Choose your allegiances with care.

Choose your allegiances with care.

A new update to Samsara – my browser-based storygame of courtly intrigue, dreams and war.

Over 30 new cards, and around 25,000 words of delirious new content!

April and May: The Anglo-French war erupts, and there are rumours of conspiracy and madness in Bengal

There are whispers of black magic and madness on the streets of Murshidabad, and dark betrayal in the courts. And even more disturbing challenges face you in the dreaming.

Peer into the dreams of Afghan emperors and court-ladies. Visit the opium-wreathed Bengali court and try to separate lies from truth. Build relationships with your friends, plot against your enemies. Choose your allegiances with great care.

War is coming and the price of ignorance will be blood.

Play Samsara now.

And, in the tradition of the last update – as a thankyou for playing the game or following the blog, I’ll write you 100 words or so of fiction set in the world of Samsara if you comment with a request. Go on, I promise it’ll be fun.

PLEASE NOTE: if your request could be considered a spoiler for new players please change your font colour to white, like this!

Thanks for playing, and I hope you enjoy the new month!

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While this email is obviously absurd, it’s the same general logic that we will be confronted with over and over again: choose your team. Which would you prefer? Bombs or exploits. Terrorism or security. Us or them. As transparent as this logic might be, sometimes it doesn’t take much when confirming to oneself that the profitable choice is also the right choice.

If I absolutely have to frame my choices as an either-or, I’ll choose power vs. people.



- From Moxie Marlinspike’s blogpost about receiving a telecom surveillance brief from Saudi company Mobily to monitor communications on services like WhatsApp, Twitter, Viber, Line. Worth a read, especially for further thoughts on what it means to be a “hacker” in an increasingly capitalism-driven world, where the sousveillance or disruption of hacking is now much more easily leveraged by governments and those in power. It isn’t “security services” vs. “hacking” any more, that simple narrative doesn’t work - Moxie’s formulation is more accurate: power vs. people. (How does this all fit into the machine-gaze, there’s the question: who controls the code?)
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Sydan from Fallen London and Ilvala Soma from Samsara


Sydan Kuu Loska of Winterstrike and Sydan Martin of The Silver Tree


Contes (Arrel and Annwn versions) from The Annwn Simulation 1985

nostalgiachan:

Some of the StoryNexus doodles I’ve worked on over the past week or two. Here we have:

  • Sydan, the high-class authoress with a violent streak and a tinge of kleptomania from Fallen London
  • Ilvala Soma, the gentle but iron-willed dreamwalker who loves a good (literal) mindscrew from Samsara
  • Sydan Kuu Loska, Scarf and Feather Society member and Ironbird reformer from Winterstrike
  • Sydan Martin, highly-suspicious spy from The Silver Tree
  • Contes, in both her Arrel tradgoth attire and her Annwn bard gear from The Annwn Simulation 1985

Seriously, I’ve done better work on notebook paper in the last week than I’ve probably ever done in a sketchbook. Notebook paper is seriously magical.

Oh man, lovely Storynexus fanart, including a character from my game Samsara. No, no, I am not overexcited at all. Oh no.

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I had an excellent time at Write the Future a micro-conference curated by the Arthur C. Clarke award for science fiction, at the Royal Society. A thoughtful and varied list of speakers, and lots of interesting people and discussions.

Some of my thoughts kicked off by Matt Webb @genmon from BERG – who gave an excellent and insightful talk about network as the new electricity, autonomous objects and a psychoanalytical approach to designing products that sense, talk, respond, react – maybe even feel, yeah? It’s all about the Internet of Things – connectedness creeping into our physical objects. The bit that interested me the most was Matt positing giving objects “personality” as a way to break down the alienation that comes with the complexity & opaqueness of our technological products. To make objects fit us more comfortably.

robodog is cripplingly afraid of baths

robodog only barks at a neighbour-friendly decibel level. bandai’s smartpet

To domesticate them so that we can understand them and use them more effectively and intuitively; the difference between a pack of wolves and a dog curled up at the foot of the bed.

In some ways this feels like a part of a web of responses to the New Aesthetic idea of “seeing like a machine”, of humans living in an increasingly machine-readable world, and how dislocating that experience can be. A little while ago I wrote about videogames as machine-readable play, looking at digital devices that were specifically crafted to evoke and respond to human responses, to help us play rather than perform a specific function, and I said:

[T]hat’s what videogames are – a bunch of humans writing some code to respond to the inputs of another bunch of humans – a continuing cycle of humans reading machines reading humans reading humans with some fun thrown in to lubricate the exchange. Not in a dirty way. Okay, fine, sometimes in a dirty way. What I’m saying here is that videogames are, in essence, machine-readable play – and that’s interesting.

What’s more “human” than play? What’s more strange and disorienting than machines built to surprise and delight, living in that darkly lit place between the quantified self and inner child?

When we use digital devices for play, when they participate or facilitate our desires or delights, then of course it makes sense to design them to respond to our feelings in a way that we understand. I talked about a world in which the “digitised human and the humanised machine [are] trying to converge their perspectives” – it seems like giving machines personality is how BERG thinks we’ll find our middle ground.

And if you’re designing personality as well as machinery, a psychoanalytical approach seems only sensible – though Matt in his talk said he wasn’t talking about “Woody Allen” products, not neurotic and needy. Unspoken was the kind of products we were talking about: joyful, optimistic, perhaps even delighted at the prospect of printing out our morning paper or making us a coffee or powering up our nuclear missiles. Cows-that-want-to-be-eaten, or rather: coffee-grinders that text in sick when they need servicing, printers that get grumpy when their ink starts running low, butlerbots that iron their hands like house-elves when they forget to wash your jeans.

virtually fat-free as well

I’ll just nip off and shoot myself

No, more: buses that flirt gently with you to encourage you to use public transport, cities that sing when (enough of you) recycle.

Creepy/delightful really is the the spectrum of the future.

It’s not that we want our digital devices to understand us, but rather, that we want to understand them, and see our own understanding reflected back to us. A neurotic and wonderfully human response. I think BERG is spot on when they talk about the discomfort, the dislocation, the alienation of the digital device – personality’s just one of the ways to ease that discomfort, to shape the tools to fit the hand.

Personally, though, I’m less interested in machine autonomy than I am in how we design that autonomy. Anthropomorphising our devices has the dangerous side-effect of eliding the human factor, of giving machines moral agency. And perhaps at some point they will truly do so, but for now, machines have the moral agency we design into them.

Smari McCarthy @smarimc, one of the other speakers at WTF, when talking about how we’re getting to grips with Big Data said:

the thing that’s missing from the dataset are its assumptions

That’s eminently true of the idea of digital device autonomy. What’s missing is often the assumptions and desires of the designer – cameras are nosy because we made them that way. Maybe BERG’s answer is a good one. We are used to thinking about humans as having complex motivations and working at understanding them. Maybe personality will be the cracks in the smooth machine surface that allow us to see inside them, examine them, use them carefully and wisely. Maybe our Tomahawk missiles will curse and spit and growl and shout racist insults; or maybe they’ll smile and blink their lights invitingly and gently coax us to input the target coordinates.

When we mechanise an activity we already feel that our autonomy is in some way reduced. (Wouldn’t it be easier to pull a trigger than wrap your hands around someone’s neck and squeeze?) It’s so easy to displace that autonomy-debt onto the device itself, to distribute moral responsibility or even abdicate it to the device. If a drone tells its operator that it wants to explode, will the operator feel the consquences of that action as keenly?

I suppose, the question here: we see articles about drone-operators suffering from terrible psychological after effects, but I haven’t seen any articles about drone-manufacturing company CEOs or factory-workers or managers at risk of developing PTSD. They are clearly morally implicated, but that implication is more distant, more separated, more distributed, offloaded onto the person with their hands around the controller – but isn’t the drone itself a more convenient scapegoat? Especially if it has a face, can talk, can simulate desire well enough for us to grant it a convenient volition?

Okay, so I’ve taken this post down a very particular, slightly less optimistic road, but I’m still very interested objects with personality. Despite, or maybe even because, it’s so potentially problematic, it intrigues and excites me. I think that it’s a forward thinking design strategy, I think it’s going to become increasingly relevant in our connected world. But I suppose I’m as interested in the shadows created by our intentions – by the neurosis that surely must go with the optimism, by the dysfunction that naturally must arise from the rows and rows of well-adjusted machines playfully inviting us to like them and ourselves, by futures that are gloriously, shiningly, horrifyingly human.

Machines that are irritable and bloodthirsty as well as eager, that hate us and mock us as well as love and encourage us – which isn’t a bad thing, maybe. Sometimes we need to be hated too, don’t we? It’s a learning experience.

fine, go google Jennifer Lawrence, whatever

she was designed for you to love her. WHY DON’T YOU LOVE HER? from spill.com

If machines are ever going to be – as Matt exhorted in his talk – more than pets and something like companions and equals, then they will need to challenge us, frighten us, sicken us and delight us just as much as other human beings can; perfection, after all, is so very alienating. Just ask Anne Hathaway.

