Highlighted passages from ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir’ by Carrie Brownstein

I know this is the end of the year, but ‘Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir‘ was one of the first books I read this year. I’m just putting these down for posterity, passages that stood out for me, that I thought resonated with me or were otherwise just lyrical. And they teach me so much in themselves; about memories, music, elitism, fandom – and just being human.

Nostalgia is so certain: the sense of familiarity it instills makes us feel like we know ourselves, like we’ve lived. To get a sense that we have already journeyed through something – survived it, experienced it – is often so much easier and less messy than the task of currently living through something.

There was a stillness about the past, a clarity, the way it has been somewhat defined and dissected, in the rearview mirror; it was there for the taking, for the mining.

I don’t know much theory, I play by instinct and feel, I could probably get schooled by an eight-year-old on tonics and inversions. But back then, the word ‘musician’ had a professional characteristic to it that would have made it more alienating and anathema. Back then, I was still just a fan of music. And to be a fan of music also meant to be a fan of cities, of places. Regionalism – and the creative scenes therein – played an important role in the identification and contextualization of a sound or aesthetic. Music felt married to place, and the notion of “somewhere” predated the Internet’s seeming invention of “everywhere” (which often ends up feeling like “nowhere”).

To this day, because I know no other way of being or feeling, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in a band – I have nothing else to compare it to. But I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked “Why are you in an all-male band?”

Though I had no reservations about touring with Pearl Jam, elitism was a stubborn habit to kick. A small part of my brain retreated to my younger self, reminding me that in certain circles Nirvana had been considered the cooler, more authentic band. Nirvana’s music dragged you across the floor, you felt every crack, every speck of dirt. Their songs helped you locate the places where you ached, and in that awareness of your hurting you suddenly knew that the bleakness was collective, not merely your own. In other words, it’s okay to feel like a freak. And in high school, and for much of my adult life, maybe even now, I had, I do.

I love being a new onlooker, a convert. To become a fan of something, to open and change, is a move of deliberate optimism, curiosity, and enthusiasm.


What I took away from The Story 2016

The Story 2016 has ended, but a number of thoughts seeded by the speakers stayed in my mind.

When people passionate about words write, you can hear the emotion in the air.

That’s how I felt when I listened to poet, journalist, musician and ex-lawyer Musa Okwonga as he spoke about freedom of expression in the age of social media. He compared his experience as a black LGBT person, to the experience of women online: ‘fury against women is too often the lava that runs under the surface of social media’. He spoke about journalists being restricted from writing what they really think, and I was cast back to recent events in India, where a student leader was arrested on charges of sedition, amongst many many other acts by the administration against journalists in the country in recent times. As Mr. Okwonga said, ‘This is a worrying time for writers and artists who are trying to cover the most pressing issues of our time’. He ended with a rallying cry for us: the only way out is to ‘expose those wounds and write even more’.

Science writer Gaia Vince took us on a journey of climate change, and I learnt about Chewang Norphel, a retired civil engineer, who is creating artificial glaciers in Ladakh to act as a source of water in an otherwise arid area. She also spoke about the importance of integrating migrants into the city instead of leaving them to their own devices: Rio’s gondolas link favelas with more prosperous areas, instead of ignoring them, for example.

Documentarist and photographer Daniel Meadows presented the fruits of his decades-long journey to capture England on film, starting in the 1970s. His work is a thing of beauty.

I have now got on my agenda one more to-do: visit the Whitechapel Gallery to see the Electronic Superhighway exhibit. Two of the speakers, academics Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead, took us through their larger body of art work and mentioned that one of their projects is currently on show there. It was amusing: spam emails as art. I’m sure there are plenty of us who have laughed at the inanity of some of the emails we get. As the speakers said, ‘The craft that goes into making a successful spam email is a honed skill’.

