Sunday, April 23, 2006

Population Culture

We humans are in the business of ideas.

Professor Richard Dawkins argues that ideas - memes - are actually the new ‘replicators’ – perpetuating themselves into the future when ‘evolutionarily stable’.

That’s quite an exciting thought for designers, writers, politicians and anyone else out there: that you can leave a mark on the world – an idea – that will outlive you. This can not be said about genetic replicators (genes) which, three generations down the line are so mixed up your great grandchildren are genetically no closer to you than anyone else on the planet.

So ideas are – literally – the way forward.

However, there is a potentially depressing truth to much of today’s ‘ideas’. In fact, I apologise for even bringing it up.

It’s no secret that today’s generation is bored. Very, very bored. Particularly in the developed world, where there is no repression to fight against. Where life is just a bit too easy.

In a society that celebrates freedom of speech and is fuelled by a total access of content: to every idea, every person and every piece of content, it’s no wonder that pop culture has become what it has: a distraction.

The Bored Of The Beckhams T-shirts that appeared a couple of years ago sum up this lethargy with appropriate shallowness.

Lars Svendsen, author of A Philosophy of Boredom writes:

“Boredom is not connected with actual needs, but with desire. And this desire is a desire for sensory stimuli. Stimuli are the only interesting thing.”

He continues:

“That life to a large extent is boring is revealed by our placing such emphasis on originality and innovation. We place greater emphasis these days on whether something is ‘interesting’ than on whether it has any ‘value’.”

So far, so what?
We know we’re bored. And I don’t want to get into the philosophy of the ensuing implications for fear of my brain exploding. But, there is a very specific cultural format that interests me:

When our interest in something becomes the thing itself.

Very post-modern, I know. Allow me to elaborate:
You'll remember The Million Dollar Homepage. What is fascinating about this idea is that the act of taking interest in it became the idea. Without the companies that came forward to buy a 10x10 block of pixels, Alex Tew’s idea would have been an empty webpage.

This might seem like a fairly obvious point but it is really quite fascinating. As the pixels got snapped up, the world looked on at this ‘clever concept’. The real ‘content’ though was the living experience of the pixels being bought. The companies were getting publicity on the back of people’s interest in the site, but the interest was in the fact that it was actually working. So their participation of the concept became the concept. ‘Trees falling in woods and not making a sound’, anyone?

This is not the traditional way to experience ‘culture’. When you go to see a movie, the movie will play whether or not you turn up. The audience’s viewing has no impact on its content – excluding an atmosphere generated by excited chatter and laughter.

But what if the movie’s content was its audience? The natural end for this would be to film the audience and play it back to them live. If this ever happens, I advise you to get your money back.

That last idea might sound ridiculous, but consider this next example:

In September 2002, there was a huge anti-war protest in London.
It was estimated that 150,000 people took to the streets that day.

In the week preceding that protest I had about twelve to fifteen people tell me that they were going to go out to “see” the protest.

They wanted to “see” the protest, but to the rest of the world, they were the protest.

Now, I’m not saying for a moment that there weren’t thousands of people that took to the streets that day driven by ethical and political beliefs. But I couldn’t help but wonder: if I knew fifteen people that were there just to ‘spectate’, how many of the 150,000 strong crowd were doing the same? Was it a third? A half? More?

This isn’t a political article. What I’m fascinated by is how people’s interest in something can have the power to become the content itself.

This is a natural extension of the state of social and cultural boredom. It becomes self-contained and self-perpetuating.
I could start a flash mob tomorrow with the idea that we are gathering for no reason other than to witness the fact that we are all gathering for no reason. Its novelty and absurdity would probably get the media’s attention and the concept would gather more interest and momentum. How bizarre.

The interesting – and slightly depressing part – is that this entire discussion is a result of what Svendsen describes as a ‘social placebo’. All we want is a distraction and seeing as we are an ingredient in our own boredom, it makes sense that we should participate in that distraction.

My final example is the 2005 series of Big Brother in the UK.

Reality TV is already a pretty depressing distraction – mainly because we are distracted from our own boredom to watch other people’s boredom – but in 2005 the show did something just slightly more interesting.

I have to hand it to them, putting non-celebrity Chantelle into the house was in one way quite brilliant. The producers knew what they were doing from the outset and it played out perfectly. They wanted her to win. They wanted to make a point.

