Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson

After reading Ian McDonald’s River of Gods recently, I was compelled to read another science fiction novel that took place around the planet, interacting with a number of other cultures. As William Gibson’s latest novel, and the last of his ‘Bigend’ trilogy, Zero History was recently released, I picked up the first of the series, Pattern Recognition, published in 2003. I’ve had the book for a number of years, but had never picked it up, or even cracked it open. My first surprise, upon doing so, was to discover that the book had been signed by Mr. Gibson.

Pattern Recognition, from an author that helped define the notion (and term) cyberspace, as well as much of the cyberpunk genre, might seem as a sort of step back. The book takes place in contemporary times, in a post-9/11 setting, in England, Japan and Russia. Media consultant Cayce Pollard is hired by a company, Blue Ant, who is redesigning a logo for a Tokyo firm. Pollard, who has an adverse reaction to logos and marketing, and a curiosity with a series of videos that have surfaced on the internet, is hired by Blue Ant founder Hubertus Bigend, who wants her to find the maker of the clips, because of the potential gain that can be achieved by learning everything about them, and why they attract so much attention. This job is one that takes her across the world, from London to Tokyo to uncover a code that would help connect the videos to a firm in the United States, and to Russia as more leads come about. Her trip around the planet is one of discovery, as she moves from world to world following information.

While the book is set in contemporary times, it fits well with Gibson’s notion that science fiction doesn’t have to be part of the future. Instead, this book does what the best science fiction stories do: amidst the science fictional elements that surround the story, there is a central element that defines the book. In this case, this book is about networking, and the ability of technology to bring a diverse set of people together. In 2003, this stage of the internet hadn’t quite happened yet: blogging was the big thing, and Facebook was still a year away, twitter three. Pollard’s quest? To find what’s arguably a viral video. In a large way, Gibson has recognized the rise of social media before it happened.

While the predictions of Pattern Recognition aren’t quite as revolutionary as Gibson’s were with Neuromancer, this book is far more relatable, relevant, and understands the heart of the internet. The story contains very few speculative elements: Pollard’s allergy to advertising (in some cases) and some of the technological elements that are at this point outdated. Author Dennis Danvers noted it best in his review:

Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work.

In a large way, Gibson has demonstrated that he’s very good at figuring out how people will use various technologies, and in a way, the gap between Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition (and presumably, its sequels, Spook Country and Zero History.) isn’t as far apart as when it first meets the eye. Pattern Recognition illustrates a reality that is cold, separated from humanity while being connected at almost all times through the internet. Gibson makes the point that the future isn’t far away, it’s right now, this very moment.

Indeed, Gibson is probably one of the few science fiction authors to see his works come to life – not only in the details as to what he’s written, but in how the future has been realized. It’s a bit of a given point, seeing how the book has been set, but between 2003 (when I entered college) and the present day (out of school and working for several years) the world has changed immensely, not just in the speeds and the availability of communications, but in how people understand and utilize the internet. This seems to have been anticipated, and while the real world is already leaving this story behind, it’s clear that there are some lessons here that can be learned: we’re all connected.

As a story, the execution leaves a book that makes me feel much like Chris Kelvin from Solaris: isolated, cold, somewhat depressed, and Gibson writes Pollard’s character as a fairly empty person, someone who is socially isolated, but at the same time connected to those people whom she shares mutual interests with. Pollard’s journey across the planet in search of a revolutionary form of marketing is an interesting one across a number of countries and subcultures that could only exist in the internet age. At journey’s end in Moscow, Pollard comes to meet the maker of the clips, and an interesting story of commercial viability vs. artistic creativity is brought full circle.

While it’s not as groundbreaking, Pattern Recognition succeeds by using science fiction as a mirror, demonstrating not only that we live in a futuristic world, it’s one that we’re only now fully realizing as we live it.

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Tools of the Trade

Facebook has had an awful week, with rollouts and several blotched interviews with employees about the future of the website, with how the site is handling user information. While at points, I’ve been somewhat worried about what is going on with some of the changes, it’s really no different than any other element of the internet, going back to when I first starting building websites online: there is nothing private on the internet. With that in mind, it’s important to remember that Facebook is a tool, one that is highly popular, useful, and still very new, but when using it, it should be used as such.

The internet is a place that has absolutely revolutionized how we interact with people around the world. Personally, I work for a graduate school through Norwich University, which deals exclusively through the internet as a way to deliver its content to students enrolled in the various programs that we provide. Speaking as a student who’s been through the Military History degree, the online aspect wasn’t a huge barrier for me, and ultimately, for other students who go through the program, because the school has refined its methods and found the best way to deliver the content that makes up a graduate degree. And, having gone through the program, I can attest that because it’s an online school, it’s not an easy thing to do.

Things such as iPhones, Twitter, Facebook, the Angel Learning Platform, hardbound books, and so forth are all tools that are designed (or come to be designed to meet an end) for some purpose. Oftentimes, I’ve heard people talk about how useless it is to tweet, to be connected to an iPhone, and to spend one’s time indoors reading all the time. While it’s true that in a number of instances, online resources can be incredible time wasters, they can also be vital for networking, communicating and learning with any number of topics and subjects.

I’ve been largely leery of twitter, up until a couple of months ago, when I began speaking with several authors and websites through it. Not only did it open several possibilities, I’ve found that it’s a fantastic, informal way to speak with people I might not have been able to speak with, and it allows me to spread what I write as well to those people, who might not ordinarily read my blog, or remember to. At the same point, where I’ve found that it’s a fantastic way to keep in touch with some people, it’s likewise a good way to spread news, stories, webpages and videos, like any good social media application should do.

Tools are tools, and the nature of online sites really makes it unclear as to what something is supposed to do. A hammer is supposed to pound nails into things, a car is supposed to transport a person from point A to B, in varying amounts of style, and a website is supposed to promote, create or make money. Facebook is doing just that, and it’s doing it well. While I’m disturbed at the sheer amount of unleashed greed and disregard for any sort of ethics behind some of the business practices that Facebook seems to be moving in, it makes perfect business sense for what they’re doing: as a business, they need to make money in order to keep the lights on, pay their employees and continue to innovate.

I don’t know what the legal obligations are in place for the site to keep people’s information secure. It seems like it would make good business sense for them to keep a lid on a lot of things, because with major news organizations and even Congress looking into what they are doing, that doesn’t help business, and in the Darwinian world of commerce, something better, like Diaspora, which is touting itself as a startup that will be an open sourced, locked down alternative to Facebook, will take over and go from there. At the same point, users need to realize that Facebook is a sort of tool that allows for connections, and that inherently, they want to make as many connections between users, businesses and items as possible, and opening up information, with that context, makes a lot of sense.

It goes to show that whatever you put online, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a safe haven. MySpace, Livejournal, WordPress, Twitter, Facebook, Meebo, Friendster, and the whole lot of it, can be overcome and in all probability, someone else will see it, and they might not be people you want seeing that sort of thing, whether it’s a boss, girl/boyfriend, parent, relative, or random other person who has some interest in you. The bottom line, for me, is that it shouldn’t go online. Period.

When I heard some of the news coming down the pipeline about Facebook, I was more than a little annoyed. I was almost ready to wash my hands of it, walk away and not look back, but looking at what I use the site for, I would have a difficult time doing that: I use it to talk to people, to share information and to promote my own writing and articles when published, and I have no issues with that. It’s become a dominant form of how we talk to each other, and the recent news serves as a good reminder that large businesses don’t always have the user’s interests at their heart. So, with a little more care online, plus an adblocker, I realize that I really don’t care that Facebook sees and shares that i’m a fan of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Sherlock Holmes and Carbon Leaf – the information is there for people to see, and the information that’s not there, isn’t.

The Geek Community

There’s a television show that came out a couple of years ago, called Freaks and Geeks. I’ve watched through it a couple of times, and have really enjoyed what I’ve seen, but there’s always been one thing that’s bothered me: the kids in the school really hate being called a geek. They’re repulsed by it, go to great lengths to avoid the term, altering their own behavior, and things like that. Part of this, I know, comes from a lot of the negative connotations with the word, which I’ve always found troubling, and another part is the times, and the possession of some hindsight.

