Before Lonelygirl15, There Was William Gibson

"Pattern Recognition" is an Industry Thriller of the Best Kind: Indicative

By Published on .

Recall the summer of 2006, when YouTube sensation Lonelygirl15 (a.k.a. "Bree") was all the rage with the MSM and bloggeratti. From epistemological discussions of Bree's identity to big pronouncements of What It All Means, it was difficult to escape the web phenom back when You were named Time magazine's Person of the Year.

Amid all the hubbub of a "new form" of online interaction, novelist William Gibson must have been smiling.

That's because Gibson's socio-techno-comic thriller "Pattern Recognition" serves up a first-class mystery with all the makings of the next Lonelygirl15 saga...only the book hit shelves in February 2003, more than three years before anyone had heard of Bree and her many woes.

It's not surprising that Gibson anticipated a pop culture watershed (though he denies belief the creators of Lonelygirl15 were inspired by his book). After all, this is the guy who coined the term "cyberspace" in the early '80s. A science-fiction writer by trade, he's as much a social scientist, whose novels have long forecasted global communication trends by at least a generation or two.

Gibson's sharp observations of the intersection of technology and marketing in a post-9/11 world and the resulting interaction between consumers and brands make this, the author's ninth novel, one of the better marketing books of recent years.

"Pattern Recognition" tells the story of Cayce Pollard, a "cool hunter" who prowls the world for the latest in street fashion, from London's Camden Town to the streets of Los Angeles' Dogtown and beyond.

Her powers are practically supernatural. She can tell at a glance whether a logo will inspire or repel. ("Blink" that, Malcolm Gladwell!) But her gift comes with a price: She's literally "allergic" to fashion. Indeed, some icons (the Michelin man) or brands (Tommy Hilfiger) induce illness.

Cayce is also enrapt with a series of film fragments that have appeared mysteriously on the internet. The webisodes (135 and counting) star a man and woman from no apparent time or place and appear in no apparent order. "He might be a sailor, stepping onto a submarine in 1914, or a jazz musician entering a club in 1957," Gibson writes.

Gibson makes clear that the mystery and ambiguity of the films resonate so deeply with Cayce because she's still grappling with the disappearance of her father, who vanished in New York on 9/11. She shares her theories on the fragments' authorship with fellow cultists on the bulletin board, Footage:Fetish:Forum.

Cayce's online obsession soon draws the attention of the inscrutable Hubertus Bigend, CEO of marketing agency Blue Ant, a "high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores." Bigend sees the footage as the "single most effective piece of guerilla marketing ever." Naturally, he wants in on the action, and dispatches Cayce to find the creator.

The quest takes Cayce from Tokyo to Moscow, where she encounters characters ranging from embittered ex-cryptographers to Russian mafia kingpins. Naturally, she's not the only one scheming to get her hands on the footage, and not everyone is who they appear to be.

For the real-life strategist, Gibson's narrative is packed with foresight on industry hot topics, from deep-niche consumers to word-of-mouth marketing. The author casts his eye on the ways brands attempt to tell their stories in an increasingly digital world that is fragmenting even as it becomes more closely integrated. Viral, video games and has-been spokes-celebs are all part of the discussion.

Gibson's works are among the few that deserve the moniker "prophetic." "Pattern Recognition" is a powerful exploration of how 21st-century marketing works -- and just might offer suggestions as to where it's going.
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