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The Soul of the New Machine
Over the last two decades, a technological revolution has occurred as computers have become essential to our society. The rapid development of computer technologies has brought people infinite convenience and a higher standard of living. However, increasing numbers of people have lost their souls and identities because of excessively immersing their lives in the cyberspace. In high-tech corporations, many employees lack social skills, forming their own unique computer culture. This cultural phenomenon is interesting in that it challenges the meaning of modern technology in the terms of seeking a better life. In Microserfs, Douglas Coupland explores the nature of life through the eyes of a code tester at Microsoft, Daniel Underwood. Through Daniel s diary, we come to see the aimlessness of the computer geeks life, one that is dependent upon computers and modern technology. Coupland describes his character s attempt to find the meaning of life in an environment devoid of social or personal lives, addressing the significance of human contact and interaction in today s society. Coupland uses the diary style, appeals to the emotions, compares humans and machines, and explores changes in characters life styles to argue that human intimacy and love are central to the fulfillment and enhancement of our lives in the modern computerized world regardless of the amount of money and the kinds of jobs we have.
Diary style also has many advantages that can spark the readers curiosity, attract the readers attention, and be easily understood. Diaries are usually used to keep personal memories and secrets, and importantly human beings have the natural desire to explore the unknown. Moreover, the readers feel they are having an intimate look into the character s life, immersing themselves into the details of the character s life. At the same time, readers can digest the novel easily, finding new nuggets each time.
Coupland employs his unique diary style to argue that many computer geeks lack the intimacy and love they need. He points out that Daniel does not feel fulfilled because he interacts only with computers and his diary rather than people. Daniel tells us, I was PowerBooking my journal entry and I could feel Karla watching me, and I got a little self-conscious. I said, I guess it s sort of futile trying to keep a backup file of my personal memories (359). At first Coupland shows that Daniel lacks social skills or at least an interest in a social life. The words little self-conscious show that he is uncomfortable around people. Therefore, he heavily relies on his diary to communicate. The word little truthfully reflects Daniel s unpleasant heart. It seems as if talking constantly to the computer screen cannot satisfy him with complete joy and pleasure. This hints to readers that he is looking for a better life, and we see this in the later chapters. In fact, Coupland reveals that diary entries are not enough for Daniel to deal with his depression and confusion. Daniel writes in his diary, so I closed the door and told Karla about Jed, and you know, I was glad I was able to tell someone at least (27). The words glad and at least imply that Daniel rarely interacts with people but is emotionally and instinctively happy when he does. Truly, with the simplest words, Daniel expresses his eagerness to talk to a person rather than a computer, realizing that interacting with a human being will bring him happiness and joy that his diary and computer cannot. This supports Coupland s argument that human intimacy cannot be replaced by other objects like a computer.
Coupland uses not only the diary style to argue his ideas about intimacy and love, but also appeals to the audience s emotions by describing the having no life syndrome that all characters seem to suffer from in supporting his idea that intimacy is the most basic human need. For example, Daniel tells us about his life:
People end up living in group houses either by e-mail or by word or mouth. Living in a group house is a little bit like admitting you re deficient crunching code and testing for bugs, and what else are you supposed to do? Work, sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep (4).
By asking, what else are you supposed to do, Coupland shows us that Daniel knows little more than working on his computer. This suggests that he has few ideas about his life as he disregards the outside world. Indeed, his entire life revolves around his work. As he avoids love and intimacy, Daniel Underwood summarizes his life in only two words — work and sleep — illustrating the computer geek s unhealthy life pattern. Their lives are becoming so pathetic that even the most basic face-to-face communication is replaced by E-mail. Many readers may then feel compassion toward those lacking basic human interaction, which is like living in a no-guard computer-penalty prison. Naturally, readers may question why Daniel and his peers don t find better jobs (seems no better job than working at Microsoft) or how they get through their depression. Evoking sympathy in the audience may trigger interest in finding out the results. Thus, Coupland stirs the emotions in his audience to demonstrate Daniel and his friends unhealthy, sympathetic, twisted life syndrome.
Coupland also employs a comparison of the human body to machines to demonstrate how Daniel and his roommates lead unbalanced lives devoid of social activities or relationships with the outside world. This helps support Coupland s argument about the value of love and intimacy that cannot be found without social interaction. Coupland writes,
I don t even do many sports anymore and my relationship with my body has gone all weird. I used to play soccer three times a week and now I feel like a boss in charge of an underachiever. I feel like my body is a station wagon in which I drive my brain around, like a suburban mother taking the kids to hockey practice (4).
By describing himself as an underachiever, Coupland informs us of Daniel s sadness that he is unable to enjoy the life as he wishes. Daniel looks at himself as a loser who fails not only to satisfy his own needs, but who is also deficient in developing relationships with others. Thus, it is not difficult for the audience to picture Daniel and his peers limited lives. Coupland compares the body s functions with a station wagon to reflect the relationship between working and self-concern, attempting to portray a picture of computer geeks bodies as the cheapest resource to accomplish any necessary task. Station wagon is a cheap transportation tool to carry family members around. With this comparison, readers can more easily discover the characters life style and picture their lack of self-concern. Coupland implies that if one is unconcerned about his own body, how can he build relationships with others? And without a relationship with others, there is no way to receive or experience love and intimacy. With these kinds of humorous comparisons throughout his novel, Coupland highlights Daniel and his friends unbalance lives as well as hints at the overwhelming effects of love and intimacy that will come in the later chapters.