The result was that the act of an audience enjoying someone for not being a celebrity made her a celebrity. I use the word celebrity with an expression on my face not too dissimilar to if I had just received a paper cut from a copy of Heat.

So what does all this mean?
So, we’re bored. So, we need distractions. So, the business of these distractions has become so self-contained that that it has become self-sufficient. It’s all very incestuous.

Returning to Richard Dawkin’s idea that memes are the new replicators, human evolution might not be looking particularly inspiring. Purists put down pop culture, but it all depends on context. Pop culture is a distraction. Must it always have ‘value’ beyond this end?

The following exchange between Big Brother’s Chantelle and Preston feels like an appropriate way to sum up the lack of conclusion this article offers:

Chantelle: "Is it funny?"
Preston: "I dunno, is it? ... It is though. Isn't it? It is."

The world is a captive audience waiting to see what everyone else is taking an interest in. We are the content and the audience. That’s good isn’t it? I dunno. It is though? It is. Isn’t it?

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Pixar Zoetrope

The Science Museum in London is currently playing host to an exhibition of Pixar artwork. It features hundreds of early sketches, mood boards, sculptures that were produced in the making of movies like Toy Story, The Incredibles and this summer’s inevitable hit, Cars.

One of the main objectives of this exhibition is to show that for all the studio’s amazing technological feats, the finished films owe a lot to very traditional animation techniques: character design, storyboarding, testing etc.

This point is beautifully made with a wonderful contraption that Pixar built specifically for this exhibition. A contemporary zoetrope has been constructed, featuring characters from Toy Story on a large disc. This disc then spins at a ridiculous pace until the models blur together and simulate the animation of the models.

It is absolutely fantastic and the closest you will ever come to seeing these characters come to life.

Have a look at a video here. It was filmed with my phone, hence the poor quality and converted (badly) from an unusual file type - hence the large file size. But if you can, watch it until the end and you’ll see me zooming in on a small alien who waves at the crowd. Ahem. I’m 27 years old and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of this kind of thing.

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Shiny, Happy People

It’s Easter. Assuming you haven’t watched a James Bond movie yet, perhaps the following will give you your much needed injection of feel-good escapism.

This trailer for The Shining is quite, quite brilliant and shows how a clever edit can completey change perceptions. I don’t want to ruin the surprise by saying anything more.

And this adaptation of the moon landing is almost believable. Well, what would you have said if you were the first person to stand on the moon?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Democratising Dirt

Gossip is currency.
This has been true since the earliest homosapiens sniggered behind a rock about an unflattering gazelle skin belonging to the girl in the next cave.

Gossip is a distraction from oneself, but is also a way to reduce the gap between gossiper and gossipee. Hence the success of celebrity gossip, through which ‘ordinary’ people can temporarily blend Hollywood lives with their own.

But rather than use celebrity to elevate the reader, a trend in recent years has been to bring celebrities down from their pedestals and highlight their flaws: to make them ordinary, like us. Circling sweat patches and cellulite is certain to shift magazines. More bizarrely, one of the most popular features in Heat magazine last year 'exposed' a celeb buying sausages.

The likes of Popbitch, Holymoly & Gawker use the reach of the Internet to bring this celebrity gossip speedily to the screens of whoever is hungry enough for it.

But that’s not the interesting part.

The true power of the Internet is its ability to connect people and information; ALL people and ALL information. The Internet in this sense is a leveller and for every celebrity out there behaving badly, a hundred of us ordinary folk are matching them. Think nobody's interested? You're wrong.

The forward button is as dangerous for the likes of you and me as the shutter button on a camera is to a celebrity. Some of the following people found this out the hard way:

Remember the ‘Ketchup Lawyer’?
In 2005, Richard Phillips, a highly paid senior associate at a top London Law firm sent an obnoxious email to secretary Jenny Amner demanding the £4 it would cost to clean ketchup from his trousers. Phillip’s email, along with Miss Amner’s reply – which facetiously apologized for the death of her mother delaying her response - went from inbox to inbox at lightening speed. Within hours, this encounter had a global audience. The ensuing press attention eventually forced Phillips out of his job.

Stars like Paris Hilton are used to having their private lives turned inside out. When she let Rick Salomon film her giving him a blowjob she wasn’t to know (or perhaps care) that the video would be viewed online by millions of people only a few months later.

