INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
William Gibson’s new novel, Zero History, completes a trilogy that began with 2003’s Pattern Recognition and continued with 2007’s Spook Country.
In these three works, Gibson explores the dark, dark world of marketing, advertising, and trend forecasting. Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty scary stuff.
Marketing has reached such a fever pitch of aggression and insidiousness today that it’s easy to feel like we’re the victims of a full-scale military campaign of propaganda, one in which slimy guys in modern glass cubicles decide that they know exactly how all of our brains work and what we all want, all the time. What it might come down to is that they think they are smarter than us. William Gibson manipulates that feeling perfectly in these works, and shows us an all-too plausible—and often so frighteningly accurate that it’s also genuinely hilarious—idea of what the reality of marketing could be.
In Hubertus Bigend, the sort-of-antagonist of these three novels, Gibson has created the ultimate marketing man. He’s powerful and shadowy, and he seeks out young “creatives” (more on that word toward the end of this interview) the way a wolf seeks sheep. In Zero History, Bigend’s world brushes up against another 21st century growth industry: the private military. And what’s all the fuss about? Pants. And how compelling is it? In the hands of Gibson, it reads and feels like a matter of life and death. It convinces one that we might be heading for a world where the right to market quasi-military pants is as fiercely contested as national borders once were.
Jesse Pearson: I feel a little bad because I read your Twitter, and there were a couple of posts on there recently about how the process of doing interviews for new books is sort of torturous for you.
William Gibson: That will come later, toward the end of the tour. But you’re at the front of the queue. [laughs] I’m saying things here more or less for the first time. I still haven’t been compelled by repetition to pointlessly change what I’m saying.
Hopefully I’ll get this out before that time comes for you. In your last three books, you’ve developed this world where marketing is treated like espionage. There are agents and double agents and intrigue upon intrigue, but it will be in the service of something like a new denim line. Is this approach intended to be satire? Or is it closer to the truth as you see it?
If something really is satire, I don’t enjoy it. It can’t be satire and be that good. What I like is something that’s closer to a useful, anthropological description that has a really, really sharp satirical edge. Satire, traditionally in our culture, pushes the exaggeration past where the edge really hurts, and you sort of just goof on it. But other cultures, like the British, totally get it. Where you want to be with satire is right on the razor’s edge, where it really hurts and you can’t tell whether you’re being put on or not.
One of the easiest illustrations of the differences between British satire and ours would be the two versions of The Office. The British Office had a genuine humanity to it. It could be totally moving. The American take on it is far more buffoonish, and the attempts at humanity in it are maudlin.
Yeah, absolutely. The original Office is heartbreaking, it’s totally heartbreaking. And it’s not that we can’t do it, but that sort of work doesn’t have the prominent foregrounding in American culture that it does in British culture. And it’s something that can often scare Americans the first time they discover it.
Maybe it’s that most people prefer to know what they’re getting beforehand. They don’t like to feel confused about genre or intent.
I think that I am kind of functionally incapable of staying absolutely true to genre or form. Sometimes I feel sorry for somebody in the Atlanta airport who’s just bought one of my books when what they really want is Ludlum or Clancy. They get on the plane to the other side of the world and all they’ve got to read is this screwy shit about designer blue jeans.
But as the plots of your last three books reveal themselves, you do bring in some pretty traditional action stuff. There are sniper rifles and MMA-style takedowns.
There is some, yeah. It wouldn’t be right to not have the right count of espionage vitamins.
But of course there’s still not enough for people who would rather have a Lee Child book.
I like it where it sort of lives on the edge, in the borderland between a spy novel and something that talks about fashion, or marketing, or whatever else.
You used the word “anthropological” a minute ago, and that feels really accurate to me in terms of the way you approach culture in these books.
It’s me trying to figure out territories that I’m not completely conversant with.
But also things, like marketing, that infect all of our lives to such a huge degree.
Yeah. We all live in it. It often seems to be mainly what the culture does. And it seems to spin off higher and higher iterations of itself. Like now, the hottest entrepreneur would be offering marketing of marketing of marketing. [laughs]
Which is scary, and which reminds me of the character that runs through these books: the marketing genius Hubertus Bigend. At the end of Zero History, you refer to him as almost like a Bond villain, which is something I’ve thought of too. He’s a very different sort, for sure, but he shares some DNA there. But there’s also a gray area with this character, because I can never fully read to what degree you think he’s evil.
Increasingly, he comes with the trappings of a Bond villain. But the thing about Bond villains is that they just don’t make any sense emotionally. They’re one-sided cardboard things in Ian Fleming’s ludicrous, infantilized universe.
