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Daniel Day-Lewis spoke with poet, Eileen Myles in this 2002 interview. Photography by Terry Richardson.
 

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Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.
 
  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

William Gibson, 2004

WITH JACQUI MILLAR
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TODD COLE


Starting with his 1983 sci-fi classic Neuromancer, William Gibson has uncannily predicted our future, from DNA-based security systems to internet technology. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where a Gibson book ends and current reality begins. His latest, Pattern Recognition, released in paperback in February, is Gibson’s first book to take place in the present. The heroine, Cayce Pollard, is in the business of recognizing consumer patterns before they break into the mainstream. Cayce is a coolhunter with a strange problem: her sensitivity to branding is so extreme that she is allergic to certain icons. Public relations strategist Jacqui Millar talked with Gibson about the state of branding and the icons that constitute his personal consumer compass at his home in Vancouver.


J: Some people feel that products are almost incidental to marketing concepts these days.
WG: In Pattern Recognition I was playing with the idea that marketing, and branding in particular, is all we really do now in what used to be the industrialized West — we put logos on things that are made in the barely industrialized East. I was also playing with the idea that some products still possess innate worth. The footage in the book is that kind of product.

J: The footage is an anonymous video, snippets of which appear mysteriously on the internet every few weeks. It becomes an international underground sensation because it’s so elusive and emotionally powerful.
WG: Yes. It’s a film you can’t see. With any media, there’s a process of projection that takes place, and the footage is an example of that. A novel or short story requires even more projection than a film does — the reader is doing at least half the work, and providing all of the visuals, by decoding marks on a piece of white stuff. After quite a lot of cultural training, you look at the marks and you’re transported into a really intense experience.

AS: Where else do you see that kind of projection coming into play?
WG: In the gap between the experience of the trailers for a film and the experience of the film itself. Only extremely good films are better than their trailers lead you to believe. When you watch a trailer, you intimate what you most want to see.

AS: The trailer is more important than the film because it’s going to get you to buy the product.
WG:
Yeah. The trailer gets you into the theater. Although that phrase “gets you into the theater” is starting to sound awfully archaic. At this point, film is something one apprehends with a DVD. What was for generations a linear, can’t-rewind experience has become something completely different.

AS: Are you a DVD person?
WG:
Not at all. I watch my daughter do it. She’s a keen film buff – she’ll still drive twenty miles to a really good up-to-the-minute theater. DVDs allow an intimacy that makes for a very different experience. In some ways you can eventually edit your own film with a DVD by experiencing it in all sorts of different orders. That’s a stunning technological change that seems relatively unnoticed.

AS: You’ve made it your business as an author to notice those sorts of changes, like the protagonist in Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard, who is a coolhunter. Cayce is remarkable because her decisions are based solely on her own instincts as opposed to market research.
WG:
I think coolhunting relies on the superior pattern recognition of a sensitive individual.
JM: What do you mean by pattern recognition?
WG: I don’t know if I can define it. It’s what sets humans apart from other species and allows us to do all the stuff that we do. It allows us to have spoken and written language, and to build prosthetic devices that store memory. Our memory as a species isn’t dependent on the lives of individuals. We are better at pattern recognition, and we do it more extensively, than any other animal.

JM: Would you describe market research as pattern recognition?WG: The key to market research is who’s analyzing the data. How smart are the analysts? I once met a couple of young American cultural anthropologists who had been hired by Datsun to talk to American drivers about their cars. Their job was to translate the American driving experience for this Japanese auto manufacturer.
JM: What did they find?

WG: They told me that, for very complicated cultural reasons, the smell of leather is unacceptable in Japan. The leather in luxury Japanese cars is treated to remove its scent. These cultural anthropologists explained to Datsun, “Americans want their leather upholstery to smell like leather.” After that, a little mesh bag of high-grade Italian leather cuttings was stowed inside every Datsun that was shipped to America, so by the time it got to the United States it would smell of leather.


JM: That’s amazing.
WG:
Yeah, but that’s an example of cultural interpretation rather than straight market analysis. I have no experience with market research aside from being on the wrong end of it occasionally. Telemarketers never seem to ask the right questions.

J: How do you feel about viral marketing? There’s a character in Pattern Recognition who is paid to go out, chat people up in bars, and casually mention certain brands. She is supposed to promote products without letting on that she’s being paid to mention their names.
WG:
I’d heard about that but I assumed it was an urban legend. It turns out that it really exists, but there’s a terrible backfiring potential. If people realize that’s going on, they get really angry and put off the product. It violates something very basic.

AS: Yeah. That character brings home the repercussions of having to be suspicious whenever anyone mentions anything. Pattern Recognition made me realize that life itself is becoming the ultimate product. Although it’s set in the present, unlike all of your other books, it’s main idea is still quite sci-fi.
WG:
With Pattern Recognition I felt like I was completing a twenty-five-year loop of artistic endeavor. I’ve always been dubious about science fiction’s ability to depict the future, but it’s absolutely brilliant at allowing us to examine our very disturbing and strange present. Science fiction’s tool kit allows me to disassemble and reassemble the present.

J: It’s a way to look at the present without being frightened?
WG:
Right. It gives us oven mitts. We can pick up this hot thing, turn it over, and not be depressed by it, because it’s taking place in the context of a story told in an imaginary future. That has always been the appeal of writing science fiction to me. I think Pattern Recognition transposes that idea. It gives people the experience of a fairly accurately described present that is somehow science fiction without really including anything made up. There’s no imaginary technology in Pattern Recognition.

