Episode One Hundred and Twenty: Mundane Blue Ant; Press Square To Hack

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Undisclosed location.

Reading: Pattern Recognition, again.

Last time I read Pattern Recognition was when it came out, and I was in the throes of ARGs, having been on the player community side through The Beast, and then actually making one, with Perplex City. Now, ten years later, I’ve been through the other mirror world: the branding and advertising side.

Thinking about: the physiognomy of a startup and dark value that ostensibly makes us richer.

1.0 Mundane Blue Ant

Or, what’s threatening to be: Pattern Recognising (1)

The other day, Warren Ellis said that he wanted to *be* Blue Ant[1] – that is, have the ability and wherewithal to know things before other people. A voracious consumer of the new-noosphere, to understand completely new concepts and their implications before they seep out into the rest of the world. When I joined Wieden, there was part of that aspect of discovering new bits of culture and bringing them to the rest of the world – indeed, it even at times felt like there was a bit of a guilt complex in the way that the agency and Nike had kind of strip-mined black culture, re-appropriated it to sell shoes and done massively well out of it – in the sense that the agency (and Nike) were overwhelmingly white and profiting off the adaptation of others’ culture.

Nowadays this is all done under the remit of diversity: that to sell accurately and effectively to the widest possible market, that means realising that there are other people out there than middle-class white people. Of course this is easier said than done, and the notion of diversity was at times a bit weird (ie it feeling like recruiting the “right” kind of diverse people was a priority, where right might mean black male as opposed to white female, never mind any other combination).

But anyway, I digress. Pattern Recognition is just over a decade old now, and the world of advertising has changed. It’s clear that Bigend knows that this is about to happen – he makes reference to it quite early on in the book that he senses the industry narrowing and that the fakers are going to get called out (well, maybe it hasn’t *completely* happened yet) but perhaps the biggest way in which Blue Ant might have changed in the intervening decade would be in its relationship with its clients. After all, if no-one’s buying, then no one gets to be paid by Blue Ant to do all the stuff they want to do.

So this isn’t a surprise: these days, Blue Ant looks like collaboration with Slack (of, if you’re being obnoxious, a “bespoke collaboration app built by a world-famous iOS developer recruited away from Apple”), an address book full of email addresses that people actually answer, public and private Twitter accounts, a private Stack Exchange, Dropbox business accounts, a bunch of Silent Circle BlackPhones, on-demand, just-in-time ground transport through Uber and, depending on your need for point-to-point hundred-mile plus transport either fractional jet ownership or Diamond frequent flyer status and someone else’s expense account.

Mundane Blue Ant still has to sell, and selling in the world of Blue Ant means producing decks and giving meatspace presentations. Selling in the world of Blue Ant means someone still has to grapple with font servers, buying typefaces or commissioning them, and fucking Adobe Creative Cloud. And then, of course, there are all the mundane Blue Antlings, the ancillary services that take the sold Blue Ant strategy and then communicate it out through the host corporate organism, across silos, organisations, territories and so on. “Hi, I’m Steve from Blue Ant, and I’ll be socialising the 2015/SP-SU strategy at this workshop over the next couple of days” is something that’s the price of existence these days.

But then Blue Ant’s skill wasn’t just the sexiness of spotting proto-trends and being able to repurpose them in the right way. It was finding the right person in the right place for the right job and then spinning up all this dormant infrastructure around them – at the right time, at the right place – so that it all came together like clockwork.

But then, how much infrastructure did we ever get to see? We saw things like routes for new logos for shoe companies on thick card stock in envelopes (I’ve been there, it’s still done) as opposed to projected on 4K TVs.

I mean, when it comes down to it, Blue Ant comes in and does a presentation and Mundane Blue Ant Tech Support comes in because the Crestron isn’t talking to the boardroom display again and there’s an embedded video in this PowerPoint (Mundane Blue Ant uses PowerPoint, right?) and did anyone remember to bring a dongle? You imagine Bigend sitting there, sighing, head-in-face, Picard-style, because, fuck’s sake, he’s *Bigend*, founder of Blue Ant, and this idiot doesn’t have the right dongle for their laptop. (The counter-argument is that if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t have the right dongle for their laptop, then you don’t get to consult for Blue Ant).

Mundane Blue Ant just has a regular build-to-order monthly dropship of Blue Ant Macbook Airs and Retina Pros, and when you start with them, Global Frequency style, they just get dropshipped to you, FedEx/Uber-style. Perhaps this is the thing: Blue Ant’s need to understand the next as completely as possible is a thing for *commerce* – it’s as if Bigend would somehow find himself sitting in on a session at an O’Reilly Foo Camp, taking notes from session presenters and then jetting back out to persuade Stodgy Old Multinational that Next Big Thing was coming.

