Pattern Recognition banner

Pattern Recognition and Hope

Pattern Recognition, like many of William Gibson’s novels (in particular those that helped to create the cyberpunk genre), feels prescient. The way that it addresses apophenia, the commodification of people, and even hope are fascinating.

A recent article in MDPI’s journal Literature discusses the idea of human agency in a commodified techno-culture. Ahmad A. Ghashmari deftly discusses Gibson’s work and discusses the numerous views of the work, as well making a strong case for hope and connection in an ever-increasing world of commodification and monetization.

Pattern Recognition sits comfortably in the middle of a web of ideas. On the one hand, it is “speculative fiction of the very recent past” (from an interview with William Gibson by Alex Duebin). But on the other hand, it also feels like Gibson is describing the current state of the digital age and late-stage capitalism. The main character of the novel, Cayce Pollard, is a marketing specialist—a “cool-hunter”. Her ability to identify patterns in group behaviour makes her ability to know what will be popular next invaluable to companies. Apophenia, finding connections amongst apparently unrelated things, is her gift. She also has an allergy to brand names—Cayce removes them from her clothing.

In this article we’ll go over Ghashmari’s work, as well as how these relate to the cyberpunk genre as well.

Pattern Recognition and Cyberpunk

“Along with William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, [Blade Runner] is credited with the creation of the cyberpunk genre—a science fiction subgenre, marked by the confluence of high tech and low life.”—Evan Puschak, Blade Runner: The Other Side of Modernity.

Cyberpunk’s core ideas have been part of pop culture for decades. From Blade Runner, to The Matrix, to Cyberpunk 2077, it is easy to understand why we are fascinated by the way in which people interact with technology. And also the Internet. Gibson’s might have drifted away from (or perhaps very consciously stepped away) from the genre for a more ‘real’ setting, but the themes of humanity, human agency, technology, and the relationship between people and corporations is woven through Pattern Recognition in a way that feels deeply connected to his prior work.

Commodification of the Self

Ghashmari notes how Juliet B. Ichor and D. B. Holt, in The Consumer Society Reader, discuss commodification. The commodification of everything.

“‘Personal style’ is now a hot market commodity. Trend spotters scour the nation’s inner cities, searching for the successors to the hip-hop innovators of the 1980s. They scrutinized the walk, the talk, the way one’s pants are worn.”

It is difficult to read this, an idea dating back almost 40 years (the aforementioned innovators), apophenia once again at play, and not think about present-day “influencers” on YouTube or TikTok. For a book written two years before YouTube was established and thirteen years before TikTok, Gibson’s understanding of corporations, humanity, and the commodification of people is uncanny. In Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard has the ability to see these patterns in the chaos; to know what is going to be hip—before anyone else. This makes her ability of immense value to corporations (herself becoming a commodity). Cayce might say that this sort of trend identification is “[recognizing] a pattern before anyone else does” (Gibson).

The market value of a person

What is a person worth?

What happens when a person has market value? If you are an influencer, your words and voice no longer fully belong to you as they are component parts of your worth as a commodity. Cayce might be directing corporations towards ideas that will be successful, but the process of “[G]etting productized. Turned into units. Marketed.” (Cayce in Pattern Recognition) remains a fairly conventional formula.

How can a person be monetized? What is my brand? Will the algorithm promote the content? Will this video get demonetized? Subscribe. Click “Like”. Support me on Patreon.

In an ever-increasing ocean of content creators wanting to be successful, the questions around the production of people as a commodity will only persist. How can we remain human if we’re just a commodity?

Ghashmari notes “Workers like Cayce are trained to be very good at the one thing that they do until they become what they do.” And Cayce’s allergy to brands becomes a physical manifestation of her constant exposure to marketing and brands. Without an escape from what she does, the reaction is physical—a reaction by her physical self to forms of commodification. Her apophenia has resulted in a direct, physical reaction between the brands and her physical well-being.

Cyberpunk and commodification

To briefly step away from both Pattern Recognition and Ghashmari’s article, it is worth pausing for a moment in the way that these ideas persist throughout cyberpunk as well. Because Cyberpunk explicitly deals with the way in which humans interact with technology, the way in which technology commodifies people should be a part of the discussion. Many works of the genre deal with transhumanism and cyborgs. Cyborgs is used here to address the hybridization of the human and the non-human, not “part human/part machine”.

Though that definition also exists in that category.

The way in which Blade Runner commodifies Replicants (an android of sorts) as “tools”, despite being transhumans themselves is stark. Briefly, Transhumanism advocates the improvement of the human condition through sophisticated technologies. Blade Runner 2049 presents the healthiest and most beautiful relationship as that between a Replicant and an A.I.-driven hologram. All created, purchased—bought and sold—but it is all still exploitation of the human condition by corporations.

Hope in Pattern Recognition

Apophenia and how it leads to Cayce’s “enslavement” to corporations and the system aside, there are many who believe that Pattern Recognition is fundamentally a hopeful novel.

If apophenia is a path that leads to imprisonment, hope is freeing.

Here’s how Ghashmari talks about hope in Pattern Recognition:

“Despite the overpowering impact of the market that Pattern Recognition portrays, hope for the human to preserve an identity can still be salvaged through the possibility of interactions between humans and technology outside of the manipulations of the marketplace.”

From that we can understand that technology isn’t fundamentally the problem. Technology is a tool. When commodified, technology loses its humanity. The Internet is a tool for marketing, but it is also a tool of creation and art.

In the way that Cayce’s rejection of brands is her way of pushing back against the marketing machine, the absence of manipulations by the marketplace allows humanity to thrive. Also, we can create. And, we can make meaningful connections. Despite the marketplace, the Internet facilitates the marketplace of ideas.

Even in high-tech places, life exists. And hope persists, because it’s part of what makes us human.