The Moral Panic of a Microserf

The book Microserfs is about 6 characters that all work for Microsoft as serfs under Bill Gates, whom they all worship. The book is told through multiple diary entries from the main character Daniel who starts out as a software tester for Microsoft, but later becomes a programmer when working on the Oop! (Object Oriented Programming) project. He and his five roommates Karla, Abe, Todd, Susan and Bug Barbeque all are facing the issue of trying to have a life outside of their computers. This creates what is referred to as moral panic in Giselinde Kuipers’ article, for all of them because they are not really sure how to go about doing this for themselves; moral panic is the idea of something threatening societal values and interests a person holds, and is typically represented by the mass media (p. 380).

When Daniels father is laid off from his long time job at IBM, Daniel, who is only 26, starts to panic that he will become a typical microserf who at 31.2 years old will go through phases such as the first house, the first marriage, the “where-am-I-going” crisis, and, of course, major death denial like every other 31.2 year old working for Mircosoft (Coupland, 1995, 15). A similar feeling of moral panic is among all the house members when they are presented with the opportunity to create a completely new program called Oop! Five of the six roommates choose to move to Silicon Valley to work on the Oop! project; Abe stays with Microsoft, but after awhile decided to join his roommates on the project. Although they will not be typical microserfs, their lives are still chained to a computer and being a new program they will be spending more time on it than they did at Microsoft.

An attempted solution to their moral panic is making news years resolutions (Coupland, 1995, p. 217). They are as follows:

Daniel: to penetrate the Apple complex

Karla: undisclosed (doesn’t want to jinx)

Todd: visit junkyards more often, to bench 420, and to have a relationship

Susan: to hack into the DMV and to have a relationship

Bug: to overhaul his image and to have a relationship

Daniel and Karla are already in a relationship together, explaining why theirs are so bleak. These resolutions do come true for all of the characters in the relationship aspect, and they are able to release some of the panic set inside them. In being able to release some of this panic they are able to normalize their lives from the usual 18 hours a day they typically would spend coding, and FaceTiming. FaceTime is a geek term used to describe the face-to-face interaction the characters encounter because they do not receive much of it in their busy schedules.

The program Oop! that they are creating emulates a social reality and you can create characters and objects through lego blocks that resemble your life. So in the process of trying to create and establish a normal social life the characters are also creating objects in a computer game that resemble the world around them. This is ironic because they are trying to become less attached to the computer yet they are creating a technological life inside of it that resembles their own. As well, the romantic relationships the characters develop are all with other coders meaning they could potentially become more infused in their work because their partner is doing the same thing, giving them no reason to pull away. Fortunately the characters are able to avoid this potential increase in moral panic and normalize their lives through developing these relationships in aspects outside of the technological world.

Ethan, who is the CEO of Oop!,solves his moral panic by using a combination of antibiotics and alcohol to escape reality or take and identity holiday as he calls it. He also claims that every time he drinks he forgets more and more of the person he used to be and moves closer to claiming a new identity. Karla later elaborates on this theory by saying that it is all about identity and questions where individuality ends and species-hood begin. She points out that the 5 of them who moved to Silicon Valley do not have traditional identity-donating structures like other places in the world have, such as roots or a sense of history and claims that they are all out there on their own trying to figure out who they are (Coupland, 1995, 235-236). This calms Daniel from a state of moral panic knowing that he has the power to form his own identity and let go of the person who spends up to 18 hours a day programming and spend more time with his family or developing his relationship with Karla.

Later in the novel Michael, who is the roommates boss and works closely with Ethan states they have reached a critical time where the amount of memory they have externalized in books and databases now exceeds the amount of memory contained within a collective biological body; or there is more memory “out there” than exists inside “all of us” (Coupland, 1995, p. 253). This was seen as good news because they were no longer going to repeat their mistakes because they can edit themselves as they go along life and this includes avoiding the moral panic of being focused on a computer rather then an actual social life.

As we can see the idea of moral panic is constantly reinforced throughout the novel, but the characters are eventually able to develop a sense of normality in their lives through the romantic relationships they develop with the other programmers working on Oop! In being able to leave most of their microserf lives behind and Microsoft, a part of them is still connected because when they hear about Bill getting married they send a fondue kit as a wedding gift. Todd realizes “you can leave Bill, but Bill will never leave you,” (Coupland, 1995, p. 215). Overall the theme of moral panic is tamed in the small community of the former microserfs and a sense of normalization is developed in their lives.

Cited Works

Coupland, Douglas. (1995). Microserfs. Toronto, Canada: Harper Perennial.

Kuipers, G. (2006). The social construction of digital danger: Debating, defusing and inflating the moral dangers of online humor and pornography in the Netherlands and the United States. New Media & Society, 8(3), 379-400. doi:10.1177/1461444806061949

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