Cartoonist C.Spike Trotman warned us off the nostalgia for the old days of the internet. Her entire career, and that of many like her (us), has been built thanks to the web, which gave them the opportunity to side-step publishing houses and middlemen and go straight to their fans. She spoke about her journey over the past decade or so, where she was warned by some of the then-famous cartoonists not to back platforms like Kickstarter as it was akin to destroying their livelihoods. I felt her pain when she talked about the ‘disappointment of meeting your heroes’ – when they didn’t believe in the Now as much as she did, and were fearful for their careers over what they could learn from the increased connections they were able to make. That’s no good today, because really you can run but you can’t hide from the internet anymore if you make work for (what you’d want to be) a public audience. She closed with ‘Don’t be that person who pines for 5 years ago, because 5 years ago was terrible. I was there.’

TV presenter, writer and actor Dallas Campbell brought a real astronaut’s suit, opened it up with drama on the stage, and told us about how he’d always wanted to be one – and how the suit was constructed. It was very cinematic, the energy that went into his talk – I can imagine watching it on the BBC!

Born N’Bread was a nice wake-up call for those of us who think the internet is the be-all and end-all. In as much as C.Spike Trotman advocated for the Internet of Now, Born N’Bread, a collective of young London women, advocated for the Print of Today also. Their zine exists only in physical form, though they have a wide social footprint as a team and as a brand. Also – I’m clearly quite old. Witness: ‘The word ‘blog’ irritates me. We’re not that pretentious!’ Said tongue-in-cheek, but amusing nonetheless!

Fans of The Retronaut would have been as excited as I was to see Wolfgang Wilder speak. He took us through his childhood, his inspiration for the Retronaut and its journey to becoming a part of Mashable. The premise of the Retronaut, the ‘messing with your mind’ aspect of photos that take you through a time machine, is pretty cool, and its success is a wonderful thing.

Hannah Nicklin was a star turn, you had to be there to understand the combined power of theatre + words + a heightened sense of self-awareness as she questioned her ‘arrogance’ as a writer (it is an important question for all writers to ask).

Helen Zaltzman, Jamie Byng and James Ball were all equally strong in what they had to say, whether through comedy (Zaltzman), a stream of thinking (Byng, on his experiences at the Calais refugee camps) or the examination of a process (James Ball, about his work at the Guardian on the Snowden files). Leila Johnston held the proceedings together very artfully!

I don’t think it is by any stretch of imagination easy to put together a conference. Harder to make it around a theme as open to interpretation as storytelling. And harder still to ensure a level of quality from 100% of the speakers (this, I assure you, is a rarity) – making The Story that rare diamond amongst the rough of conferences. I doff my hat to Matt Locke, Hugh Garry and the team at Storythings and thank them for their effort – it certainly gave me a lot to think about.

I’ll close this by quoting Auden via Jamie Byng, the last talk of the day: ‘How can I know what I think unless I see what I say?’ So, see what you say, and know what you think, by learning more about people’s experiences. The Story is a good start.

‘Never stop learning, because technology never stops evolving’

Last week, the founders of Women Shift Digital asked me to write a short piece for their platform highlighting key points in my career and anything I had to say to young people starting out in technology. I didn’t overthink it, and wrote what came to my mind rapidly rather than ruminating over it too much. Partly this was due to the need to meet a deadline, but they are things I clearly felt strongly about.

Have a read, if you like.

Thoughts on Recent Developments in Scanning Technology

Scanning technology has come a long way in the last couple of years.

Last week, Shazam announced that they’ve ventured into visual scanning, building on top of their already popular listening technology. It works on any image that has the Shazam logo on it, such as this poster for Disney’s George Clooney-starrer Tomorrowland, where scanning the poster with the Shazam app throws up interactive content related to the film on your smartphone. Interesting, but my quibble here is that image recognition is tied to using both the Shazam logo and app.

Then we have Blippar, who were initially known for their QR-scanning technology, which (don’t get me started on it!) hardly anyone uses properly – even now. Blippar acquired Layar last year to become the biggest Augmented Reality technology provider out there, bringing static images to life, and with a combined user base of 50 million. At PHD, Blippar competitor Zappar was even integrated into one of our books, 2016: Beyond the Horizon by PHD Worldwide Strategy & Planning Director Mark Holden, a few years ago. Point the app at an infographic on a page and it came to life – fascinating even then, to me at least.

