Pattern Recognition


The dashing heroine of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition is one Cayce Pollard. Cayce is allergic to branding. This means that she has an unpleasant physical reaction to the very sight of a logo. And so she has unpicked the labels on her clothes and filed the branding off the button on her jeans.

The stronger the logo, the stronger her repulsion.

Oh Cayce, I wish that my ailments, like yours, were a kind of superpower. People will pay to spend three or four years learning and refining visual skills. But you cut through all that. You are hired, and at the highest level, because when you see a new design you know whether it’s good or not. Not because you have training or aptitude, not even because you have “good taste” or what might be described, vaguely as an ‘eye’ — but because you are allergic.Your employers simply expose you to their prospective stylings and watch for a reaction.

Cayce is a “cool hunter”. This sounds old fashioned in 2003, by the time Gibson is writing and is definitely a term with a use-by date. So why use a phrase with such low staying power? The book isn’t set in the future, it’s sci fi credentials are more of a ‘what if’. Science fiction writers have lots of rules restricting what ‘can’ happen in any given scenario so it’s enough to give her this ‘allergy’ and a bizarre occupation and let the story roll. ‘Cool hunter’ in Gibson’s hands is a kind of linguistic branding.

He’s not here to sell us cool hunting.

Like Cayce, I snip off labels, but that’s because they make me itch. Labels, washing instructions, stitching. They all make me itch, so this is not something I can monetize. But it’s true, nevertheless, I don’t like to advertise a brand. And I do have a keen eye. As we all do, when we are sensitised. It can be taught, but it’s also in our genes.

It only takes a short while, for example, when picking blackberries, to not only recognize the best ones by eye, but also by touch. Those small ones may be black enough but their skin is too taut, they haven’t matured, they are going to taste bitter. They take a little more effort to pick, too, being recalcitrant to leave the vine until their incubation is complete. Very voluptuous ones come away with the softest sigh, leaking quietly onto your fingers, but although they are sweet they don’t keep at all and if you make the mistake of putting them in with the rest of that day’s pickings the whole crop becomes sticky and muddy. Best to eat them as you go along.

Blackberries’ blood shows red on your fingers but wipe those fingers on your clothes at your own risk — the sweet red juice turns brackish black and will stain forever, marking the tale of your feverish wipings between pickings and gobblings.

In my sick bed I listen to Pattern Recognition, the BBC’s adaptation of the novel being read by Lorelei King. Fiction is the simplest version of gender reassignment — Gibson writes from a female protagonist’s POV, King reads it out — as a woman. The naturalness, to the ear is seamless, a sleight of hand. The spoken word is only one iteration from the page and it fires your aptitude for pattern recognition just as well, and the ability for you to visualise. Here I am a woman. Here I am a man. Here I am a well person… Here I am an action heroine.

Karl Marx says “Every schoolboy knows” that any culture contains within itself the information for reproduction. As in the petri dish so in society.

We recognize a pattern, we reproduce a pattern.

We are the pattern.

Spatially or over time, From ‘how to get up in the morning’ to ‘how to drive a car’ ‘how to run a society’. From how to conform to a cultural norm to how to scramble eggs. From bacteria to computer programming. We recognize, we reproduce. All intelligence involves pattern recognition and, by extension, reproduction.

Microbes, monkeys, machines.

I reproduce the conditions of being myself as I am now. What is stopping me from stepping out of this body and having another life entirely? Nothing indeed, if I step into fiction.

Early September the last gasp of blackberries struggled to the fore between their picked or rotted siblings. Only a couple of miles away, further out of London, the season was just beginning, the berries still green. The second week in September I was in Brighton, time travelling by about two weeks; though there were some manky berries on the vine, there were plenty of ripe ones, and some still red raw unripe. The end of the season is already in the air, nevertheless, and it’s much like the Marks and Spencers sale — a lot of dingey items you’re sure were never in the shop before hanging sadly, rail after rail, frumpy and saggy, unappealing to touch or eye.

Attuning to choosing something ‘just right’ is something even a very small child or an amateur can become adept at surprisingly quickly, like learning to cook pasta ‘al dente’ though this is to the eye and the finger rather than to the tooth. Our bodies can even reproduce one skill another way — I learned to touch type — my fingers spider across the keyboard as if each one of them has its own eye.

I move quickly between the bushes, not like the weekend pickers, out to amass enough to bake with or freeze or share with a large family. I only want a handful a day for my porridge. I’m looking for that perfect ripeness. All the while I am learning to avoid the thorns and their bullying friends the nettles. Thorn and sting avoidance has as much to do with pattern recognition as the picking itself does; that is to say, choosing berries. Here I am recognizing patterns. Here I am reproducing patterns. This is the discernment which allows us, when shopping, to prefer one brand over another because we are, and have been for generations, well adapted to refinement in and of itself.

Technically, pattern recognition is about any manifestation of phenomena — both in nature and in culture. ‘Pattern recognition’ in engineering refers to something called ‘machine learning’ which is why it’s no leap to having your own robot secretary deciding which emails are really for you and which are spam, and which can inform your provider with tailored ads or your government about any nefarious plans you may have. Don’t even tweet about taking a set of tweezers onto an aeroplane.

I find the Wikipedia entry on pattern recognition almost entirely unintelligible. It’s nice when a novel gives you the sensation you understand something important about a subject, I think. It feels effortless, like all good design.

Artificial Intelligence is based on pre set pattern and recognition of pattern. Like the loom, there is only one story underneath the hood; the one of zeros and ones.. and ALL. THIS. STUFF. comes out of it!

In living colour!


Even ‘Nothing’ can’t reproduce itself without completion and with that completion comes the notion of ‘one’ and therefore ‘other’. Straight away there are two units and the basis for complex pattern. As every knitter knows.

I can’t live with patterned wallpaper any more than I can bear textiles with writing on them. Even in a foreign or imaginary language, my eyes scroll over and over trying to make sense. There’s something about the sense of demand that bothers me — less a ‘leading’ of the eye and more of an insistent repetitive tug. Only the most complex staggered repeat or gentlest lines slow my eye. My brother visited China and tells me westerners often suffer headaches from their stymied search for meaning in the signage around them. Welcome to my world, you travellers — at least you’ve got a ticket home. I remain stateless in my pain.

My car broke down and I abandoned it. I got ill. I stopped working. I got a dog to stave off the days and days I was spending without leaving the house. And by ‘house’ I mean ‘bed’. Clothes had to change their function. No longer did I have a giant motorized handbag come winter coat which I could slip out of in heels and office clothes. Now I had three or more outings a day with dog. I got her on Christmas Eve 2009. Happily, I had already acquired a repulsive but warm ski jacket from TK MAXX. It was cheap, it was super warm. I don’t ski, but guess what? Those hyper mobile arms for the skiing are also good for throwing a ball.


However, when the zip finally properly broke I was relieved to get rid of the offending garment, printed in purple and gold onto taupe, with it’s indelible mud stain from pocketing grubby balls, and went considerably upmarket with a Helly Hensen parka. It’s a nice coat, and because I’ve now got a flinger (like a PRO) I don’t wreck gloves or pocket balls any more, so it’s stayed nice. What I did discover though, was that because of the initials, HH, Helly Hensen clothing is worn by neo Nazis in Germany. This worried me, because what if I visited Germany in the winter, in my coat, who’s to say I wouldn’t be read as a neo Nazi? Apart from probably never being likely to visit Germany in winter, and, being a late middle aged woman, having no corroborating visual clues — but what do I know, as a foreigner?

Although the point was probably irrelevant it still bothered me, and a friend suggested getting rid of the logo — which was when I realized how VERY branded this coat was. I don’t wear clothes which have their branding writ large, but this thing has it’s branding writ many. Every. Button. Counting… 1,2, only three different bits of branding on the inside of the coat, and my hands and eyes surmise 8 on the outside. 11. On. one. coat. ELEVEN. Quite subtly done, but still, I am a walking billboard for a fashion item while suffering what is known in the medical trade as an ‘invisible illness’. The juxtaposition between what is apparent and what is not is enmiserating.

I wish. I had. stigmata.

On the last day of September I took the dog round a local rather scruffy park pretentiously named The Paddock. The blackberries were almost entirely gone. There was the odd jewel high up away from the main bush, where the beads of dead fruit were desiccated, tiny and dulled, their skin leathery and matte. Their neighbours, the mounts from which glistening fatted fruit had been successfully plucked were similarly shriveled. Indeed, entire branches were dying back now, brown leaved and frail, the sap having entirely retreated, while the non fruit-bearing branches were still vivid and green.

Having not lost the weight I’d intended to, I’d grudgingly bought a new pair of larger than I’d like trouser. Having very limited energy I shopped online. When they arrived I noticed a small stitched label to the waistband declaring, rather smugly, in white embroidered letters on black; “A true feeling of Authenticity”.

I find myself a black felt pen to scribble it out, beginning to feel a little.. queasy.


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