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“As is the case with good orators, Mr. Modi is able to project an image of his choosing. But he is also a projection of the Hindu middle class, which wants to believe — and persuade everyone who does not believe — that it does not adore Mr. Modi for being the man who headed a state government that, more than a decade ago, appeared to neglect its duty to protect hundreds of Muslims from being slaughtered in one of the country’s deadliest communal riots, but because he is modern and smart. It is not an image he has always lived up to.”

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Politicians Courting the Privileged by Manu Joseph.

Definitely worth a read, if you’re interested in the movements and motivations of the newly politicised great Indian middle class. Also dotted with remarkable observations:

Rahul Gandhi as “a man who has the bearing of the disturbed Prince Gautama who has just discovered poverty in his kingdom and is on his way to becoming the enlightened Buddha under a fig tree”. The Indian middle class as wanting, now, “a great manager at the helm of the nation”. Government as business; a huge turn from the Fabian origins of the nation (arguably only at the very top level) but even the crusading Satyamev Jayate-style social righteousness that’s characterised the last, maybe, five years.

Maybe even more problematic are the two “poles” that we seem to have here: Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a political dynasty, more akin to a princeling than a political candidate who is so hereditarily entrenched in the system that a vote for him feels uncomfortably undemocratic. And Narendranath Modi, a smirking Hindu nationalist with blood on his hands and an iphone in his pocket. 

I suppose it’s slightly less painful to look at them both through the lens of India’s business success stories instead… (And hey, who hasn’t had an entitled manager? Or a thoroughly evil one?)

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The French-held town of Chandernagore

Samsara – my browser-based storygame of courtly intrigue, dreams and war – has just updated with the next chapter, March 1757: a whole month with over 30 cards of new content to play.

In March the British threat grows more serious, and your French allies look to the Nawab for aid. War threatens to consume Bengal.

This month you can:
Explore an entirely new town: the charming French-governed port of Chandernagore. Enjoy your lover’s dangerously erotic delights in the dreaming. Dip into the minds of kings and servants alike. Establish your place in the Nawab’s court. Choose to befriend cigar-smoking memsahibs and shy young doctors and wily diplomats from unfamiliar lands.

Will you barter your loyalty? Will you risk trusting those who seem to offer friendship? Will you be able to hold true to your own moral codes?

If you’ve been playing Samsara, we hope you’ll enjoy the continuation of your journey – and if you haven’t played yet, then this is an excellent time to begin.

Play Samsara now.

As a thank you for following the blog, or playing the game, I’ll write you 100 or so words of fiction set in the world of Samsara if you comment with a request. A sentence, or a few words. Would you like to see your sa-ilu in a particular situation? Have you wondered about a childhood moment or suppressed desire? Perhaps you would like to explore an alternate choice to a decision in the game?

If I’m terribly, desperately inspired, the result might even make it into the game. But no promises!

PLEASE NOTE: if your request could be considered a spoiler for new players please change your font colour to white, like this!

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The Lost Cover

My short story The Beasts By Their Names will appear in The Lost – an anthology published by Galileo Games. The story is based on their game The Kingdom of Nothing, but can be read independently. The Lost is a fantastical and gritty anthology about people forgotten and abandoned by society, taken to an extreme – these people are actually forgotten, literally invisible to people around them, robbed of their memories as well as their place in the normal world. They live shadow-existence where stories and hopes and fears gain quite physical reality.

My story is set in late 1940s London, a city barely patched over after the Blitz – still struggling with the trauma and loss of WWII.

There are – at least – three protagonists to my story. One of them is Fix Blackhands, the leader of a gang of urchins and pickpockets, children who have disappeared from society and find themselves among the Lost. Fix is desperate to regain any sense of her old life, willing to pay any price to return home – and this hunger makes her vulnerable. The other main character is a young boy, the newest member of Fix’s rooftop-dwelling gang, struck with a serious case of hero-worship. The last is the monster who sometimes takes the shape of a woman – a creature of winter and death who feeds on human love, and but is itself wracked by very human desires.

Here’s the opening:

They have given me many names. In China I am Tigerskin. The Russians call me Rusalka, and expect to see my feet drip with water. In North India I am worshipped as the twins Hidimbi and Hidimba – lover and cannibal, tempting the gods themselves with my fair faces. Perhaps you call me the White Lady. It is a mistake to do so; I am not a woman, or even a man. The moment you forget that, you’re already dead.

I call myself the White.

You will find your own name for me, and I am sorry for this. Believe that, even if you forget everything else.

It’s a story about love rather than a love-story, but it’s also about the myths of love. Then again, it’s also partly a cautionary tale, and partly a horror story. It’s also kind of a story about a girl who wishes she was smog and metal, smoke and rain rather than flesh and blood. It’s most definitely a story about names, and about getting them right – naming something is an act of creation, just like renaming yourself is an attempt at reinvention.

