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April 11, 2006

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Cool Hunting

This month's book for Belle's book club is William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, by my suggestion. A few thoughts:

It is safe to say, at this point, that a major focus point of Gibson's writing has been information and information flows. He's fascinated by it. In part, this is a product of his time--while at many points in history we have only vaguely been able to recognize that information is a technology in the artifacts it creates, it has now literally become the technology itself. That's a powerful change in how we commonly view the world. It almost requires a kind of Cartesian dualism, only instead of a spiritual world beyond, you have to think in terms of networks and metadata.

And if you're going to explore that kind of duality, you need a character that can bridge it for the reader, and this is in fact a common feature of Gibson's work. His first novel, Neuromancer, starred a hacker (or "console cowboy") named Henry Case, giving the readers a closer viewpoint on how Gibson's virtual space could affect the physical world--or vice-versa, as Case also met some characters who were either people downloaded into a ROM construct, or even completely artificial AI. Idoru introduced Colin Laney, who could instinctively read and understand the data trail produced by consumption due to childhood medical experimentation. Laney wasn't just a exposition device--by this point, we were all familiar with the dangers of living in a digitally documented world--but a way of personalizing the techniques we now know as data mining. He gave the reader a person through which we could think about our relationship to our data shadow.

In Pattern Recognition, our Virgil figure is Cayce Pollard. She is allergic to brands. More specifically (although Gibson never really comes right out to say this), she's allergic to brands that carry a lot of extra semantic baggage. This is really interesting in conjunction with the fact that it's Gibson's first present-day novel. Through this allergy, he can highlight the level of branding that surrounds us nowadays, as well as making some interesting observations about the information carried through advertising (perhaps our most studied symbolic industry).

For example, Cayce has to grind off all of the rivets on her jeans. She tears off tags from her clothing and her accessories. Tommy Hilfigger just about triggers a breakdown (Gibson, again, isn't clear why, but perhaps the brand's reinvention as an "urban" label has something to do with it). Hello Kitty, on the other hand, doesn't trip her condition at all: Sanrio exists only as a set of empty logos and designs, nothing other than "cute." The specifics are really fairly irrelevant. What's important is that Cayce is alert to the same messages that we either suppress or can't consciously see. She is a window to the careful manipulation of marketers in an ad-supported world. She's also, in a visceral way, affected and controlled by it. Are we really that far off, just because we don't all have a panic attack at the Gap? How much control do we have over our impulses?

The logo allergy also gives Cayce a job as cool-hunter, and that opens up a whole other dimension to Gibson's exploration. I think what he may be trying to show us is a blurring between content and commercial. The product has become the pitch, and the pitch is everywhere. In reaction to the increasing guile and cynicism of the audience, Cayce's employers are trying to reach out and subvert her hobby--a slowly-released piece of movie footage being released slowly through unknown sources. The footage may represent the only artifact left that's not created to sell something. It's pure creativity, and as such people like Cayce are drawn to it. Of course, corporations also hunger for something with that genuine appeal. And the paradox is that anything that they can co-opt will lose its credibility in becoming just another marketing scheme. Again, it's a conflict of control and freedom under capitalism.

Which is not far from how the system works now. Gibson is more subtle than this, and leaves quite a bit open for interpretation. Moreover, as usual, all this is suspended in the middle of many other plots and threads, including an unsettlingly well-crafted portrayal of the modern e-life (much of the book is deftly woven through online forums and e-mail exchanges). Yet for the implications noted above, it's Cayce's peculiar ability that may stick with the reader the longest, and should prove most disturbing. At the most basic level, the question raised by Pattern Recognition will be whether or not human creativity can survive the interference of capitalism, or if it will become just another part of a machine, feeding on itself. Looking at the celebration of Remix Culture on the Internet some days, I'm not so sure how I could answer that.

Future - Present - Past