Tag Archives: systems

William Gibson on the cyberpunk obsession with brands

Having recently completed his forthcoming novel Zero History, William Gibson is kicking back at his blog and fielding questions from the intertubes; if you want an insight into the man’s attitudes and philosophies (toward his work, and the world in general), you’d be well advised to tune in.

This one particularly caught my eye, because it calls out a foible I’ve always noticed in Gibson’s writing (and Chairman Bruce’s, too, though to a different degree) – his fetish for explicitly dropping in brand names and obsessional detail about clothing, hardware and vehicles. Gibson’s justification is charming, not least because I’ve always had a similar sort of obsession*:

Q Why do you seem obsessed with brand name apparel et al in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country?

A You ain’t seen nothing, yet! Actually the new one may explain that, a bit. Or just further convince some people that I’m obsessed. It’s one of the ways in which I feel I understand how the world works, and there aren’t really that many of those. It’s not about clothes, though, or branding; it’s about code, subtext. I was really delighted, for instance, to learn who made George Bush’s raincoats. A company in Little Rock (now extinct, alas) but they were made of Ventile, a British cotton so tightly woven that you can make fire hoses (and RAF ocean survival suits) out of it. Which exists because Churchill demanded it, because the Germans had all the flax production sewn up. No flax, no fire hoses for the Blitz. The cultural complexities that put that particular material on Bush’s back delight me deeply; it’s a kind of secret history (and not least because most people would find it fantastically boring, I imagine).

Brands are stories, in and of themselves. I wonder if the cultural histories of consumer goods are one of the few types of narrative that can survive postmodern erosion?

[ * There’s a part of me that always hates noting similarities like this, because it feels like my brain trying to tell me “oh yeah, you’re just like him, bravo you!” Anyone else get that kind of feeling when they read author interviews or blogs? ]

Only the slums can save us now

The Rocinha favela, Rio de JaneiroChairman Bruce is still busily curating a canon of Favela Chic thinking over at Beyond The Beyond; this article at Prospect Magazine looks to be a definitive slice of shanty-town futurism.[image by fabbio]

The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually by their residents. To a planner’s eye, these cities look chaotic. I trained as a biologist and to my eye, they look organic. Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

Not everything is efficient in the slums, though. In the Brazilian favelas where electricity is stolen and therefore free, people leave their lights on all day. But in most slums recycling is literally a way of life. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai has 400 recycling units and 30,000 ragpickers. Six thousand tons of rubbish are sorted every day. In 2007, the Economist reported that in Vietnam and Mozambique, “Waves of gleaners sift the sweepings of Hanoi’s streets, just as Mozambiquan children pick over the rubbish of Maputo’s main tip. Every city in Asia and Latin America has an industry based on gathering up old cardboard boxes.” […] Lagos, Nigeria, widely considered the world’s most chaotic city, has an environment day on the last Saturday of every month. From 7am to 10am nobody drives, and the city tidies itself up.