Geeks are cool these days, for a lot of reasons, and there’s a lot of writing on the walls that says so. Avatar, and a number of other science fiction, fantasy or horror films topped the box office for monetary totals, Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods was the first book to be chosen for an international, interactive book club on twitter, and so on. There is an entire sub-culture blooming that centers around every element that had once been only reserved for the geeks exiled to the back of the cafeteria.

It’s not the material, however, that really determines if any one person is a geek or a nerd, it’s largely in how they perceive the world, approach problems and how they value knowledge. I’ve come to understand that in a large part, reading Lord of the Rings, the Foundation Trilogy, watching Star Wars or Star Trek a hundred times or obsessing over movie rumors is something that appeals to those of a more geek-oriented mindset. It might be something about the way authors construct totally new and alien worlds, landscapes and events in all forms of media, or it might be some more basic desire to explore, and more importantly, to learn, about something.

I had a friend of mine tell me, when we lived in London, that she found me to be very passionate about any number of subjects: history, science fiction, travel, whereas she noted that she felt that she lacked that. I don’t know if that was the case, but I do know that I’m not alone in that mindset, and I don’t think that it’s something that’s grown or changed. I suspect that a very real reason for why geek culture is really something that’s become somewhat more popular is the ability for people to really begin to talk with one another. Since high school, I’ve begun to realize just how vast the ‘geek community’ is, because it reaches into so many subjects and places. My earliest experiences with this sort of networking goes back over ten years, to Star Wars message forums (TFN Boards, Starwarz.com, Starwars.com and various EU book sites), to major blogs and their commenting abilities (such as Boing Boing, io9, SF Signal, Tor.com, to name just a couple) to things like facebook and twitter, which allow for their own cross-communications to spring up and flourish.

Geeks like information, I’ve come to understand, and the best thing to happen to Geek culture is to have the ability to share and create information across the board with the internet, where it’s easy to find and to distribute, through any number of means. We talk about books, films, comics and concepts, across the world or with a simple meet up in a library or bookstore to create a rich environment that really allows for something special: community.

Community is important, I think, much in the same way why groups such as Gangs, the Boy Scouts and After School programs exist: they give people a sense of purpose, belonging and a place to exchange ideas amongst their peers – this has always been the case. In 1940s England, Science Fiction fan clubs sprang up across the country, often with small groups in individual towns, which would later coalesce into larger groups with time. The same thing happened in the United States, and throughout these groups, members wrote letters to each other and magazines, gathered in homes, small conventions, to discuss what they had been reading and often, their own works, giving rise to science fiction writers in their own right. The same thing has happened in the digital age.

Thus, these interactions and groupings really are important, especially to those lonely kids in Freaks and Geeks, who had no one to turn to – they turned to each other, and supported (sometimes) their friends when needed. The same is true, here, because when that happens, new ideas are exchanged, created and brought to fruition, in a fantastic fashion.

Cable & TV

I’m ditching my cable TV. For a while now, I’ve noticed that I end up spending far too much time in front of it, and it’s not something that I want to do. There’s a couple of reasons for dropping this:

1 – I can’t stand Comcast. Their customer service has been piss-poor, from their phone banks, internet chat help and the actual door to door service. I’ve been booted from phone banks, given wrong and conflicting information from service reps and have wasted entire days waiting for the cable guy to come. It’s incredibly frustrating.

2 – Pushy service. A couple months ago, I upgraded to a bigger cable package, and the digital service package was almost forced upon me by the person that I was talking to. I don’t have a digital TV, and essentially only wanted SciFi, Discovery, History, USA, Comedy and Cartoon Network. I honestly don’t want or need 300 + channels. I don’t care that it’s only three dollars more.

3 – Channels moving to digital. Okay, I realize that they’re trying to move everything over to their digital lineup, but half of the channels that I did have are now no longer availiable for what I purchased, which seems incredibly unfair to the consumer.

4 – They don’t offer a basic cable option any more – which cost around $19.00 or so a month. Now, I’m paying something like $60.00, which is the only option for standard cable. I was looking to downgrade to something cheaper.

