Books

Net Flicks

With the explosion in social networks, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, content diffused through the Internet through corridors that were obscure, opaque, and known only to a few—the über-geeks.

William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” was written at a time in the Internet’s history when one couldn’t share their interesting finds through “likes” “retweets,” “reblogs,” “upvotes”; when the mechanics by which a meme went viral wasn’t as simple, transparent, and democratic as it’s today.

Cayce Pollard is an insightful cool hunter, a freelance marketing maven, whose job is to roam the streets, with an eye peeled for products that companies can turn into sought-after commodities.

She’s been flown in to London as a consultant by Blue Ant, a high-octane, cutting edge advertising agency, to approve a high-stakes logo design for a maker of athletic footwear, in the process of rebranding itself.

She has a weird phobia of fashion labels. On entering Harvey Nichols, in search of a Buzz Rickson MA-1 bomber jacket, she has a particularly virulent reaction on walking past the Tommy Hilfiger section.

Her sensitivity to logos and trademarks isn’t a matter of taste, but a side effect of having been too deep in the trenches of the fashion industry.

Her interest upon arrival, is hijacked by the “footage,” a series of mesmerizing film clips of a mysterious origin that’s being stealthily released into the Internet in periodic bursts.

No one can tell who their maker is, or whether they’re fragments of a finished piece, or a work in progress.

A cultish online club has formed around it, whose members go through each segment through a fine toothcomb, parsing it frame-by-frame, engaging in impassioned ideological fights over it.

She’s among those buffs looking for an encrypted message embedded in it, with the eagerness of an SETI nerd mining radio telescope data for signals from extraterrestrial alien intelligence.

Her obsessive need to get to the bottom of it is tied to loose ends in her own life that are linked to the 9/11 attacks: her father, a Cold War security expert, had disappeared the day the Twin Towers fell.

Deeply hopeful that the shorts are possibly an instrument of a significant communication, she’s also aware of the dangers of falling prey to apophenia—the tendency to find meaning in randomness.

She questions her conviction: “What if the sense of nascent meaning they all perceive in the footage is simply that: an illusion of meaningfulness, faulty pattern recognition?”

The enthusiasm for it has, independent of her, infected the folks she’s been hired by as well, but who value it for an entirely different reason, seeing it as a clever way of marketing.

So, when she’s dispatched on a hush-hush mission to ferret out its gifted filmmaker, she relishes the opportunity to probe the matter on their dime.

Avid sleuthing by posters on a Web 1.0-style message board, of which Pollard is a vociferous participant, reveals the presence of a digital watermark on each media file, cracking which, she hopes, will lead her to its source.

More investigative clues take her to Tokyo, where an otaku contact provides her with a map of a puzzling T-shaped geographic entity, which may be the key to the riddle.

A brilliant cryptographer and collector of vintage technology she happened to cross paths with, literally, supplies her with a single e-mail address, whose owner resides in Russia.

You can’t help feel the protagonist’s optimism and nervous excitement as she edges closer to sussing out the cinematic riddle.

The conspiracy theorist maybe be waiting for a revelatory climax, half-suspecting it be the carrier of a classified communiqué or a prophetic missive or a lofty secret when they may find their notions explode in their faces.

The truth behind it, though comes out of the left field, is still, neither conspiratorial nor exalted nor fantastical. It gets no more unconventional than the creative expression of a talented individual, wishing to publicize her art anonymously.

A techno-thriller with elements of branding wedged into the action, it’s a white-knuckle read that belongs on the shelf next to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

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