And in William Gibson’s perhaps equally ludicrous, infantilized universe, the Bond villain has all kinds of stuff going on [laughs]. Like, he took care of his mother in fine style until she died, and he prides himself on knowing everything and being able to discover everything. But he frequently blows it and is defeated, sometimes by his hired help.
And Bigend seems to be able to rationalize anything, like defeat is just another part of what he would call his process.
You know, when he arrived for me, when I was writing Pattern Recognition, I didn’t think he was going to be that big a deal. I just thought he would sort of walk onstage, give the character of Cayce a credit card and some esoteric assignment and then not play that big a part in the story. But, as it often happens, he took over quite a bit of the piece. It was like I didn’t need to invent him. He just kind of expanded exponentially from his entry point, and then I rolled with that, and his world kept getting bigger and bigger.
Cayce Pollard, in Pattern Recognition, was literally allergic to corporate logos. Milgrim, in this book and in Spook Country, has a sort of blissful unawareness of brands. And then Hollis Henry, also from the last two books, is alternately repulsed by and interested in the market-speak and research that Bigend gets her involved with. These are the heroes and heroines of your last three books—people who have complicated and sort of adversarial relationships to being marketed to. Is it a heroic thing now to be turned off by marketing and branding?
That’s not so much my intention with it. It just grew that way. It would be difficult for me to identify with a character who was… not so much brand-averse, but who wasn’t immune, in large part, to most advertising.
I get it.
We’re immersed in the stuff. But I don’t feel like much of it has an effect on me as I walk through it. Most of my friends aren’t affected by it either. It’s like, if I go down the street and there’s some big Prada ad, I don’t go, “I gotta get some of that shit.” For very complex reasons, I’ll probably never buy a piece of theirs. It’s just not what I would buy. But it’s easier and more fun to represent some other kind of, like, pathological response to advertising. Regret is too strong a word, but something that I think about Cayce is that her pathology is not coherent throughout Pattern Recognition. The text says that she’s got an allergy to logos and that she’s got a phobia regarding the Michelin Man. But it also says that she’s more inclined to barf at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger advertising than she would be with something else. So I kind of slopped it. But I think that I was having so much fun with it that I didn’t want to let any of it go.
It’s been a few years since the last time I read Pattern Recognition really closely, but I remember it pretty well. If Cayce had been fully allergic to the entire spectrum of advertising that we come up against in the world, she wouldn’t be able to leave her house. She wouldn’t even be able to open her eyes. I felt like you gave her specific allergies that locked into a specific sort of marketing. You get into the concept of secret brands in Zero History. What do you see as being the appeal of a secret brand?
I think that the Japanese probably pioneered this. They understand it. It’s about a world in which you can buy almost anything. If you wanted to go and buy some really expensive status apparel, you could probably do it in Kansas City, or somewhere in Nebraska. You just have to find a mall that has a big enough flagship store, and you can go in and get that stuff. And if you can’t get it there, you can get it on the web and have it sent to your door. So we have a situation where the devious idea of luxury goods has been undercut by its own total ubiquity. When you get a bunch of people displaying those goods in a pressure cooker like Tokyo, what they start to notice is that they’re all wearing the same shit. They may be differentiated by their ability to spend the price of a small car on a pair of pants, but they’re all wearing the same pair of pants. So the original idea of exclusivity has gone out the window. The secret brands idea says, “You’ve got a lot of money, but you can’t have this shit because you don’t have the right information.” It suddenly becomes exclusive again. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be about very expensive luxury goods. It works because it gives people a powerful sense of individual involvement.
It’s a way more intimate connection.
It’s a way more intimate connection in the way that happy endings in life, and in fiction too perhaps, are really about where you decide to roll the credits [laughs]. If you followed the person behind a secret brand down the road long enough, they would get to a point where they would either have to sell their brand to a multinational or opt to maintain control, but never really get the big money. Or, as it often happens, there can be a combination of both, where the designer does sell their brand to a multinational, but stays on.
As a consultant or a creative director, or some equally meaningless title.
Over the last ten years or so of working in the media, I’ve crossed paths with the marketing world more times than I would have preferred to. There’s this one bit toward the front of Zero History where Bigend is throwing out marketing terms to Hollis—things like “brand vision transmission,” “trend forecasting,” and “youth market recon.” And then he says, “Consumers don’t buy products so much as narratives.” This stuff is so attuned to the real banter that gets thrown around. It almost triggered PTSD in me. Did you research this stuff, or is it just out there enough in the culture now that anyone can grab it?
I’m really just good with Google. I know how to find things. But I also have enough real world experience that I think I’m able to recognize what’s the real stuff. The things that strike my eye are often the things that are just so utterly and unintentionally pretentious that I just have to file the serial numbers off to some extent and then put them in Bigend’s mouth.