But for every Paris, there’s an ‘Elizabeth’
I’m sure you remember this email. Elizabeth had apparently performed fellatio on a guy in the toilet while Brad sat waiting for her at the bar. When Brad replied (quite brilliantly) to Elizabeth’s weepy apology email, he copied in his entire address book. Again, it didn’t take long for the emails to get round the world and back.

When Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone compared a Jewish reporter to a “concentration camp guard” his suspension was issued faster than the news headline ink could dry.

Ken is not alone. A similar example came to my attention (inbox) last month when the below internal email got circulated externally by staff (I have deleted the email addresses for legal reasons):

From: Allan Wills
Date: Mon, 27 Mar 2006 17:43:48
To: London
Conversation: Apology
Subject: Apology

Hello everyone,

Last email I used the term "Nazi" regarding the move and I wish to apologise for the inappropriate reference. I meant it in a light, Seinfeld sense, but I realise it wasn't appropriate. Please accept my deepest apologies if anyone was offended.


How far that email got, I do not know but I do know the dangers of runaway emails have been acknowledged by Microsoft in the last couple of years. The company’s more recent versions of Outlook allow senders to put restrictions on forwarding and printing.

So business emails are slowly being dealt with, but that's just the beginning. When you consider the ubiquity of video phones, ever-increasing internet speeds and the success of video sharing sites like YouTube it’s only a matter of time before it’s Paris Hilton watching footage of some girl in Leeds giving her boss a hand job in the elevator.

So this is what we wanted, right? We’ve exposed celebrities to be sweaty sausage-buyers just like us. Our dirt, their dirt; what's the difference? We're all in this together.

While you wait for the next 'ordinary' gossip star to inevitably appear in your inbox, the only uncertainty is how genuine the stories will be. But in an age where entertainment is more important than truth, does it really matter?

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Don't Shoot!

A concept devised with friend & creative, Sasan Faghihi.

The words "Don't shoot!" conjure up a scene of fear and possible fatality. Here, they are given a twist. It will be the aquatic dwellers in these water pistols who cop it if someone pulls the trigger.

The fanstastic mermaid was illustrated by Sasan. All other design and illustration by me.

I think they'd make great T-shirts.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Reality

Continuing to debate what is 'virtual' and what is 'real' these days is about as worthwhile as watching the third installment of The Matrix. Unless of course you want to lose yourself in a philosophical bog that by comparison will make Keanu Reeve's performances seem like an uplifting escape.

More and more examples of this blur between the physical and the otherwise pop up every week. The most fascinating - and remarkably simple - I came across recently was This Spartan Life.

This Spartan Life is a chat show like no other.
Damian Lacedaemion meets his guests, not in person, but within a live, networked game of Halo.

Instead of a casual chat on a couch, the interview is conducted as they hurtle around, returning enemy fire and hijacking tanks. The other players are unaware an interview is going on as they attempt to gun down our host in mid-flow.
This is a unique way to meet and converse with someone, but somehow makes total sense. These are the places we spend time, so they make as good a meeting place as any.

Another success story is Jennifer Grinnell, furniture delivery dispatcher by day, in-game fashion designer by night. Her shop exists in Second Life, where she sells her designs to the various characters that inhabit that world.

Grinnell's success as a pixel stylist meant she could quit her day job to pursue it full time - earning more money in her Second Life boutique than she did selling physical items.

Property is another money maker. One gamer got himself in the news by spending thirteen grand on an island in 'Project Entropia'. He has since made his money back leasing parts of it to other digital entrepreneurs.

It's all getting a bit serious really. Qiu Chengwei, the man who murdered a fellow gamer for selling his "virtual dragon saber" (hmmm) will probably agree as he sits out the rest of his life sentence, having exchanged his MSN buddy list for a cell-full of rapists.

Sorry Qiu, that sensation is most definitely real.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Sex & Violence

I don't get shocked easily. Here's two things that managed:

Columbine Paintball
If this is genuine, I find it very disturbing.

Shaï goes all the way - in every sense - using sex to sell. (something about clothes?..)

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Monday, April 10, 2006

The iAged Collection

If you're staring at your crisp reflection in the back of your iPod Nano and wondering why James Blunt is whining even more pathetically than usual, then you've come to a realisation: New products have no soul, my friend.

Welcome to the iAged collection.

These are genuine sales by the way.

The iPod has had everything from the Sugarbabes (don't ask) to a DFX remix of Gorillaz' Dare stuffed into it unforgivingly for three years.