So we’ve got Blue Ant as the cultural systems integrator – the pick a part here, pick a part there, but Blue Ant as a distinctly early 00s phenomenon. The idea of more creativity going into the marketing of products rather than the creation of products themselves is interesting, but feels increasingly out of touch, these days. Well, I suppose it’s more complicated than that – for undifferentiated product, sure, creativity in advertising is its hope at grabbing attention and conversion into the sales dollar, but at the same time it feels like we’re seeing more (ish) investment into the craft of product in the first place.

There’s a bit that feels missing here, though. One wonders a little bit about Bigend’s role in all of this. Someone interested in marketing, advertising and media strategy. He gets to understand all this stuff, and impart that understanding to his clients – but ultimately, someone has to *do* something about it. To me, that’s the excitement of the new: the undiscovered frontier that’s just rezzing into existence just behind that boundary. Blue Ant’s infrastructure and funding is a way for you to turn on NOCLIP for the world, to see what’s going to pop up once you remove the occluding polygons. It’s Keanu Reeves working out how to read the z-buffer in the rendering engine of the Matrix and seeing *through* to the next.

But then what do you do with it? You take something like the footage, and you launch next year’s Kobe basketball shoes with them? Bigend’s got to feel pretty inept at that – sure, he’s moving the needle on commerce and helping shift SKUs, but how much of an effect is he having?

No, there’s a parallel universe here. 10 years later, Bigend is disillusioned with what he’s able to achieve in marketing and advertising, and wants to remake the world. That’s the Bigend I want to see now. What’s appealing, in contrast to something like Google [x] is that Blue Ant is out there discovering the edges, peeling back the fog of war. What’s ultimately leading to career burnout for the Blue Antlings is that they rarely get to *do* anything with it, whereas Google [x] is all focussed on the big, already-identified moonshots. So you can see the appeal for someone like Ellis who came up with a concept like the Frequency: but instead of dealing with the existential threats, you’re discovering them. Bigend bends and perverts them to increase revenue for his clients, or make sure that they stave off their death or demise by two or three years. But what would it be like to have an open remit to discover the new, to completely understand it, and then mould it.

[1] Blue Ants

2.0 Press Square To Hack

My current gaming diversion has been Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs[1] and every. Single. Time. I play it, I’ve been reminded of the post about quality being fractal[2]. Not that I necessarily buy the quality-is-fractal argument, more that if you’re the kind of person who’s going to obsess about quality, and I mean *really* obsess, then you’re going to obsess in a way that’s going to make recursion look at you like a proud parent.

So what irks about Watch Dogs is that there are certainly good bits, but as ever – and I understand the realities of production constraints and shipping and resource and just getting the damn thing out of the door – whilst the game is fine to play, there are bits of the story that are just… not good.

And I mean, not, *not* good, just – they don’t stack up. Spoilers follow.

No, really. Spoilers follow.

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I mean, you have a protagonist who starts out with questionable ethics basically portscanning everyone in a swanky hotel looking for secrets and grabbing money by, well, pressing square to hack. He grabs the wrong thing, and just like a good plot where one thing happens and the next few hours are just slow implosion, a series of Bad Events Occur where his niece gets killed in collateral damage on the hit ordered to take him out.

And yet – and this was the weird part for me – here’s me, playing a sort of social justice warrior with a bunch of zero-days, rootkits and a backdoor into NSA CODENAMES and the commercial surveillance industry complex, and I’m fucking over all these completely normal innocent people to get funds in the game (you just press square to hack pretty much anyone you come across in the street and their funds are magically transferred to you) and honestly, the bodycount by the end of the game is pretty much ludicrous.

Part of the cognitive dissonance is that you’re wandering around, driving badly (as I am) avenging the death of your niece and you’re doing a Nathan Drake of racking up an impressive number of both intentional, enemy kills as well as civilian kills – at least, if you’re as bad a driver as I am. But it’s not just that, it’s also that the plot is hamfisted, the cybering at times borders upon Anthony E Zulker CSI-levels of dumbness despite occasional breakthroughs of insight. There’s lots of hacking and viruses and “they’re in the system!” and “we’ve found a backdoor!” that makes it all a bit haxploitation, and whilst I understand the need to make hacking “easy” to make the game actually, you know, playable, I swear to god if hacking continues to just be a series of pipemania-like minigames, I will, oh, go and play Uplink[3] or something.

[1] Watch Dogs – Wikipedia

[2] Quality is Fractal

[3] Uplink

Best,

Dan