Shaped by the World: William Gibson on ‘Zero History’

William Gibson represents that rare example of famous, prolific, genre-bending author who’s still casually conversational, despite the fact that he’s no doubt been interrogated hundreds if not thousands of times about his work. The author of seminal books like Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition has lately focused on a version of the contemporary world, one with quite a lot simmering under an otherwise familiar surface. His latest, Zero History, comes out this week; inside is a pleasurably convoluted story of fashion, intrigue, design, surveillance, Japanese denim, and aggressively interpersonal military contracting. In the center once again (though not the protagonist) is rogue idea man Hubertus Bigend, who’s just aching for a movie treatment from a cinematic pyromaniac like Christoph Waltz. In the meantime, Gibson was kind enough to spend his morning talking with me about the best strategy for expanding and monetizing our personal brands.

So tell us, William Gibson. Who are you wearing today? Er…today I’m wearing Buzz Rickson jeans.

Do you actually care about brands? People often seem surprised by your personal disinterest in having the latest technology, given how much you write about technology. And since your recent books have focused a lot on branding, some might wonder if you’ve become a dedicated label hound. Just to look at me, at how I dress — no one’s going to think, “That guy’s really into brands!” When I wrote Neuromancer, I knew nothing about computers, so I talked to people in that world. With Zero History and the previous books, I talked to people in PR, or marketing, or designers. I found many people in that world to be very agreeable and passionately involved in that stuff. Really it was the designers — people who actually make clothes, or make sure that clothes can be made in a particular way. That’s been interesting.

There’s definitely tension like that in Zero History between designers and marketing and the fashion industry. But then you have characters that are sublimating or appropriating branding as part of the creative process. For people doing that in real life, has branding escaped the clutches of corporate control enough to be cool, or to be perceived as cool at least? I was reading something recently that described adolescents as being aware of their brand. You have to be aware of your brand on the internet, you have to be aware of what you’re presenting on Facebook.

Your personal brand. Yeah, your personal brand! If people are starting to think of themselves as having a personal brands, it’s interesting because in a sense it’s new. Although it actually made me wonder what constitutes a personal brand, and I would think it would be identity and reputation. So right there, we’re back to what we’ve always had. And so I wonder — is it really new, or have we just found a new word for it? Does it really amount to branding? Because I think one of the strategies of branding has been to try to convince the consumer that the product has a personality in the sense that another human has a personality. Identity and reputation.

So in the case of personal branding, it’s the reverse — taking a real human who actually has a personality, and making that personality into a product in terms of branding. We see various industries doing that specific thing all the time.

Is there anybody who’s doing personal branding well — or any larger brands that seem to have a handle of this process? Or are they still floundering in terms of trying to make their own brands or personal brands evolve? I don’t know. I mean, I would assume that with people who become very, very large celebrities, there’s someone involved in the process that must have some grasp on how that’s done — because it’s working. I don’t think it’s totally random, and often the product-slash-person being offered to the market seems to me to be fairly unremarkable — you know when you filter out the glitter of celebrity.

One of the subplots of Zero History concerns the mechanics of secret branding and underground brands. Is there a kind of saturation point where the powerful draw or the intimacy that’s being created with a secret brand loses its power because it’s breaking too wide, or is considered to be selling out? How does a brand engage in that dynamic? How do they maintain that power without going over the threshold? You would probably want to have sold the brand to a multinational before it ceased to be secret. If it’s being knocked off on Canal Street, or if you can buy it at the mall, the cachet is gone, and the original creators had better have cashed in. The Japanese version of secret branding is very pure…as soon as anyone knows what it is, the consumer moves on to something more obscure. I’m intrigued by the idea — the idea that money’s not enough. It’s about how expensive it is, and a lot of that stuff is expensive. That secret stuff can be very, very expensive. But the deal is really that it’s like a different level of exclusivity. I just find it kind of funny. I like that there’s a kind of counter-intuitive feeling to it. We need some next level of esoterica to really cut it now.

