Opinion: unbridled materialism, technology and design combine to challenge the meaning of personhood in William Gibson's latest sci-fi novel. The foundations for this future are already being laid in real life, says Justin McGuirk.
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. It's hard to think of a contemporary novelist with a keener eye for the world of things. Only Bruce Sterling is more invested in design as a topic, an engagement that goes far beyond the requirements of his fiction.
For Gibson, especially in the novels of the last decade, design has been central to the fiction. 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. Only Gibson could get away with a plot that revolves around the hunt for an obscure brand of Japanese denim.
I should stress that, unlike most Gibson readers, I am not a science fiction fan. Indeed I will risk alienating some of them by admitting that I found Gibson's most celebrated and phenomenally influential book, Neuromancer, impossible to finish. So it is no wonder that the series of novels that sucked me in was the so-called Blue Ant trilogy, which is set in the present day. 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.
The trilogy opens with Pattern Recognition, in which the heroine, Cayce Pollard, is a brand consultant and "cool hunter". Pollard's defining characteristic is that she is allergic to logos – so much so that a trip to London department store Harvey Nichols is enough to make her sick. She has to cut the labels out of her clothes and file the trademark off her Casio G-Shock watch. 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.
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. 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. 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... 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. 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".
Of course, all of this rarefied consumer culture is really just atmosphere. These design objects are just MacGuffins, plot devices, signs pointing at the things that any thriller writer would really be concerned about: money, influence and power. And in the case of the Blue Ant trilogy, the puppet master is Hubertus Bigend, a man who knows that "far more creativity, today, goes into the marketing of products than into the products themselves". 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.
Design, here, is not as design's evangelists see it – as a social good – just as Cayce Pollard is not No Logo in the Naomi Klein sense. Instead, we're talking about design at its most materialistic, as a frontier to be explored by the corporate superstructure, as the quality that makes Apple the most valuable company in the world. 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. As with Baudelaire, this can border on the occult. What interests him about a museum-grade replica of a bomber jacket is its atemporality, as if it exists beyond space-time. As one character puts it, it's about "opting out of the industrialisation of novelty. It's about deeper code."
What is this deeper code? In one sense, it is simply an innate design quality, authenticity if you like. But it also appeals to an inner need – the search for identity in an increasingly homogenous world. The irony is that the subcultures that Gibson is at pains to pinpoint scarcely exist anymore. The cyberpunks that Neuromancer helped spawn? They're gone, replaced by a globalised hipster culture. Thanks to the Pollards and Bigends of this world, anything threatening to be a subculture is commodified before it can walk. When individuality has gone generic, Bigend's ultra-exclusivity is one response, but so is the opposite: normcore. As cooked up by trend forecasters K-Hole, normcore's logic is: don't be unique, dress like your dad. I wonder what Gibson makes of K-Hole's ability to turn trend forecasts into satirical design criticism.
Inevitably, in the latest book, The Peripheral, our unbridled materialism yields what we fear – climate-driven apocalypse. Returning to sci-fi, Gibson sets the book in two futures. The first, in the 2030s, is utterly plausible in design and manufacturing terms. It's a world of drones and a Google Glass-style eyepiece called Viz. 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. The middle has dropped out of commerce.
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. 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. It is a city of oligarchs in super-basements. 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.
In this socially-cleansed London there is apparently no proletariat left to revolt. This has been replaced by an automated servant class of humanoids called peripherals. Characters can slip their consciousnesses into these three-dimensional avatars when they need to be somewhere they are not. And for the nominal hero, Wilf Netherton, this brings on a crisis of authenticity. He longs for the "gloriously pre-posthuman". Mankind's design and technology have come so far that they are challenging our very idea of what it means to be us.
And that, of course, is archetypal sci-fi territory. 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. 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. Because what was then the nerdy world of computer engineering has become primary, instrumental to so much of our designed experience. As Gibson might put it, design is about deeper code.
Justin McGuirk is a writer, critic and curator based in London. He is the director of Strelka Press, the publishing arm of the Strelka Institute in Moscow. He has been the design columnist for The Guardian, the editor of Icon magazine and the design consultant to Domus. His book Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture was published by Verso in June 2014.