Do you think that this sort of marketing shit follows culture? Or does it create it? They tell themselves that they’re creating things, but I don’t think so.
I have to kind of get down in the trenches with that one and get really specific. Is the reborn and highly successful J. Crew creating anything? Is it even furthering the aesthetic which it ceaselessly bites? [laughs]
Like that sun-bleached WASP, Nantucket, John Cheever thing?
Yeah. It doesn’t all necessarily go in that direction, but they’ve got that covered. They also do the denim, like 1940s workwear, and the military stuff. That’s all stuff that, just because I like it and I’ve been aware of it all my adult life, I kind of know a ridiculous amount about. And when I go into J. Crew, I’m walking through this astonishingly complex act of quotation. But almost none of the stuff is as heavy or as well made as the real thing. It’s all simulacra. It’s like they’re singing an aria over the score of this very traditional American dream thing. It fascinates me because what they’re doing has become like a traditional act in American culture. Ralph Lauren did it. He really invented it.
Have you seen that recent Levi’s campaign that says something like “We are all workers”? It uses images of, like, steel mills and factories, intercut with models looking like Zoolander versions of WPA-era photos of hobos looking for work. It’s like bad drag.
Somewhere in his essay days, Tom Wolfe wrote this viciously funny analysis of why middle class American teenagers liked denim. He compared it to this Regency craze for dressing like your coachman. And he said that it is a kind of drag, like you’re donning the testicles of the brawny working class lad [laughs]. What I would find sad about that Levi’s ad is that Levi’s has kind of ghost-branded itself beyond recognition. They no longer have their own factories in the United States. Most of the stuff is made abroad, and the only stuff that’s made with what used to be their standard quality is the super expensive boutique stuff.
The special high end line is what once was the norm.
Yeah. Sub-branding. And these used to be absolutely ubiquitously available everywhere, at a very reasonable price. If you can still find a good pair from then today, you can sell them to a specialty shop in Hollywood for $2,000, no arguing. And then they’ll mark them way up and for sure sell them to somebody else. That fascinates me. But I’m also very interested in the people who decide to fight all this and go in the opposite direction, off to North Carolina to make actual good American blue jeans. I have a huge weakness for that stuff and an admiration for those people.
The whole ethos of Levi’s is this extreme Americana thing, but it’s false. The military wear that the novel hinges on in a lot of ways is very related to jeans. It’s ultra utilitarian, it’s linked to ideas of Americana. At one point Bigend says that the military invented branding, and another character says that the military find themselves ‘competing with their own historical product, reiterated as streetwear.’ And then you refer to the civilian wearing of military clothing as a form of cosplay, and you also invoke the actual military term “gear queer,” which refers to people outside of the service who like to dress as if they’re soldiers.
“Gear queer” amused me the first time I encountered it. It’s historical. Some of these things that became classic, iconic patterns were from the immediate post-war America period, the years of luxuriating in victory before the Cold War loomed. It was only a very few years. That’s the period of American culture that the Japanese took their iconic stuff from, which is kind of interesting because it was when we were occupying their country.
So that was the first golden age of military gear fetishizing.
It sort of went downhill after that. Where it lives now is in patterns of streetwear.
And in the almost military precision of advertising.
The contemporary apparel industry viewed as a kind of war actually overlaps with real wars in some cases. And then there’s the extent to which it really is a life or death business for some people.
That’s enacted in almost literal terms in Zero History. It’s what we started this conversation with: the idea of treating fashion and marketing as the sort of espionage that carries the actual possibility of losing one’s life. But when I think of military gear being used as streetwear, the first thing that comes to mind is the countercultural use of something like the fatigue jacket. It runs down from Vietnam protesters—and returning vets who joined the protests—to metalheads smoking in high school parking lots. But now, the military streetwear thing seems to be more the province of this personal soldier, militia kind of guy. I wonder if that has anything to do with the privatization of military work today, and the feeling that anybody could be a soldier.
Yeah, I think it could. If somebody wears even one piece of really high tech military clothing, I’m immediately suspicious. I’ll cross the street, even though it may just be some guy who wishes he could get a job as a mall ninja. I think that some people wear that stuff because they think it will cause other people to suspect that they might be carrying a gun. And that’s, like, really not smart on a whole lot of levels. Especially if you really are carrying a gun. So, yeah, it’s a strange kind of aberration.
What’s interesting with regards to the book while thinking of this stuff is that the garment that sort of helps to save the day is a t-shirt. You call it the ugliest t-shirt in the world. It’s specially designed to scramble the wearer’s identity so that they can’t be picked up by CCTV cameras. You have the character of Garreth, who’s like the ultimate quasi-military badass, afraid of this t-shirt because it’s “bad to know” about and it’s “too deep.”
