Category Archives: Play

Mentally processing Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation

I watched Adam Curtis’ latest documentary HyperNormalisation.  I watched it in two sittings, because it is nearly 3 hours long and there is a lot to think about in it.

I was in two minds about watching it, because his documentaries are mostly made in the same way, so much so that there are now plenty of spoofs out there and even Adam Curtis Bingo.  I didn’t expect there to be anything new about HyperNormalisation.  There would be a mixture of fact and fiction, tenuous connections, loose ends, not to mention the sense of unease I’d feel for days afterwards.

His works have been described as ‘a man pushing a supermarket trolley full of film clips and shouting at passing cars’

What is the value in a view of the past that is potentially not entirely ‘true’?

But I watched it, because I wanted to see what his new thesis was, how he could possibly tell us yet another story about how we got to here.  I wasn’t disappointed.  I have however spent the last 10 days feeling uneasy.

Is it any wonder?  To me the film raised key points which, true or not, lead the viewer to question what is happening now, with a new critical lens.  If you don’t have a spare 3 hours (or 10 days of unease) then The New Yorker has a very fair summary of what’s in the film and its key points.

Since I started watching and thinking about it, lots of questions have been whirling around in my mind.

How much of Brexit or Trump or world conflict/Syria or anything is what it seems, when it has been translated for our consumption and cognition by government sponsored propaganda, corporation-controlled traditional media and our algorithmic social media echo chambers?

How much power does anyone have?  Does the world run on a system that politicians and corporations have the power to change?  To tinker with?  In Curtis World apparently not, the system is unmanageable and that individuals with votes or protests have no power whatsoever.  Because the politicians have no real power, neither do the people who vote for them.  And the angry mob has no vision, no big idea.  They know more about what they don’t want than what they want.

The lack of a vision for how things ought to be is very sad.  In capitalism, there have to be have nots, and so it only really suits the haves and those who believe they could be a have. Communism and global conflict has not been replaced with a liberal vision and collective effort to achieve peace and prosperity.  The world system is chaotic because there are those who just won’t play the game. We get the sense that what will be will not be the result of political planning but the triumph of force, in terms of weapons, technology, ideology or numbers.

Is the fear of the mob the new Fear?  ISIS not terrifying enough, we now fear a world without a defined future.  Where crowds are stupid but seem to get what they want.  Where are we going?  We certainly won’t have much of a clue tomorrow if Trump gets in.  But should we fear the mobs of Brexiters and Trump fans?  Or are they the sideshow for the really scary thing we just don’t quite understand?

What big idea could provide people with a vision, what big idea has a workable process, what big idea is achievable on a global scale?  How do you get the world, corporations, religions, ideologies, to cooperate, to collaborate on saving the world?

I love to ask questions and usually I have some answers.  Usually I like a bit of postmodern mindbending.  But I am at a loss. I’m sure most other people are too. Conspiracy or not. Someone sane and kind and nice better come up with a big idea with universal appeal quickly. And make it achievable. I know I’m being a hippie and an idealist but I mean it. I want the world to still be in one piece when my kid grows up.

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Can strategists learn from bad architecture?

A while ago, about five and a half years ago, I met this skateboarder who told me he was from Cardross, which is a village about forty minutes outside Glasgow, pretty much the last stop before the train terminates at Helensburgh.

I’d never heard of the place, and the first time we visited, we went to see his parents, but they weren’t in, so we went for a walk up a disused country road, which turned out to lead to the entrance of a twentieth century ruin, St Peter’s Seminary.

We had to fight our way through overgrown rhododendron bushes and trudge through some pretty heavy undergrowth, and then climb over some fences that said DANGER DANGER DANGER and then suddenly we were climbing into a crazy falling-down concrete brutalist building.

It was beautiful and awe-inspiring and kinda sad, and very intriguing and exciting.  I was very curious to look around.  There were lots of things to see, the skateboarder said.

We walked round into the main hall of the building where there had been an altar and you could see higher up there had been walkways where the trainee priests had had their rooms.  You could see where the grand staircase had been, now too dangerous to ascend.  We jumped over a gap where a wooden staircase had been and climbed to the second floor up concrete spiral steps and walked along where the balconies had been, peeking into burnt out graffiti-ed bedroom cells, some of which still had coat hooks and sinks in.

From there we climbed over into the lecture hall which was destroyed even more a short time after our visit which had once been supported by an impressive cantilever.  Some of the beautiful wooden beams still held and showed where the ceiling had long gone.

st peters seminary graffiti 2 st peters seminary graffiti

(Photos courtesy of Google Image search)

I was blown away by the place, and we visited it several times afterwards with friends, to take photos and look in wonder.  Each time we could go to fewer parts of the building because it was becoming more and more dangerous – and depressing.  It has been at the mercy of vandals, arsonists, nature, and the elements for over thirty years.

The skateboarder told me it had only been an operational seminary for about a decade, for most of the seventies, and he had  been there for mass when he was a little kid.  It had fallen into disuse as the Catholic Church realised that training priests in isolation was the wrong way to go, as they should learn in the communities they were going to serve.  After that it had had a brief stint as a drug rehab place but it wasn’t really suited to that purpose either, pretty much for the same reasons.

Anyway, this skateboarder turned out to be the guy I was going to stay with forever, so he’s still part of this story.  He works in architecture and we’ve been talking quite a bit about St Peters recently because it’s been getting a lot of press because the arts organisation NVA has worked to raise money to make it safe and turn it into a place a lot more more people than intrepid, brave (and stupid) abandoned building hunters would want to visit.

If you follow the chat about St Peter’s, there’s two main trains of thought.  One is that the place should be knocked down because it was a disaster, a folly, from the very beginning.  And they’re right – it was never really fit for purpose as the Catholic Church changed their training policy before the building was even finished.  The rest of this first group really don’t like concrete modernist buildings and want them all destroyed.  The second train of thought is that Gillespie Kidd and Coia‘s design was amazing and the naysayers are wrong and that the building must be saved and made into something that will be of use to people, even if that use is as of a site of historic interest that is safe to visit.

We were chatting about this today, and the skateboarder said that although the building was amazing, it was bad architecture because it wasn’t useful.  It can’t be defended as a success, it’s a folly, the result of architectural vanity.  The architects got it wrong (in conjunction with the client) by putting it miles away from anywhere, making it too beautiful to be comfortable – the trainees apparently didn’t like it all that much, and they had to sit around in the dark as the lighbulbs had to be specially ordered in from Denmark.  And so on.

I was thinking this was rather analagous to any kind of architecture – the planning phase of which is essentially strategy.  You need to challenge your client brief, identify what the best outcome for their investment is going to be, talk to stakeholders, target audiences and users and find out what they’re comfortable with, and think about the messages you want to convey with your design.  And you need to do all that properly and thoroughly before design even begins.

I think it’s daft that we have awards for design and awards for effectiveness in our industry – the design ones should be way more about effectiveness than they are and the effectiveness ones should celebrate the ones that were also fabulous experiences.  However, a good experience is likely to be more effective, so effectiveness awards have less to worry about in my opinion, and so should clients who choose agencies that go on about measurement and insight more than those who have stacks of design awards.

I know I go on about this a lot but William Morris’s thing about designs being ‘useful and beautiful’ is so true, and I find myself quoting him time and again.  (More about that quote here and here.)

Anyway, I do hope that NVA’s endeavours work out well, and they succeed in creating good architecture by making St Peter’s fit for a new purpose, one which delights and mystifies new visitors for generations to come.

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2014. A biased and subjective review.

I thought it would be good to look at 2014…  About 2 weeks ago, I started this article and then flu (mine and other people’s) and all that Christmas stuff got in the way.  And now, it’s 2015 and everything feels new and fresh so I’m not sure I want to harp on about the past but still, 2014 deserves a mention.  It was HUGE.  So here we go, this is what I wanted to say.

2014.  What a year.  There will be a million reviews out there of all the stuff that happened in internet-land, so I’m sticking to looking at my own year professionally and personally.  And actually, they are pretty much one and the same because they’re not that easy to keep separate (although when it comes to being a parent I do my best.)

Here we go.  5 things that made a big difference to me this year (in no particular order, the big things are sometimes the little things and the little things are sometimes the big things):

1. Going to San Francisco

Thanks to a bit of luck I was selected for the incredible Special Edition of the Cross Creative training programme run by TRC in Glasgow.  We did 8 months of training sessions here and then flew out to San Francisco which totally blew my mind.

It blew my mind in two ways.

One was personal. I’m half American but I’ve never really explored that part of my identity.  But my experience of America and Americans in SF was fab.  I wanted to be part of it.  I couldn’t help telling people that I was really half American.  But they liked the Scottish part better because that’s more interesting to them.

IMG_0087 IMG_0021 IMG_0075 IMG_0047

The other was work.  I wanted to move over there and work there immediately.  Drop everything and join the feeling that you were really part of something amazing that was happening.  But when I reflected on it, after I’d been back in flipping Glasgow for a couple of weeks I thought it would be way cooler to do something amazing here.  Perhaps because the summer of 2014 in Glasgow was completely amazing, it felt like we were at the centre of the universe here for a change.  There are fantastic things happening in Glasgow, we just have to be better at telling people about them.

2. Politics

We need more confidence about our own abilities and we need to move faster to make the world a better place, to progress rather than hark back to a past that discriminated against most people.  The referendum in Scotland showed that there is a sizeable number of people in Scotland who want to do things differently – just it’d be good if we could combine that desire for change with a bit more action and less talking maybe?  I don’t know.  I loved the power we felt we had during the referendum campaign and how social media allowed us to share information*, and feel like part of a movement, like we had a voice.  Our votes counted in 2014.  2015 is going to see some huge political shifts – hopefully positive ones.

3. The Rapha Women’s 100

On July 20th I got on my bike and then a train (then jumped off the train and ran back to Starbucks where I’d left my purse, then ran back and only just caught the train) to catch a boat to cycle round Arran and do 100K at the same time as thousands of other women.  The Rapha Women’s 100 is a virtual event, made possible by how connected we all are through social media.  So although I was solo, I knew I was not alone.

Arran is pretty tough to cycle round.  I felt that doing it on my own was a pretty significant achievement.  Thinking back on how I was screaming inside by the last 10K but still made the 16.40 ferry home helps me when I need to muster up a bit more determination to get through whatever I’m struggling with.  Cycling’s like that.  A lot of it’s horrible and painful but the buzz you get afterwards is like nothing else.

4. Building a team

In 2014 our strategy team grew bigger by about 200% and we are now developing new skills and specialisms to add more value to the services we offer our clients at Equator.  I’m really excited about the things we’re going to do in 2015.  Watch this space!

5. The changing nature of what we do

One of the reasons for the growth of our team, in size and skillsets, was because what we do is changing.  We are adapting to the changing needs of our clients and the market – breaking down silos and  coming up with better, stronger strategies and ideas.  Again, watch this space!

6. Small blogging achievements

And finally, I recently found that my post on assimilation was listed by @misentropy – so that’s really inspiring me to write more.  More about what I do as a strategist than this kind of personal stuff, which is not so easy to write about, I guess because it’s more for my benefit than for anyone else.  So – hopefully you’ll hear from me a bit more this year.

*see:

Social media more influential information source

Scottish independence: how Facebook could change it all

What impact could social media have?

 

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Book review: Capital by John Lanchester

I read Capital by John Lanchester whilst away on holiday two weeks ago.

It was slightly ironic to be reading about London while lying in bed in a cottage in one of the most remote parts of the UK, but because of the smartphone blackout I was not tempted to check what was happening back home via text or social media, I really got into a book for the first time in ages.

I got into it because it’s very well written and thus easy to read. Lanchester has a simple writing style and the chapters are short. But the ambition of the novel was far from simple – it’s a state of the nation, a picture of the Way We Live Now… At times I was thrilled by how cleverly the characters, who seem different on the surface, are linked – initially it seems that the only thing they have in common is the London street they inhabit, but there are far deeper connections that the author reveals over time, which means that you do think ‘just another chapter…’ until you have to put the book down and sleep.

It’s not perfect. It’s not as clever or powerful as some of the tomes it perhaps aims to emulate, for example Trollope.  At first the characters feel like stereotypes, not very deep, but perhaps this is because they are so familiar. If you’ve lived in any major city in Britain you recognise them instantly. Luckily Lanchester gets right under their skin, and many of them turn from stereotypes into more complex characters, who are flawed but for some reason you will them to prevail as the story unfolds.

About 3-quarters of the way into the book I was thoroughly excited and I thought the ending was going to be amazing, but sadly it made me feel a bit disappointed, it was rather pedestrian compared to the thrilling complexities that the author had woven into the middle of the story. Without wanting to give anything away (because I do recommend this book, for a rattling good read) it felt like a bit of a compromise, the mystery which is the central theme of the book turns out to be more Murder She Wrote than Miss Marple.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this. And writing this review. There’s also a good review in the Guardian, which has interesting things to say about John Lanchester’s ability to get under the skin of his myriad characters and be omniscient.

Next up: Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott

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The Great Smartphone Blackout Challenge – update 1

Hello!

I know, I have failed to put up a review of a book but I have a good excuse (I hope). I had norovirus and I had loads of work and then I went on holiday for a week – get this – somewhere where THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NO PHONE SIGNAL WHATSOEVER.

I lived without my iPhone for a week and lived to tell the tale.

I had a great time actually. I read (I have nearly finished two books so expect a review stat) and rode my bike, played with my baby, talked to my partner, and thought a lot. I thought with a better vocabulary than I have in ages, thought about more interesting things than I have of late, and felt refreshed.

I can’t say I felt more relaxed than usual because I was on holiday, so there was more than one factor contributing to how I felt. I’d need to do the experiment properly at home.

Since I have been home I have definitely used my social media apps less than I used to and I am keen to get back to reading my book.

So long for now.

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The Great Smartphone Blackout Challenge

I’m going to try challenging myself again. The last time I signed up for a challenge it was to do the Rapha Women’s 100 but due to circumstances beyond my control (weather and sickness) I wasn’t really up to it. I’m up to it now though – I’ve had a great time cycling for the last couple of months. I’m going to do a big ride before the summer is over – thinking of doing Arran in September, and I am going to cycle every day in Ardnamurchan when I am on holiday – but I’m going to give myself another challenge.

The new challenge is this. I’ve been tidying up recently and I came across a bunch of old diaries and notebooks and while it was funny and a bit sad reading about things from the past it also made me think of how much I don’t read, think or write any more.

At work I do loads of the above and it’s a relief to know that my brain hasn’t completely atrophied, but I don’t do it for myself anymore. I could say that motherhood is to blame, but it’s not. It’s a much older problem than that. Since I abandoned my academic ambitions about 5 years ago I gradually stopped reading as much. When I was doing my masters and PhD I read all the time, and not just the books I needed to read as part of my research. I read at least one novel a week, I read the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the New Statesman, The New Yorker, heck, I also read Grazia religiously.

Now I hardly read anything.

Actually, I probably read as many words but it’s all soundbites on my phone. I am a compulsive smartphone user.

There. I said it. I’ve come out. I’ve come clean.

I have to see what everyone is saying on Twitter. I have to see what pints people are drinking on Instagram. I have to know what time people’s kids went to bed on Facebook. I have to know what the latest Mumsnet controversy is.

Social media and smartphones are amazing. In a sense, the fact that I love them so much is great because I know how they work inside out and it makes me quite good at my job and, (tenuously) therefore, social media and smartphones pay my mortgage.

Far from wanting to bite the hand that feeds me, I don’t want to ditch my phone and my online friends completely. But I am thinking of imposing some rules on myself to try and free my brain before it’s too late. But I am afraid I am pretty bad at the whole willpower thing.

I was thinking I needed to actually go back to university and do a part time MA just so the discipline was there to get things done but a quick review of suitable courses reveals that in the 8 years since I did my MA fees have gone crazy mad! It’s somewhere between 5 and 12 grand to do a master’s these days. Mental!

So I need some willpower. Here are my rules.

  1. I am allowed on the social media apps between waking up and 8.30 in the morning, and again at night between 6.30 and 8pm.
  2. The only use outside of these times permitted is to share something relevant to work or to use Strava when I am out cycling. Or to use Instagram where appropriate. Or if I am waiting for something and I don’t have anything better to do/more interesting to read. But in that case I should read a newspaper app or articles I have favourited but not read on Twitter.
  3. The other rule is that I have to read a book at least every fortnight and write about it here.

That’s a scary rule. But it’s cheaper than doing another master’s.

So, you heard it here first. If I haven’t posted a book review here by Saturday 24 August then you have the right to have a go at me.

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Training for the Rapha Women’s 100 (1)

So, as I said the other day, I’m planning to cycle 100K on July 7th. I’m going to have to be fit enough to do that so I’m following a diet and fitness regime that so far has involved no cycling, and eating rather a lot of chocolate.

However, the weather has been frightful so I’ve not actually been able to go out for fear of falling off my bike. It’s very slippy out there.

(That’s my excuse at least. I did break my elbow falling off my bike a couple of years ago and I’d hate that to happen again.)

Instead, I am getting fit, strong and flexible by doing gyrotonics and also Bikram yoga.

Gyro is an exercise system that is taught one to one and involves lots of stretching and stuff attached to pulleys and weights. It’s based on ballet, pilates, swimming and yoga. I’m finding it really good for my alignment (getting rid of a dodgy hip in the process) and also building core strength.

Bikram yoga is something I did as a bit of a dare but have got hooked on. It’s a series of 26 yoga postures, done twice each. In a room heated to 40-odd degrees. It sounds mental and it isn’t the easiest class to get through but I strongly recommend it.

A Bikram studio opened near me and recently did a 20 days for 20 quid offer. My friend (who had a baby on the same day as me) persuaded me to go. Now we’re both addicted, we’ve been going for about 6 weeks and are about a stone lighter each and bendy as fuck.

I also make myself cycle over University Avenue when I go to Bikram. It’s a fairly steep hill (albeit short) so I do feel like I’m getting a bit of practice for my 100K route (tbc).

So whilst I’m not actually cycling much I do feel like I’m doing a bit of work to prepare myself for the challenge. I’m hoping April will be more clement weather-wise and I’ll get out on The Bike of Discovery at least once a week for some proper rides.

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