Pattern Recognition: Marketing’s Mirror World

What’s cool? Author William Gibson is cool. Cayce Pollard, protagonist of his hotly awaited new novel, “Pattern Recognition,” is cool. Cayce is a “coolhunter.” She’s paid big bucks to identify, commodify, and market cool. She does it intuitively, and with infallible accuracy. Her clients don’t get explanations. She’ll glance at an athletic shoe conglom’s new logo and nod yes or no. If it’s the latter? It’s back to the drawing board, no questions asked.

It’s easier to cite examples of cool than to define it. Who determines examples? Those who are cool. The thing about cool is, it takes one to know one. It’s not a job for computers. People are more adept at pattern recognition than computers or artificial forms of intelligence. But in “Pattern Recognition,” as in modern society, computers disseminate and connect cool.

“Pattern Recognition” can be described as a marketing thriller. So sensitive is Cayce to brand saturation, she pays a locksmith to grind her Levi’s buttons into logo-free generics. Certain grossly overexposed trademarks (the Michelin Man, Hilfiger) make her literally ill. Cayce’s personal cool is below-the-radar cult cool, like her treasured Rickson jacket (black). True cool is tribal, communal, and, most of all, obscure. Hunting cool means blowing its cover. Successfully hunting cool and selling it to the masses kills whatever was cool about the quarry in the first place, or at least fragments it into something unrecognizable.

That phenomenon is (in part) what “Pattern Recognition” is about. Will it be what marketing “Pattern Recognition” is about?

Gibson, “the father of cyberpunk,” enjoys an established cool quotient: a cult following, futuristic/sci-fi mystique, the ability to create trends and buzz. “Pattern Recognition” is widely hailed as his most mainstream and accessible novel. Will that fact, combined with the marketing of his book about marketing, tarnish Gibson’s own coolness?

The novel centers around fragments of a mysterious film that crop up sequentially on the Web. Fetish:Footage:Forum (F:F:F) is the online community (Cayce is an avid member) where “footageheads” endlessly discuss and minutely analyze the film and passionately debate its origin.

Parallels with Gibson’s own Web site/blog/discussion board are irresistible. Book buzz has been high, especially among hard-core Gibson fans (“patternheads”?). “This is like the best kept secret around that isn’t a secret,” gushes someone on the author’s board.

One popular thread is “How did you find this site?” “I found it from a link posted on another message board whose main topic is the Subaru Impreza. Part push, part pull.” replied grimlock. Scouring sites related to the car, I could find no reference to Gibson or the novel.

Yet references to stealth marketing are everywhere in “Pattern Recognition.” An attractive female character is on an agency payroll to casually mention certain products in certain social situations. So who’s pushing? And who’s pulling? Miked posted an actual online survey on the board asking users where they came from (“Curious as to how a nodal person like Gibson is mainstreamed,” he explained).

Where does curiosity stop and market research begin?

The epitome of patternhead cool is to have read “Pattern Recognition” prior to the February 3 release. Users recommend posing as a journalist to score a copy (how I got mine, sans posing). eBay has done a brisk trade in uncorrected manuscripts. They’re not cheap, so, once read, they go back on the eBay block. Talk about Web-enabled viral marketing. Hard-core fans celebrate getting the hard-to-get and marvel, “The mainstream is paying attention.” It’s all linked on the site: the cover page of “The New York Times Book Review.” Gibson reading chapter one via streaming audio on the Times’s Web site. The New Yorker review. The 15-city book tour.

Cayce Pollard worries about losing her soul. She has serious pangs when she signs the back of a platinum, sky’s-the-limit Visa card supplied by her employer, Hubertus Bigend. Her soul-depleting sell-out mission (to find the footage’s originator for Mr. Bigend) has her shuttling between Tokyo, London, and Moscow. Cayce attributes the jet lag that dogs her as her soul’s inability to catch up to her body.

She has an accomplice on the job, Boone Chu, a footagehead whose dot-com wipeout makes him vulnerable to Bigend’s bucks. Cayce and Boone try to “keep each other honest,” as the F:F:F community board is diluted with newbie posts when Bigend leaks footage to CNN. (Who will post on Gibson’s site when the book goes wide?) Paid to hunt (by implication, to kill) what she regards as most cool and most meaningful, Cayce gradually abandons certain principles. Despite her hatred of branded goods, she begins carrying an iBook and a cell phone.

Global and rootless, the marketer in Cayce is acutely aware of the transitory “mirror world” she inhabits. Products in London or Tokyo mimic “real” American ones (she’s from New York). Her closest relationships and intimate conversations occur via email. The past is housed in Netscape’s cache and in auto-redial. The constants: Hello Kitty, Hummer, Google, Starbucks, Prada, and this week’s Hotmail address.

All of this travel occurs on behalf of Blue Ant, the global marketing agency for which Cayce reluctantly coolhunts. The name sounds so authentic, I almost didn’t Google it. But I did.

I discovered that in nature, a blue ant isn’t an ant at all. Rather, it’s a wasp with a painful sting. The female hunts for a ground-dwelling cricket. She paralyses it with a sting and lays her egg on it. The still living yet immobile cricket becomes food for the wasp’s young.

What a clever metaphor for the process of targeting, commodifying, and marketing cool. It’s a cycle endlessly repeated, at ever faster intervals. In the case of an author as scrupulously referential as Gibson (who, after all, is marketing his marketing novel on his own Web site), you can’t help but wonder where the author fits in. He’s on the verge of a mainstream success. There’s bestseller potential. I can’t help but imagine that ground-hugging cricket, simultaneously hiding from and flirting with the wasp.

“I do have an email address, yes,” he tells visitors, “but, no, I won’t give it to you. I am one and you are many, and even if you are, say, twenty-seven in grand global total, that’s still too many.”

You have to hunt for the passage. Gibson’s home page bears the author’s photo, an exultant New York Times blurb, and the legend: “Pattern Recognition is available now.”

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