That idea seems like it has a built-in expiration date. Eventually the brand will break a little wider than you want, and you have to be ready to decamp and move on, both as a consumer and as a creator. That depends on numbers produced and where you’re going with your secret brand. There could be cases in which a designer launches a secret brand and keeps it secret and never really takes it out into the street, so it really doesn’t get any bigger. The goal with that strategy is to create a demand for that designer. The designer comes with the cachet of the secret brand, which never itself breaks wide.

Thus perpetuating the brand of the designer. Yeah, it’s really about the brand of the designer.

This dance between distribution and perception of exclusivity or scarcity, whether that’s artificial or not — do you think there’s that much of a stigma to selling out anymore? Or, if you sell out in an enlightened way, it’s a worthy goal? Lately it seems that money and success can lose the stigma as long as you practice some sort of enlightened materialism, where selling out is part of your big artistic and creative plan. I’m sure there are better ways to do it. But it’s still going to be in the mall. It’s still going to be heavily advertised, and whether or not you buy the brand is just about how much money you’re willing to spend. So it’s not so much about the stigma of selling out — it’s just that a non-secret brand becomes part of the world. It loses that strange kind of unobtainium quality that some things have. There isn’t challenge in getting it anymore. Otherwise, the price includes information. You had to get the information.

You’ve talked many times over the years about your interest in novelty; you recently described Twitter as a constant feed of novelty. But with secret brands, it feels like there’s a dynamic running counter to novelty, because if you’re looking for a brand, you’re looking for some element of familiarity or recognition that is not novel. Maybe the first time you find it, it’s novel. But then what you’re going for after that is the opposite of novelty. That’s why you see more and more corporate brands creating stealth brands under their umbrellas, and limited lines and esoteric collaborations. Burberry has their Blue Label line that’s only available in Japan. You can’t get it online. You have to physically go to Tokyo to get this stuff, and that’s an interesting strategy because you perversely make it geographical again. It’s not in the mall at home, and a mouse click won’t get you there…and there’s days a mouse click will get you just about anything. Kids in tiny towns in Nebraska are shopping for Harajuku esoterica, and they’re getting it, they know a ton about it.

Back to novelty. It often seems to me that novelty is the main fuel and currency of the online world in particular. Do you think that’s a case of technology obliging what we as humans like to see? Or are we being driven in that direction by the ways technology has redefined the culture and what the culture consumes? I think that we’re evolved to crave novelty. And novelty’s what we call it when we live in a society of relative plenty. When we live in societies with greater scarcity, we’d probably call it food and shelter. That’s very novel when you get to eat. But the module that tracks novelty and rewards us with pleasure when we detect novelty is probably a hunter/gatherer module that serves us really well in the savannah. There is a pleasure in looking for something that’s difficult to find, and it’s such a basic pleasure that I think it’s hard-wired.

Returning to how readers often seem to be looking for you personally in your own work: How much of you is in the character Hubertus Bigend, and vice versa? Bigend has been a really useful character for me for a number of reasons, but one is that he’s able to voice these opinions that aren’t necessarily mine, and which I’m not convinced are true, but which I find interesting and provocative. He does it — I don’t have to do it, so it doesn’t come back on me. I don’t get people screaming at me. What I get is those people who think that Bigend is the villain, and then I get other people who think that he’s the hero, which I find very interesting. The people who like Bigend see him as a postmodern existential hero. He’s just trying to deal with things as they are.

As recently as just a couple years ago, “cool hunters” were all the rage, but now the concept already seems a little quaint. You’ve mentioned how everyone can really do that — everyone can be a cool hunter now. Which is really what Hubertus Bigend is, writ large. Are there any real life people that even approach the type and scale of endeavors that Bigend pursues in your books? Not that I’m aware of. Part of what Bigend came from, I suspect, was seeing something on the Internet you know to the effect that Malcolm McLaren had been hired to “rebrand” Poland, and I thought, Wow. I worked briefly with McLaren in Hollywood once, and there’s definitely some Malcolm in Bigend. Otherwise, Bigend as a character is shaped by the world. He’s not really about how I think anyone is. My imagination has created his particular shape to fill a sort of gap in the center of things, to try to account for the way certain things are in the world

So he’s the dark matter at the center of this fiction. Yeah, exactly. He’s dark matter.

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