Coupland also uses the character development of Daniel, Abe, and Michael to reinforce his argument about the importance of intimacy and love, depicting those characters regaining their lives through love. Daniel is the first to expose his eagerness for love with his girlfriend Karla. He cannot escape the bitterness of his life until he builds this close relationship with Karla. Coupland writes, Karla and I felt like the last couple on earth, walking through the emptiness. We felt like Adam and Eve (211). What a touching scene! What a delightful relationship our souls desire! It is, in fact, difficult for readers to believe the changes Daniel makes and see the same character at the beginning of the book. One who is unsatisfied with living in a home-Microsoft-Costco three-point line life and struggling to retain his soul and identity in an increasingly confusing environment. The audience sees the strong contrast through this character development, which ultimately vindicates Coupland s points about the importance of love in one s life. The amazing effects produced by changes in the character strike readers hearts about the power of love. Love is a loyal fruit of intimacy, and life without love is a vacant. Indeed, all the audience shares Daniel s love and is happy for him. By making references to walking through emptiness, readers understand that Daniel is able to completely forget his computer and work, immersing himself in the space produced by love and intimacy. Coupland also employs a humorous analogy of Adam and Eve to describe this closeness and happiness. Undoubtedly, readers are reassured by Daniel s latter life style, which is full of love and rejoice. Coupland deliberately arouses readers emotions to emphasize that human beings long for love and intimacy. By contrast, Daniel s early life without love appears full of mystery and pain. No one wants him to go back to that darkness occupied by computers.
Daniel is not the only one who finds love in the novel, as Abe also escape the computer world, finding a fulfilling life. Coupland directs Abe s character development to underscore the necessity of human contact. When Daniel and his colleagues leave Microsoft to start up their new company Oop!, Abe stays with Microsoft. This worsens Abe s life leaving him almost completely without human interaction. Abe e-mails Daniel after they separate writing, I m at the Westin in Vancouver. Room service asked me, innocently enough, how many people will be eating? and I replied, 2 , because I didn t want to seem like I was alone. Which I was (251). Clearly, Abe is so afraid of loneliness that he fears to tell a room service. Readers can easily detect the bitterness his defensive lie as he tries to veil his embarrassing loneliness. He admits later that he rarely talks to others and has only a few casual interactions. He too is technically isolated from the human world since Daniel and his peers leave Microsoft. In fact, he realizes his needs for friends not only might cover his shame, but will also shine his gloomy life for delight. However, he does not understand that Daniel leaves seeking a more delightful, balanced, and fulfilled life rather than money until his loneliness brings him into the depression that can be healed only by friendship and intimacy. Coupland spends more than two hundreds pages and provides more than twenty e-mails describing how Abe struggles with this lacking-human-contact life syndrome before making a wise decision to quit Microsoft and mine the new meaning of life with his friends. Examining the development of Abe s character and philosophy, readers understand that life is not simply a warm-blooded machine that is satisfied by generating green paper, but a fuller creature in need of love and care to carry on its mission.
At the end of the novel, Michael, who is a pioneer life miner and the founder of the new company !Oops, finds love and intimacy. Coupland illustrates Michael s character development in the effort he makes to develop his love with Amy, a woman he keeps in contact with for more than a year without ever knowing she is a woman. This supports Coupland s points that true love, which is far beyond the anonymity of e-mail, can raise the hope in people s lives and fill the vacancy in one s heart. In the beginning, Michael is Bill s (imply Bill Gates) loyal warrior, willing to lock himself in the office for almost 24 hours to meet the shipping deadline. He, like other computer geeks, invests his entire body and mind in the computer world, ignoring the existence of love and human closeness. This is why many computer geeks feel their life so empty, and have problems gauging their meaning in society. However, Coupland shows us that when love from Amy shines upon the deserted and uncultivated portion of Michael s heart, he feels its power and realizes that life is not all about computer coding. Therefore, he decides to transform his life into one that is more balanced, fulfilled, and delightful. He tells Daniel, Sometimes when I m loneliest, life looks the most dreadful and I don t want to be here. On earth, I mean. I want to be out there. He pointed to the sun coming in a window, a beam coming down, and the sky over the Bay. The thought of BarCode is the only being that keeps me tethered to earth (322). Michael does not say computer or coding keeps [him] tethered to earth but a human being. This is a turning point in his character development. He changes his life s focus from coding from 24 hours in front of computer, to someone who makes him feel love. Thus, readers gain a greater understanding of the power of love in a person s life. Illustrating Michael s character change through love, Coupland points out the significance and influence of love in all people s lives.
However, Coupland s story does not only reveal Daniel and his geek roommates twisted life style, but also to reflect on contemporary life and the future of the younger generation. He challenges readers through his novel, showing how people can balance their personal lives and contributions to society. For Daniel and his friends, they carelessly quit their jobs to explore life in Michael s new company. In reality, not everyone is able to take such a brave step and shift his life toward the unknown because, as Daniel says that I don t have identity. Overall, Coupland employs many different rhetorical strategies to support his argument that human intimacy and love are the key elements to delight our lives.
Coupland, Douglas. Microserfs. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
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