AS: Some of your fans were shocked that you were writing about the present. How do you capture the current climate when it’s shifting beneath your feet?
WG:
Actually, it still felt a bit like science fiction, because when I started writing the very beginning of the book, I thought, “Okay, this is next year. What I’m writing now is a novel set in the near future and when I’ve completed it, it will be a novel of right this minute.” [both laugh] It was sort of a private joke. I didn’t even know if it would be evident to the reader. Then everything changed after September 11th. In the immediate aftermath, I had absolutely no idea what the world would be like a year later. That was very tricky.

AS: Do you get to New York much?
WG:
Yeah, I do. I probably spend as much time there as I do anywhere. That was one of the reasons September 11th affected me as directly as it did. Lower Manhattan is more psycho-geographically real to me than downtown Vancouver.

AS: Going back after September 11th, did you sense any shift in the environment or in the way people conducted themselves?
WG:
I stayed away for a while. By the time I got back to New York, I couldn’t distinguish the post-September 11th affect from the ongoing, really marked change that was already happening in the city. It’s still New York, but it’s not the place it used to be.

AS: You mean the Disneyfication?
WG:
Yeah. The reconceptualization of it. My friend Jack Womack has lived there for thirty years, and he talks about “the gone world.” We’ll walk around together, see certain shops, and say, “Look, the colors of the gone world.”   [laughs] Luc Sante wrote an amazing essay in which he describes what New York was like in 1977. I read it recently and thought, “How could it have been that weird and wonderful?”

AS: There was a sense of desperation in the ‘70s.
WG:
I was there briefly in the mid-70s, and it was so chaotic and interestingly nightmarish. When I came back to Vancouver I said, “They should really lease New York City to the Japanese for about twenty years — they would make everything work.” Going back to New York now I feel like we became our own Japanese. We didn’t need them to do it. [laughs]

J: Only Chinatown has kept that sense of chaos. You’ve used the global influence of Japan in your fiction so much. Can you comment on your experience with Japanese consumer culture?
WG:
I’ve always been deeply charmed by Japanese consumer culture. And I find that the U.K. has a similar consumer culture.

J: That’s so interesting, I would never have thought of that.
WG:
I notice the Tokyo-London connection whenever I’m in either city. One example is mobile-phone culture. Mobile phones took off in Japan first, but England embraced them soon after. Two years ago, nobody was using text messaging in North America, but everybody in Tokyo and London used it constantly. And Japan and England are two island empires that essentially invented industrialization in their respective parts of the world.

J: When you visit Japan, what stands out in particular about the consumer culture there?
WG:
I like how you can find pretty much anything you want from anywhere in the world if you’re willing to pay a lot for it. My favorite retail environment in the whole world is the Shibuya branch of a Japanese chain called Tokyu Hands. It’s so hard to explain what it’s about.

AS: Isn’t it a department store?
WG:
Yeah, there’s the Tokyu department store chain. But Tokyu Hands is a subsidiary of the chain that’s all about arts and crafts — and shoe-shine gear. [laughs] They have a department that stocks every great shoe care product on the planet. It’s demented. I could spend a week in there without even buying anything, just going through what they have.

J: You enjoy the idea that someone spent the time selecting the best products for each particular niche?
WG:
Well, Tokyu Hands isn’t quite the same as the relatively new type of fashion retailing that people call editing.

J: Right, the select shop.
WG:
Yeah. Editing is a really interesting response to the noise and chaos of the retail environment. The buyer or editor at a select shop becomes the star of the show. Tokyu Hands is more old-fashioned. It’s what I imagine a serious Victorian emporium would have been like. You could go in looking for a crochet hook, and there would be millions of them — “Would you care for a Finnish one, madam?” It’s encyclopedic.

AS: Do you like to think of yourself as a consumer?
WG:
  I very happily think of myself as a consumer, but at the same time I hate fashion. I want clothes that look as good as they did forty years ago. My personal consumerism is restricted to that stuff.

AS: Is there any advertising that you’re susceptible to?
WG:
eBay auctions are infinitely more seductive to me than professional advertising. You would not believe the prices for deadstock Levi’s 501s  from the ‘60s. Two days ago I saw a pair go for two thousand four hundred fifty dollars.

AS: Amazing. Are there certain areas on eBay that you’re drawn to?
WG:
I’m allergic to the idea of collecting things. If I get more than four of anything, I start giving them away. But when things suddenly change in value, it interests me. I started looking at vintage Levis a couple of months ago, after I read that Levi’s had closed the last of their North American factories. I thought, “Gee, I haven’t bought any Levis for years, maybe I should get a pair while they’re still an American-made product.” Then I discovered this whole world that I had only vaguely known about, of Japanese dealers and astronomical prices. Of course, if I didn’t have to sit in a basement in front of a computer all day writing, I would be out at some real retail environment drinking coffee and talking to people. That would be my preference.

AS: Are you working on a new book now?
WG:
I am, but I’m in that awkward stage where I can’t tell you what it’s called and I don’t really know what it’s about. [both laugh]

AS: How long does that germinating process usually take?
WG:
The process that leads up to getting the germ of the book is largely unconscious, so I never know how long it’s actually been gestating. I’m just hoping it will pop up any day now.

 
© index magazineWilliam Gibson
William Gibson by Todd Cole, 2004
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