August 1, 2014 12:20 pm

Douglas Coupland: The Ones That Got Away

Fax machines, coffee shops, zombie movies . . . They’ll never take off . . .
©Jason Ford

In 1985 I was working in a Tokyo magazine office where, from across the room, I often heard a faint whirring sound. After a few days I went to look, and I saw hand-drawn maps emerging from what appeared to be a photocopier . . . yet nothing was being photocopied. I asked and was told, “It’s a fax.”

“A fax?”

“Yes, a fax.”

I did some research and quickly learnt that fax machines were developed in Japan specifically because their postal system’s wayfinding is contextual rather than based on streets and street numbers. You can’t just say 123 East Ginza Way; you need maps, often with railway underpasses, subway nodes and visual landmarks. Just before lunchtime, when the office fax seemed to kick into overdrive, it was usually the office manager and local restaurants swapping menus and food orders.

I remember thinking, “Hmmm . . . you know, you could send people a lot more than just maps and menus with this thing . . . you could send, well . . . letters and documents.”

More

Observations

Three years later, in 1988, I was working in a Toronto magazine office where a new fax was installed up front ($2,999) and it was an object of chimpy fondling and respect. Ooooh . . . a fax. Wow. Cool. (I need to mention to readers born after 1980: there was once a three-year window when having a fax machine made people go . . . Ooooh.)

I remember Susan, the head of the magazine’s ad sales division, barging into an editorial meeting one day demanding that we write articles about fax machines, which she could sell ads against. I asked her when faxes were ever going to go below the psychologically important $1,000 price point, and her face turned to me, contorted Shar Pei-like: “Doug, it doesn’t matter what else happens in the world, there is simply no way that fax machines are ever, ever going to go below $1,000, so stop thinking that way immediately.”

So I started a feature called Celebrity Fax of the Month. The first was a lipstick kiss from Linda Evangelista faxed from the Hotel George V in Paris – elegant, I thought. But a fax is a fax and the feature quickly devolved into us begging the mayor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, to send us a letter saying, “As Mayor of Halifax, I’m proud and excited that the name of my city also contains the word ‘fax’, one of the hottest items in inter-office communication around the world.” He graciously complied. They can’t teach you this stuff in school.

Back to Tokyo: in 1985 I remember spending a lot of time in coffee shops. They’re everywhere in Japan, and almost always a delight and very convenient places to hang and socialise in. I wondered whether ubiquitous coffee shops could ever become a big deal in North America. Nahhhh . . . people in North America do their socialising in their homes, not in coffee shops. It could never work.

Enter Starbucks.

©Jason Ford

Back around 2000 I was having dinner with a film producer looking for ideas and I told him the future was in zombie films and TV. He asked why, and I told him the truth, which is that in order to turn an actor into a zombie, all the actor has to do is put out their arms and grunt. Net cost? Zero. Pretty much the same thing for vampires except you need prosthetic teeth and some Goth makeup. I could see this producer’s internal calculator blinking away. Cut to last weekend, seeing an ad for the AMC cable channel’s “Dead White and Blue” all-zombie weekend marathon, and the gross profits on just about anything zombie, and I look back on that conversation of 2000 and think, Doug, that’s the one that got away.

I don’t think I could have done much with fax machines but if I’d started mass franchising coffee houses in North America in the late 1980s, who knows what life could have been? And I remember Google’s public offering years back and thinking . . . Hmmm . . . I love Google. I use their products. Everything they do is amazing.

Did I act on this feeling? No. Shoot me now. Ditto Apple.

. . .

The one thing that makes me not feel like the fifth Beatle here is that I have noticed other things in society, and I have acted on my hunches. But every time I pass a Starbucks my inner voice says to me, “See that one there, Doug? That one could have bought me an infinity pool – and a hairless cat.”

We all have our ones that got away. What’s yours? I’ve noticed that it takes years for the healing to begin, and I don’t think you ever truly get over it. You just learn how to live with it. And there’s always that parallel universe out there, featuring a much richer version of yourself taunting the you in this universe for goofing up. But then, that parallel-universe you probably missed out on something else, and is probably lonely and miserable and wishes they were you. The universe seems to be very good at equalling things out that way.

Douglas Coupland’s next book is a non-fiction title, “Kitten Clone”, published by Visual Editions on September 25 (£25). Twitter: @dougcoupland

Illustrations by Jason Ford

-------------------------------------------

Letter in response to this article:

I walked away and the rest is history / From Ms Gisela Moriarty

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts