all blinking and flashing, and the archive just goes on indefinitely. There is a wonderful book called “Google Vol.1” in which they went through all the words in the dictionary and printed the first picture that comes up on Google Images for that specific word. The images have an absolute 21st century aesthetic. That’s how this decade will be remembered.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Marina Abramović: “We deserve to die well”

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