Plumb role: Nintendo characters Super Mario and Luigi in Chiba, Tokyo. Photo: Getty Images.
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The most influential tech company you’ve never heard of

The scientists and engineers at “Alca-Loo”– as it is known among financiers – think of themselves as “the plumbers of the internet world”.

The year is 1871. An 18-year-old Frenchman named Alphonse Garreau is about to start work at the new locomotive factory in Belfort, Alsace, when he spots a woman drowning kittens. Though he is not sentimental where animals are concerned, Alphonse rescues one cat from the litter.

He names the little feline Chaussette. He plans to take it to the local photography studio, where he will have postcards made up and sent out on the trains. “Just imagine all of the people in the world enjoying your beautiful little Chaussette in all her adorable kitten poses!” he thinks. That Garreau will work for a company later credited with developing the internet raises a tantalising question: could it be that sharing cute pictures of cats was the original purpose of the internet, as well as its ultimate end?

As part of Alain de Botton’s Writers in Residence series, the Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland spent a year snooping around Alcatel-Lucent, probably the most important technology firm you’ve never heard of. The scientists and engineers at “Alca-Loo”– as it is known among financiers – think of themselves as “the plumbers of the internet world”. “You don’t know us,” the marketing vice-president Gary Nugent tells Coupland, “but you’d certainly miss us if we weren’t there.”

Alcatel-Lucent is responsible for the unsexy but indispensable elements of modern communications technology. It runs routing stations, sets up cloud networks and digs huge trenches at the bottom of the sea in which it lays fibre-optic cables (enough to circle the globe 12 and a half times). Its R&D department, Bell Labs, has won seven Nobel Prizes and owns 30,700 patents, though in recent years there has been less “pure research”. Some employees blame the company’s increasingly commercial approach.

At 10.30pm on 29 October 1969, a computer system devised at Bell Labs was used to transmit information between two university campuses in California. The internet was born. The project was non-profit and was funded by government subsidy.

“The people here were odder back then,” recalls Debasis Mitra, an Indian mathematician who worked at Bell Labs for over 40 years. “But not just mutton-chop sideburns – though there were those – just odder. In a nice way.” Despite revenues of over €14bn (£11bn) in 2013, Alcatel-Lucent has been struggling since the dotcom and telecoms crashes of 2000 and 2001. It made 10,000 people redundant last year.

Coupland found that Alca-Loo employees were ambivalent about the technology they helped to create. None he met carried an iPhone – instead, they’d keep a “coal-burning flip-phone in the bottom drawer . . . for emergencies”. They all express surprise at how popular the internet has turned out to be.

As I recently scrolled through the spec for the iPhone 6, which promises “to make shopping faster, easier and more secure” by using contactless payment, it felt as though Apple had begun to parody itself. “I miss my pre-internet brain,” Coupland writes, after telling the story of Chaussette and Garreau. This is a familiar lament and the innovators behind the hardware that produced it largely concur. He continues: “Across the entire span of the 1980s, the only new technology society had to absorb was push-button phones and the Sony Walkman . . . These days, I sometimes wake up and think, dear God, just for today, nothing new.” 

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution