Monthly Archives: May 2009

Getting comfortable with chaos

Posted by Ben Malbon & Heidi Hackemer

I’ve just finished an awesome article in ‘New York’ magazine by Sam Anderson called ‘In Defense of Distraction‘. I say finished. I mean barely finished. I’ve been reading it for four days.

llustration by Glen Cummings/MTWTF (Photo: John Day/Getty Images)

Illustration by Glen Cummings/MTWTF (Photo: John Day/Getty Images)

The truth is, it took me waaaaay too long to read the piece. Not because it’s not a really top quality dissection of the attention crash, its causes, and ramifications – it is – but because almost every sentence I read contained a phrase, name, concept or idea that I wanted to get more information about. I barely finished a single sentence in one go.  I spent more time on Google than on the New York magazine site.

My colleague Heidi (@uberblond) also took a crack at it. In her desperate attempt to not meander off into conceptual undergrowth, she opened a new tab with a Google search every time a thought hit her. At the end of the article, she had racked up almost twenty tabs of where her mind wanted to go. It turned out we both struggled to finish what is a really excellent, highly readable article on a subject we’re both really into. Not good. Some would say pathetic.

In Anderson’s piece, David Meyer, one of the world’s leading experts on multitasking & cognition describes this phenomenon in bald, almost harrowing terms. He sees our distraction “as a full-blown epidemic—a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought.”

This struck a chord with us, although we were both barely paying enough attention to the piece first time around to register the thought. Only when we compared notes did we recall skim-reading that quote as our bit-addled brains struggled to process thousands of concurrent potential search terms at once. Our mutually pathetic attempt at pointed concentration got both of us thinking: if two averagely-smart people can barely concentrate on something that *really* interests us, what does that mean about our ability to think creatively? Hmmmm . . .

Image by Kevin Dooley, Flickr (CC)

Image by Kevin Dooley, Flickr (CC)

Well we haven’t got any smart answers to that one, but fortunately, as we both took so long to finish the piece, in the meantime something on this theme snuck in and offered an interesting counter-argument. A recent piece in Wired magazine by David Allen, ‘How to be creative amid chaos‘, proposes using the disordered reality of over-stimulation, continuous partial attention and multi-tasking as a liberating force that can feed, not stifle, creativity. Allen muses on how, perhaps, the skill of the next generation might lie on mastering how to extract meaning from this cacophony. He cites the example of Evan Taubenfeld, a guitarist and producer in a rock band.

He was telling me how he’s learned to produce an album most effectively. Some of the best ideas for his songs happen while he and his band are working on another one. Now he has a whiteboard in the studio. They’ll be in the middle of one thing, suddenly get inspired about something else, and stop to capture it. Evan said it’s chaotic, but once the band got used to it and trusted the process, they were way more productive and more creative than ever. Before he realised the power of capturing thoughts as they occur, and building in just the kind of structures that he needed to foster and support the process, he experienced lots of wasted and frustrated energy, with much less output. Trying to exert the “discipline” of staying focused on one song at a time stifled his creativity. The coolest thing about the new process, he said, was that making music was fun again.

We thought this was cool, and inspiring. And we’re now less worried about not finishing pieces we start. Far from trying to install some form of order around the cacophony, maybe we should jump into it? Maybe we resist order and accept that it’s from within that craziness that we might craft and find creativity?

You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star. (Nietzsche)


When social doesn’t mean sociable

Social networking, social media, the social web-some of the most frequently used phrases of the moment but how often do we stop and think about what “social” really means?

One of the easiest (and laziest) answers seems to be that it’s about making friends-being sociable. But it’s interesting to  note that while “social” does derive from the Latin “socius” (meaning friend) it does so via “socialis” meaning allied. Somehow enabling allies and allegiances seems like a much bigger and more transformative idea than simply socialising.  

Some of the most interesting social sites at the moment actually seem to me to have very little to do with friending people, or poking people, or checking out their holiday pictures. The most interesting initiatives seem to be those that bring individuals together around a common purpose, enabling them to achieve things together previously only possible for major corporations. Ideas that allow individuals not simply to friend one another but to be useful to one another-that cut out the corporate world or conventional distribution mechanics and create a consumer to consumer value exchange.

As Jyri Engestrom puts it in his excellent post on “object-centred sociality”: “The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. That’s why many sociologists, especially activity theorists, actor-network theorists and post-ANT people prefer to talk about ‘socio-material networks’, or just ‘activities’ or ‘practices’ (as I do) instead of social networks”

I recently attended the inaugural IPA “Game Changers” event where among other great speakers Giles Andrews from Zopa inspired the crowd by explaining the genuinely radical thinking behind “the social lending company”.  For those who aren’t familiar with the proposition, Zopa is a service that puts individual borrowers directly in touch with individual lenders. It not only offers a welcome stream of credit in these increasingly crunched times, it also offers a win-win by offering compelling rates for both parties.

This is a genuinely transformative piece of thinking that uses the fundamental characteristics of the social web-the ability to bring individuals together for their common good, the ability to start conversations-but has relatively limited interest in the sociable web. Concepts like Freecycle, couchsurfing or quirky work along similar lines: I don’t need to be intimate with other users to be of use to them, collaborate with them, fund them, enable them.

Perhaps the most interesting point this raises is that the future of the social web may be driven not so much by friendship but by a new kind of trust. Trust in individuals versus institutions. Trust in people I don’t know (that I’m not friends with) but who I instinctively prefer to the plc and who are brought to me by editor and enabler brands I believe in. As crumbling faith in institutions meets technologies that can genuinely empower both the individual and the crowd, the possibilities are endless (and a little scary). The future of the social web may in fact be less sociable, more (dare I say it) socialist….

So what does this mean for the corporate world? Well, the end probably isn’t nigh just yet. Deriving real utility from social media requires an investment from the individual-in terms of time and in terms of reciprocity. So it will probably remain for a while the preserve of the digitally savvy and time rich. But it may be time to start thinking now about which other services that could previously only be delivered by the might of the corporates that may be socialised next.   If lending can be socialised, what’s next? Venture capital? Real estate? What are we already doing on a micro-social scale that could go macro? What else can we congregate around to our mutual benefit? Would be fascinated to know your thoughts….

Expialodocious, remixed

We’re enjoying the work of Pogo, hailing from Australia.

He’s just released this (cheers to @mikearauz for the heads-up) – check it out in HQ. Love the Technicolor of the original picture.


Plenty more, and downloads, at:

Happy Wednesday.

“An Epochal Debate over the Value of Content”

That’s how Rupert Murdoch recently summed up the current relationship between online publishers and aggregators during a call with his shareholders.

He ended with a shot across the bow: “The current days of the Internet will soon be over.”

It’s about to get interesting.

Back when we were floating high inside the web 1.0 bubble, it became indisputably accepted that online content was going to be free and advertising was going to pay for it. And until recently this worked since there was still enough media money in circulation to fuel experimentation and allow digital to continue as a loss leader with an eye toward the future.

But things have changed. Quickly.

Long tail economics are working swimmingly for the aggregates – the blog networks, ad networks, search engines, etc – prosper through triangulation while those that actually create the content that gives these engines their value die a little more each day. Watch in the coming months as the providers, who are now quite literally in a fight for survival, begin to circle the wagons and shoot back.

But within this climate there is also real promise. Necessity being the mother of invention, we may now (finally) begin to see the growth of micropayments in our near future.

Numerous companies have already tried and failed to introduce these systems, but please keep in mind that only a few years ago, it was predicted that consumers wouldn’t trust online security in large enough numbers to sustain retail on a mass level. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay for great online content, it is the high, one time price tag and the hassle of inputting credit card info that is the barrier keeping publishers from our money.

When the barriers are removed, we are generally more than willing to pay 25 cents for a text, 99 cents for a song, so why not 1 cent for an article?

With the introduction of internet ez-pass type payments, users will be able to pass through web pages fractions of a cent at a time. From video games to recipes, from pornography to journalism, this will allow the actual creators to be properly compensated for their work.

Individuals like former Time editor Walter Isaacson and start-ups like Kachingle are pushing just such sytems. But leading this charge will likely require new habit-changing products like the Kindle, which is already beginning to do for print what iPhone did for music. Or more immediately, the new iPhone itself which will change the whole game again this summer by allowing for third party micropayments within its upcoming software update.

In our new data-driven world, micropayments might begin to apply to how creative agencies are compensated as well. Creative and media will likely increasingly begin merging services, molding to a more performance-based system. This doesn’t need to adversely effect creativity though, since appealing to more sophisticated eyeballs might pay better than the blunderbuss approach.

Watch for Labs to be dabbling in exactly these kinds of methods in the months ahead. We welcome further conversation by potentially interested partners and clients here.

“The advent of broadband ripped our squawking heads from the sand”

Within about 5 minutes of arriving at the Telegraph Media Group offices last week, those unvarnished words – first uttered back in 2007 by TMG’s now editor-in-chief, Will Lewis – had been recounted to us, setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon.  A bit of a surprise.  This after all was the home of the Daily Telegraph, the UK’s biggest broadsheet, famously the ‘paper of the shires’ and historically the bastion of the Conservative party, right?  Well yes and no.  Invited in by Nancy Cruickshank, TMG’s recently appointed Executive Director of Digital Development, a group of us from BBH and BBH Labs were about to hear how the paper had undergone a complete operational and cultural transformation over the past few years: moving from a print production-led organisation to one intent upon embracing an integrated, multi-format, audience-focused future.

Before we go much further, it’s worth saying what this isn’t about: it’s not another essay on the accelerating declines in the newspaper industry’s circulation figures and ad revenues, as much as these may form the backdrop, even the driving need behind the changes at TMG. Instead, the starting point here is the premise that adland still needs media and media needs adland, no question.  And, equally importantly, all of us need to find forward-looking ways to accelerate our own response to the change going on around us. Listening to what they had to say, the relevance for any commercial creative business hit home hard. Here then is an unapologetically positive attempt to capture the implications of what we heard: what can we learn from one media brand’s story?


Will work for all it’s worth – the launch of Agency Nil

Almost everyone who works at an agency has a few favourite horror stories about the particularly tricky negotiation into their first position. The crazed lunacy of certain graduate recruitment processes (mine still gives me nightmares), the deeply uncomfortable hours spent in creative directors’ offices having your book taken to pieces, begging your way onto an intern programme, starting out in the mailroom. It’s always been tough. It’s part of the folklore. At least the reward’s in the car park.

But now it’s tougher than ever. No, really. A punchy piece by Jef Loeb on, “Same as It Never Was“, published just recently, paints a undeniably grim picture of an industry undergoing dramatic change. Loeb’s themes – structural transformation, accelerating evolution of new media trends, financial woes – are painfully familiar. As he notes, even if we’ve passed the bottom of the trough, our “shared profession is more than a long link or two from being at the top of the food recovery chain”.

Imagine now that you’re just graduating from your Ad School or coming to the end of a degree or Fine Arts programme. Suddenly the tales we recount of our elaborate scheming to get a job out of college look like some kind of joke. Where would you start today?


“I’ve always been interested in microscopes”: an interview with Aaron Koblin

"House of Cards" promo

"House of Cards" promo

As you may just have heard (we’ve been a tad over-excited…) data visualisation maestro Aaron Koblin came into to talk to us yesterday.  He kicked off with a showcase of his work, from his exquisite grad school visualisations of flight paths (see post below) to his latest embryonic projects for Google labs. Along the way he showcased extraordinary visualisations of the ebb and flow of information in cities and around the globe, experiments in crowdsourced sound design and perhaps his most famous project, the Radiohead “House of Cards” promo.

Visualisation of SMS messages in Amsterdam

Visualisation of SMS messages in Amsterdam

In showcasing his extraordinary portfolio he touched on a number of powerful and provocative themes which we followed up on in our interview. Themes around the power of social context to make data compelling, the power of data visualisation to embrace the complexity of our lives today and the tension between the human and the machine present in crowd-sourcing engines.  He also shared his key learnings from life at the front line of data visualisation:  

Looking at everyday things in new ways completely changes your perspective: there is no “mundane” data when you set it in context.

Use multiple visualisation techniques: there’s more than one way of seeing things  

Stay true to the data, not the “real world” : There is a random-ness to data-it will make patterns you never anticipated. Respect the random-ness.

You don’t have to use all the data : sometimes seeing patterns is about what you leave out

Set the data free: open-source and let other people play with your data

Following his talk, very graciously agreed to be interviewed by Labs about our (and your) burning questions around data visualisation.  It was a fascinating conversation for us and we hope for you. So over to Aaron….and many thanks to those who submitted questions for him. 

Why do you think the world has suddenly gone crazy for data visualisation? 18 months ago it was a struggle to get anyone interested in data and now it’s the new rock and roll…

I guess it’s really the times that we live in, now you have tools like Twitter and Facebook and things that are widely used not just by the nerds but by everybody. Popular culture has also just all of a sudden embraced the power of storytelling through data and the relevance of all the data to their lives. All kinds of things have happened that simply weren’t possible before – the author you look up to, the musician, etc. they’re sharing all kinds of things – you can be intimately living their lives along with them and you see all different types of applications.

Do you think it’s partly about the explosion in the amount of data currently available, the data trail we leave behind us now or the fact that companies have more data than they can process so they end up giving it away?

 I think ultimately the biggest change is that the data is now relevant to people’s lives. Before most of the data was about infrastructure at best and a lot of it was locked away or presented in aggregate form. When you’re presented with a huge lump sum number that has no context it’s just not interesting, but now when you get these granular stories, things that are saying at this specific point in time here’s the way that things changed, just by giving it that context and social relevance it becomes interesting. 


“Data tells stories about our lives”

Mind blowing: Flight patterns by Aaron Koblin
Mind blowing: Flight patterns by Aaron Koblin
If data visualisation is the new rock and roll, Elvis has (just) left the building. Aaron Koblin played to an enthralled audience of BBH-ers this afternoon, blew our minds and incredibly kindly agreed to be interviewed by Labs afterwards.

Our interview to follow soon, but to whet your appetite, a quick download of our (and your) key questions for the rock star of the data visualisation world.

Balancing immediacy and intrigue: A frequent criticism of data visualisation is that while often extremely beautiful, sometimes it doesn’t make the information contained any clearer-it can sometimes even seem to obfuscate in the name of art. Should great data visualisation simplify or should it embrace complexity and reward exploration? Should it be reductive or expansive in intent?
Where left brain meets right brain: When embarking on a project, which comes first, the data or the technique? How critical a role does software play? Do the themes and memes recurring in data visualisation reflect the artists’ preoccupations or the data sets available?
Proliferation versus privacy: One of the key enablers of data visualisation is the phenomenal explosion in the amounts of data we now generate everywhere we go. We live in a golden age of open-ness around personal data but will we reach a tipping point where we reclaim our personal privacies? Or will we opt in to share anonymised data for the common good?
The power of synesthesia: Some of the most compelling data visualisation projects are those which express one medium-almost one sense- by means of another. Visually representing dance or music, aurally representing data sets-what is it we find so compelling about this “synesthetic” effect?

Crowd-sourcing versus the wisdom of the crowd: Koblin’s recent work experiments with crowd-sourcing but suggests an ambivalence about the process. While a central theme of data visualisation is the wisdom of the crowd, how does it skew the data if the crowd knows it’s being watched? Is the unconscious wisdom of the crowd purer and more compelling or is conscious collaboration of the masses the future? How important is the role of the curator in that process?

Answers – or at least compelling and considered answers – on a blogpost near you shortly….

“Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them”

Have just finished a fantastic article in the New York Times, on “Searching for Value in Ludicrous Ideas“, by Allison Arieff. It covered, in wonderful detail & with generous illustrations, the uncategorizable work of Steven M. Johnson, a kind of hybrid planner, architect, designer, futurologist, inventor. He comes up with crackpot ideas such as this, the “Nod Office”. Brilliant; reminds me of Douglas Coupland’s sketches of ‘veal fattening pens‘ in Generation X.


I found it inspiring, exciting and instructive all at the same time (I fully recommend you go and read the whole thing, I won’t even attempt to do it justice here; Arieff puts it together superbly well and ensures Johnson is the hero of the piece).

And it got me thinking . . . about the value of mavericks. In a world of frenetic recycling, mash-ups, re-tweeting and outright imitation I wonder how we can find more left-field thinkers and, as importantly, allow them to flourish when we find them? Does the sharing of everything, all the time, with everyone, combined with the sheer volume of stimulus that assaults us, result in the lobotomizing of the renegades, the free spirits, the natural geniuses? The natural evolution of average. Not survival of the fittest so much as survival of the most popular.

Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion House Prototype (c.1945)

Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion House Prototype (c.1945)

Buckminster Fuller, referred to throughout Arieff’s piece, and without question a misfit and visionary some decades ahead of his time, once memorably proposed, “everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them” (even his use of the word ‘de-genius’ is a maverick move). Wonderfully phrased but also, surely, terribly sad?


(Thanks to Tim Geoghegan for the heads up on the NYT article to start with, and the awesome addition of the Supertramp video).