"Anything threatening to be a subculture is commodified before it can walk"

And that, of course, is archetypal sci-fi territory. Mankind’s design and technology have come so far that they are challenging our very idea of what it means to be us. As Gibson might put it, design is about deeper code. Gibson is able to insinuate that adapting to our branded ecosystem has taken Pollard one evolutionary step ahead, and that this is what makes her such a sensitive trend spotter – as if consumerism can affect us at the genetic level. But it is also full of “gear-queers” – the kind of people who hanker after rare military equipment and know that the latest hue of US Army camouflage is called “foliage green”. As one character puts it, it’s about “opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. The irony is that the subcultures that Gibson is at pains to pinpoint scarcely exist anymore. I should stress that, unlike most Gibson readers, I am not a science fiction fan. Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. The meticulous clocking and cataloguing of desirable stuff that Pollard is so good at continues in the next two books, Spook Country and Zero History, but this time by another heroine, Hollis Henry. A world of fetishised objects populated by weird obsessivesThe trilogy opens with Pattern Recognition, in which the heroine, Cayce Pollard, is a brand consultant and “cool hunter”. Otherwise, the action is all in London – Gibson’s constant touchstone – which again is an exaggerated version of its current self: all but empty except for the remaining kleptocracy. As with Baudelaire, this can border on the occult. I wonder what Gibson makes of K-Hole’s ability to turn trend forecasts into satirical design criticism. The second future is set around 2100, when the Pacific Garbage Patch has congealed into a plastic landmass that “patchers” have fashioned into a floating city. All of which makes me think that I should go back to the early books that I found indigestible – the ones about hackers in cyberspace. He longs for the “gloriously pre-posthuman”. than people.”
Zero History in particular charts a world of fetishised objects populated by weird obsessives. This is the one about the quest for the ultra-exclusive – indeed, positively secretive – Japanese denim brand. It’s hard to think of a contemporary novelist with a keener eye for the world of things. It’s a world of drones and a Google Glass-style eyepiece called Viz. In that world, Gibson plays the latter-day flaneur, parsing not the Parisian arcades but the streets of London’s Soho or Tokyo’s Shibuya, imbuing consumerism with meaning. The cyberpunks that Neuromancer helped spawn? Fashion, interiors and technological gadgets are not just superficially the fabric of the world in his recent books, they are often what motivate his characters. For Gibson, especially in the novels of the last decade, design has been central to the fiction. The strange appeal of these books is that they function as both celebration and critique of a late-capitalist consumer society, in all its sophistication and infantilism. Henry – and, by definition, Gibson – is constantly noticing Philippe Starck interiors, different models of Adidas trainer, Volkswagen dashboards and Aeron chairs bought off failed startups, ever in search of their underlying semiotics. And for the nominal hero, Wilf Netherton, this brings on a crisis of authenticity. Like Pollard and Henry, Gibson himself aspires to be something of a connoisseur – to know “how to distinguish one thing from another.” Like his character Milgrim, one wonders if he is not “more at home in the world of objects… Because what was then the nerdy world of computer engineering has become primary, instrumental to so much of our designed experience. Characters can slip their consciousnesses into these three-dimensional avatars when they need to be somewhere they are not. He is the director of   Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. When individuality has gone generic, Bigend’s ultra-exclusivity is one response, but so is the opposite: normcore. She has to cut the labels out of her clothes and file the trademark off her Casio G-Shock watch. In this exaggerated version of the present, everything you can own is either produced by a corporate hegemon called Hefty (Walmart on steroids) or – from guns to phones – it’s fabbed (3D printed) by yours truly. Selfridges is briefly a single residence and Oxford Street, long abandoned, has been turned into an artificial forest not unlike Joanna Lumley and Thomas Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge proposal. This has been replaced by an automated servant class of humanoids called peripherals. His book   Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture   was published by Verso in June 2014. The foundations for this future are already being laid in real life, says   Justin McGuirk. The route to this future of virtual presence and physical avatars is being mapped now, with what will soon seem like our rudimentary efforts at interaction design via screens. Among the flurry of articles greeting William Gibson’s latest novel, The Peripheral, there should be at least one that addresses his interest in design. Only Bruce Sterling is more invested in design as a topic, an engagement that goes far beyond the requirements of his fiction. The first, in the 2030s, is utterly plausible in design and manufacturing terms. Opinion:   unbridled materialism, technology and design combine to challenge the meaning   of personhood in   William Gibson’s latest sci-fi novel. Thanks to the Pollards and Bigends of this world, anything threatening to be a subculture is commodified before it can walk. Design at its most materialistic, as a frontier to be explored by the corporate superstructureOf course, all of this rarefied consumer culture is really just atmosphere. Bigend, the marketing maestro, is only interested in Japanese denim because of what it might tell him about spectral forms of exclusivity – about “anti-buzz” being the new buzz.

Updated: 20.12.2014 — 15:07