If it were real, it would be just too bad to know about. It offers virtual invisibility—video invisibility. Your acts cannot be recorded. The idea works particularly well in the context of London, which is such a famously surveilled landscape.
Is there any basis in reality for that shirt?
Only insofar as that the description of it emerged instantly and effortlessly from my colleague Bruce Sterling. [laughs] I forget exactly what my version of it was, but I asked him for some help. He said, “You just need a really ugly t-shirt.” He came out with this thing off the top of his head, his assumption being that the absolute holy grail of the video surveillance industry was facial recognition. He said, “They’ll tell you that they’re working on it, but they already have some—and they don’t tell you what they’re doing anyway.” He reeled off how the whole thing would work. And I said, “Thank you, I’ll take that.” My experience with Bruce has been that if he can imagine it that easily, it’s likely to be close to what somebody is doing. Have you seen, on the internet, this guy who can use his fists to make different shapes that video surveillance systems will recognize as faces?
No. That’s nuts.
I think I tweeted it at some point. It’s really extraordinary. It looks like the kind of magic that people do to amuse children. But you can also just shove it up to one of these cameras and it will go, “You’re a person,” and then let you through, thinking it’s got your face. That’s the closest thing I’ve seen to the t-shirt in Zero History.
I like that in Zero History, Twitter is used as this covert communication device. How do you use Twitter?
I follow less than 100 people. I use it to keep in touch daily with a few friends. The rest of it, for me, is just an incredibly powerful aggregator of novelty. I’ve chosen to follow people who are themselves keen and very active aggregators of novelty. And it all tends to present the highest quota of pure, random amusing novelty of any medium that I have access to. Every once in awhile, I glance over at—but do not open—the trending topics and I go, “Oh, ew. That’s horrible. That’s foul.”
It’s like, #Heidi Montag and #LadyGaga.
That’s the opposite of novelty. It’s just the sludge of the commonplace.
It’s the viscous fluid of culture. Yuck.
Yeah. So you could be swimming in that, or you could be sitting in a fine prismatic spray of triple-filtered novelty.
There was a conversation happening on your Twitter recently in which you examined the idea of people being called “creatives.”
It can be self-congratulatory, or it can be an incredibly inaccurate descriptor.
It seems like the marketing people, like the Bigend people, use the term more than anybody else. It really makes people sound like supplies. It’s like they’re talking about firewood or something.
There’s a type of ant in some colonies that does nothing but eat and eat. The other ants feed it, and its belly swells and becomes perfectly spherical. It’s like a living food repository. These ants are called repletes. “Creatives” kind of reminds me of that. It’s like, in the human ant colony, this guy over here produces new ideas. [laughs] But he doesn’t produce new ideas the way a scientist does. There’s something else going on. There’s a creepy kind of genotyping there.
In simple terms, what does the title Zero History refer to?
It has to do with the state of the character Milgrim’s credit history after his decade of benzodiazepine addiction. By not having had a credit card or a telephone number, he’s become this sort of mythological ghost. A non-person. “Zero history” is what the records guy at a police department would tell you when you call them up and say, “I want everything you’ve got on a guy like this.” It would be, “Zero history.”
I wonder if zero history would be an enviable state in which to be.
I think it would be a very tough place to be. But it’s interesting that it’s a place to be at all. It’s interesting that that place is there. It will be very strange, 20 years from now, to know who will be the people that you can’t Google. It used to be that the people you could Google were prominent in some way in some digital industry. Now, increasingly, you can Google everybody. So who will be unGoogleable? The Amish? Will some religion maybe decide one day that to be Googleable is unclean? Like, you have to not leave any traces on the net…
If you want to be in a state of grace.
One last thing—I think it’s interesting when the character of Garreth says that terrorism is almost exclusively about branding. Can you expand on that a little bit?
He’s speaking from one or another of the theories of asymmetric warfare. What we call terrorism is always asymmetric warfare. You’re a small group with no reputation, and you start covertly blowing up or murdering the people of a big group, like a government or a nation-state or a whole race. And you can’t just do it and then go and do the next one. You have to do it, and then go and do your PR. “We just bombed your mall. It was us.” And then maybe you do it, and some other guys, these upstart assholes across town, are calling up the news and saying, “We did it! We bombed the mall!” So then you have to get your PR guy on the phone and say, “No, they’re full of shit. WE bombed the mall.” So it’s about branding to that extent. The scariest terrorists would be guys who keep doing terrible shit, but they never call anybody. Like the secret brand of terrorism. That would be really, really bad because you wouldn’t have any way to find them.
And also, the first question that’s asked in response to a terrorist act is, “Why?” With these guys, there’d be no why.
Gee, I never thought of this before. That’s scary and interesting. It’s a good one. I’ll put that in the hopper.