And this G4 got me through University. It cost me a couple of grand at the time, but I did get a free sticker.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Advergaming Top Ten

Advergames are online games designed to spread marketing messages.

There aren’t many brands out there doing it well, but I’ve pulled together what I believe to be the Advergaming Top Ten:

1. Subservient Chicken - Burger King
The king of advergames. Command the chicken man. Simple and brilliant.

2. Lust For Bust - Miller
Cop a look at your mate’s sister’s chest. A good lesson for advergame makers: Simple. Crude. True.

3. Sith Sense - Burger King
Copied from an existing prediction game, but great nonetheless. Lord Vader reads your mind. No, really.

4. Rally Game - JoWood / Rally Trophy
A game advertising a game. Make your own Scalextric™-style track and race.

5. Virtual Bartender -
Stolen from Subservient Chicken but replaces the chicken man with two scantily clad bartenders.

6. Axe Feather - Axe / Lynx
Typical one-dimensionality from Axe, but has proven to be very popular.

7. Telescope game - Dyson
Addictive, if you’re into puzzle games and centred around a product message… something about telescopes?

8. Mini Jump Game -Mini
Simple mechanic mirrored in several other online games, but somehow quite ‘sticky’

9. Pluck My Tash - BBC Radio Five Live
Pull Mark Lawrence’s hairs out before his moustache can grow back. Why am I still playing this?

10. Buddy Lee, Guidance Councelor - Lee Jeans
This doesn't exist any more. Feel free to suggest a tenth advergame that deserves recognition.

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Macintosh 1984

A little late for Apple's 30th birthday, but for anyone who hasn't seen it, here's the video of Macintosh's launch back in 1984.

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Saturday, April 08, 2006


Heartburn™ is a fictional catalogue of flammable goods to document your doomed romance in. The thinking went something like this:

"After a break up it’s time to get rid of everything that reminds you of your ex. It used to be a real effort to gather together every gift, letter, photo and miscellaneous token of love to throw on the fire. Well, now Heartburn’s Highly Flammable Memory Destruction Solutions provide you with the quickest, easiest way to cast those memories to the flames."

When the fire goes out, it’s time to start your own."

With every item purchased comes a Perfect Match - 'Sacrifices its head so you can keep yours'

I did this for a valentines feature for Marmalade magazine. Marmalade didn't publish any of it, but did feature some childish drawings of some dogs.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Lost In Iceland

'Lost In Iceland' was the slogan on a T-shirt one of my fellow passengers bought in Keflavík last Sunday. I should have posted that T-shirt to Max Jet instead of my complaint letter.

Half way across the Atlantic, the pilot announced that the cockpit window had 'shattered'. We didn't kick up a fuss when he said he'd better land somewhere rather soonish. I was not going to make my meeting in New York and no amount of complimentary blueberry muffins would improve my mood. (actually, another two would have done it - they were very good)

Four hours later I would be bathing in hot sulphuric springs in a barren, volcanic wasteland. I would also be deciding that covering my face with 'nutritious' white clay while hot water gurgled through my toes was possibly better than the 6 o'clock meeting I was supposed to be attending in Manhatten. I would even be considering that all flights to New York might be improved with a quick Scandanavian sauna and 'fisk' lunch.

However, after returning my rather small blue swimming shorts (hotpants more like) supplied by the kind staff at The Blue Lagoon, I discovered, along with the other passengers that the plane which we were previously told "had left" New York to come and get us hadn't left New York at all! I have since scoured the Max Jet website to see if they have a special policy concerning the words "has left", but it appears they had taken them from the very same dictionary you and I have reached for during particularly heated games of scrabble.

The ensuing 15 hours or so involved swearing uncharacteristically at rattled Max Jet staff, grabbing three hours' sleep in a hotel in Reykjavík, wondering why they didn't have larger swimming shorts at The Blue Lagoon, sitting on the runway (on a plane - it wasn't a protest) for a further two hours and finally arriving at my hotel in NYC at 7.30am - 18 hours late.

Max Jet gave us free lunch, a swim in geo-thermal springs and even awarded everyone two tickets for return flights between London and New York for the inconvenience. The one thing they never gave us was an apology.

And the moral of the story? Always, always pack a pair of decent size swimming shorts in your hand luggage.

NB: I have since received an apology from Max Jet's CEO.