Then things on the augmented reality front quietened down. The more interesting executions were artistic commissions like Chris O’Shea’s Hand from Above.

Till now. In March this year, Blippar raised $45 million in funding. They have some big plans, including becoming a visual search engine – a sort of visual Wikipedia where you point at something you want information about and it automatically pulls up relevant tagged information on your phone. Not only that, it can start linking outward to further information from that one image. Jessica Butcher, one of the co-founders of Blippar, spoke about their plans at TedX London Business School in April.

In other words, you don’t need a QR code or specific logo to trigger the information anymore, just the Blippar app and your smartphone camera. Definite progress.

However, the frontrunner for me at the moment is internet of things company Evrythng’s newest evolution of the technology. Pull up a specific URL on your smartphone, open your smartphone camera, point at a thing (anything, as long as it’s sufficiently recognisable, whether a logo or an object) and automatically get linked information. It can even be configured to trigger messages based on location and specific conditions (‘if this image was taken in London, show X content but if it was taken in New York, show Y’). Crucially, it doesn’t depend on you using a specific app or logo – just visiting a URL on your smartphone.

Step by step, over the months, the barriers to customers using this kind of technology are going down. That’s what’s important. I’m not going to download an app just because you tell me to; mostly I can’t be bothered – my life isn’t run by your requests or commands. That’s what so many technology companies get wrong: they think it’s a privilege for customers to use their technology but it’s about the privilege customers give *them* by *allowing* them into their busy lives.

So doing something I do fairly often – take a picture on my phone – is a much easier ask, even if I do have to go to a web page first. It’s not perfect yet, but for now visiting webpages is a reasonably natural behaviour as well, so it will do.

We’re nowhere near the end of this journey yet. Who knows what the next few years will bring? That’s what makes this whole space interesting at the moment: the potential to find out.

Cross-posted on the PHD blog

Bits and pieces from #canandwill @5x15stories

Sir Ranulph Fiennes speaking at 5x15, picture via 5x15
Sir Ranulph Fiennes speaking at 5×15, picture via 5×15

I went to the 5×15 stories event this week. It was the most inspiring evening I’ve been to in a long time.

Karren Brady, former MD of Birmingham Football Club and current Vice-Chairperson of West Ham spoke about leadership. She spoke about being a woman in a man’s world, and turning around a business (Birmingham) that went from debt to being sold for £82 million in a little over 10 years. The six characteristics of leadership she mentioned are worth remembering: leadership (which is about inspiring people and shouldn’t be confused with management), ambition (a personal desire to do your best all the time), determination, attitude (‘if you can, change it. If you can’t, change your attitude), direction (everyone needs to understand what is expected of them) and being positive (hanging on when everyone has let go). She quoted Martin Luther King:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

I was very excited to see Mick Ebeling because I think Project Daniel is brilliant. He spoke about that of course but also about the idea of impossible. He mentioned Roger Bannister and the 4-minute mile, saying that it had never been broken till he did, and then after that, it was broken multiple times in a very short span of time. So,

Impossible isn’t about impossible, it’s about permission.

Pam Warhurst spoke about Incredible Edible Todmorden, and

Believing in the power of small actions

Mike Goody, a former RAF soldier who lost a leg in Afghanistan and is an incredible sportsman nevertheless, spoke about his journeys, his mental strength and the Invictus Games. He quoted the poem ‘Invictus‘ by William Ernest Henley. It’s a moving poem, but I will always remember the last two lines that Mike read out:

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul

Hearing Ranulph Fiennes speak is knowing you are in the presence of a legend. He is the only man alive to have ever travelled the earth’s circumpolar circumference, and his expeditions and adventures are truly jaw-dropping. Videos of him on the North Face of the Eiger (as someone who has fears heights) and sailing from South to North Pole at a time when there was no modern gadgetry: GPS, phones, etc. were as inspiring as they were nerve-racking.

So, yes, after all that if I can’t and won’t do anything, I have only myself to blame.