5 – Internet. I think that as much as I dislike Comcast, I’m going to go with their internet, which is something like $20 a month. With the way things are going, if I want to see something on TV, chances are, it’ll be up online on the network’s website early or the day of, so I will be able to see the various shows that I’d watch. Plus, it’ll make doing my homework easier and things like that. My home computer, unfortunately, is getting pretty old, and I’ve been thinking that I’ll be needing to get an external hard drive to back things up on, and then reformat everything and start again.

6 – With the prices of electronics, I can just go pick up a DVD player and plug that into my TV and just buy the TV shows that I like, which is essentially what I do anyway. Maybe subscribe to Netflix.

The Internet is Shit

Karen Traviss posted a link to this website with an interesting view on the internet:

http://www.internetisshit.org/print.html

It’s very true to life – something that I’ve heard a number of librarians say over and over – don’t depend on the internet. Unfortunently, in this day and age, too many people depend completely. For communications, for news, and even for their weather, instead of looking out the window.

Take a read through this – it’s interesting. There is some language in there though, if you haven’t figured that out through the title.

iTV: Internet Television

Apple has gained an enormous amount of popularity for it’s iPod, Apple’s version of the MP3 player. It’s success has boosted Apple sales by large numbers. Each version has been a relative improvement or is socially appealing enough to become very popular- The iPod Mini and iPod Shuffle being some of the more recent examples when it comes to music. Color screens, improved click wheels and more space crammed into a small case comes with each new improvement.
It comes as little surprise that Apple has ventured into the video market with the latest version of their iPod. Not only can you store a large number of songs on the hard drive, you can now download music videos and television episodes to the latest versions of iPods, which can be purchased through iTunes at a relatively cheap price of $1.99 per episode, in line with their $.99 per song or $9.99 per album.
But this is not the first time that television has ventured to a new medium: the Internet. In the past year, more and more websites are placing pilot episodes, teasers and other extras on their official web pages. Just this last month, Yahoo allowed users to watch the entire first episode of the WB’s new show, Supernatural, online, the day before it aired on regular television. The SciFi channel has done similar forays, offering the first episode of their own hit show, Battlestar Galactica online through their website. Recently, they had also placed the season finale online as the second season aired.


SciFi has done more than just place episodes online. SciFi became one of the first websites to offer downloadable commentary tracks for each episode as it came out from their main website- so that the viewers could watch along. In addition, SciFi has also placed a number of behind the scenes features to view online. Other shows have popped up online, with preview clips from Smallville appearing on Filmforce.net, among others. Television is starting to make an evolutionary jump to the internet.
Why the move? Most likely the sheer number of people who use the Internet, and given the advances in connection speeds since the mid-90s, people are able to download videos and music faster than ever before. This has caused some problems legally- especially when the BBC and Sky-One in England aired the new Dr. Who series and new Battlestar Galactica series before they hit the airwaves in the US. (Or not at all in the case of Dr. Who.) The numbers of illegal downloads of these programs skyrocketed, and for the second season of Battlestar Galactica, it was the US who got to watch the new episodes first. It would also seem that television executives, faced with the capabilities of the internet nowadays, are starting to see this as an opportunity, not as a problem, as is what Apple did with iTunes, which revolutionized online music sales, which have recently surpassed 500 million.
The next question is: How is this going to affect the television market? Already, people are able to download episodes online, which can affect both the ratings of a television show and it’s eventual release on to DVD. When programs begin offering DVD material on their own websites, this is undoubtedly going to affect DVD sales of a given program. Producers are going to have to find new features to place on DVD sets, and to be selective with what material is released online, while still using features and behind the scenes videos to generate interest for the show, without compromising the show’s ratings or profits.
As Apple has showed that downloading music can be profitable, its opening one market that could very well lead to the end of another: the DVD. At the current prices, one can buy the entire 1st Season of LOST from Apple iTunes for approximately $35, which is far under the DVD boxed set that’s available in stores. (Apple also sells episodes of the show Desperate Housewifes). Not only that, one it’s possible to download the episodes right after the show airs on television- which can also bring in new profits for studios right away.
So, where is TV going? Most likely, the Internet, through new downloading methods and systems. However, I would predict that the DVD sets will be around for a while yet- Some of us don’t have high speed internet.