The title is a Biblical reference, to Adam calling all the beasts by their names – there was something about that idea that resonated with the story. There’s power in naming, obviously, but also presumption. The possibility of truth and the idea of a lie: a name can try to capture an essence, or it can be a disguise. They’re slippery things.

Anyway – this was a story that I greatly enjoyed writing, and is part of a anthology whose proceeds are going to a charity which reflects the themes of the stories within it: feeding the hungry. The Lost is currently crowdfunding on indiegogo for charity – if you feel you can, please do think about contributing. You can give to a good cause, and recieve nine great stories in return.

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Look, I'm totally playtesting March!

Samsara: Bengal, 1757 – a game of politics, power & ancient magic

So, I’m writing Samsara – a choice-based storygame on the Storynexus platform. For those of you who are playing along, that’s the platform that drives the most excellent alternate-London Victorian gaslamp fantasy Fallen London.

I was lucky enough to win Storynexus’s first World of the Season Competition – judged by Mark Laidlaw of Bioware fame, Susan Arendt from the Escapist, and indie games developer Jonas Kyratzes. The rather fantastic people at Failbetter described Samsara as:

an intricately detailed and wantonly phantasmagoric tale of dreams, intrigue and desire. If Inception had been set in eighteenth-century Bengal, it might have looked like this.

In Samsara, you play a valued member of the Nawab of Bengal’s court. You have been raised high despite your low birth because you have a particular gift: the ability to walk in dreams. Bengal is threatened on all sides – by the Marathas in the West, the Afghans to the North, and the British and French playing out their colonial rivalry on Bengali soil. With your power, you have the chance to change history.

So. That’s why you should go play it. Also, Mike Laidlaw said, and I quote, “I loved Samsara”, amongst some other terribly nice things. Not that I’m in the least going to be smug about that forever.

There are many creator worlds on Storynexus which you should definitely go have a look at. Here are a few that I’ve particularly enjoyed. If you’re into Westerns and apocalypse, Zero Summer is your game – picking up the tropes of the genre and twisting them intriguingly. Evolve is a clever use of the platform that merges games and learning (which I’m a huge fan of). Yoon Ha Lee’s deliciously named and delirious Winterstrike is icily atmospheric. And definitely give the short, experimental but surprisingly satisfying poem-in-game-form Blue Moon a go.

I’m writing March 1757 – episode two – and it’s both exhilirating and complicated. February functioned as a prologue, and set up a lot of characters and qualities (essentially Chekov’s guns) that are primed to “go off”, or at least, “gently but ominously smoke” in the next episodes. There’s a bit of a balancing act with worldbuilding, and satisfaction – the same balancing act that anyone creating any kind of serial narrative faces. What makes writing Samsara particularly interesting is that the possibilities shift as you go – technically speaking. Which is a hint that Storynexus’s latest release allowing equippable items, and “slots” to organise your resources and characters you encounter, is going to feature reasonably heavily in March.

If I had to pick a theme for March (and I don’t) it would be betrayal – in various senses of the term. The betrayal of love, duty, honour, self. Your place in the Nawab’s court, the Nawab’s position in history, Bengal’s place in the wider world – all of these are threatened. All of the paths available to you are compromised, it’s all about what exactly you’re willing to compromise, and why.

Quite a few people (the inimitable Susan Arendt among them) have commented on the game’s “voyeurism”, your role’s “potential for creepiness” which seems entirely reasonably, entirely justified. I think that’s an interesting way to start your character. Though as the game progresses, I think you-as-player, you-as-voyeur, will become increasingly entangled and hopelessly snared. The power to slip through dreams has consequences, leaves marks on your flesh and on your psyche. So there’s that to look forward to!

I’m planning to blog about the writing and designing process, the reasons why I’ve made decisions, some of the difficulties I’ve had, and even, you know, incredibly out of date courtly gossip from the Nawab of Bengal’s mid-18th century court. There may even be illustrative pictures nicked from Wikipedia!

Do play the game, and let me know what you think.

If you want to be updated when new content is released, email meg [at] thisunrealcity.com

“Somebody like Coke decides to create content like a network does or like Netflix is doing now. I can’t help but think that’s not only a possibility, but a certainty. We’ve seen so many fantastic TV shows over the years somehow fail in the ratings—Friday Night Lights and Arrested Development were critical darlings but the networks didn’t know how to make them succeed, and there are whispers of Community, one of the best comedies on TV, possibly getting the ax at some point. Maybe some of these critically-acclaimed, audience-lacking shows get picked up by a company like Coke, retaining all the creative people involved, and they find a way to incorporate the product into the show, or at the very least, simply have people watch new episodes on The Coca-Cola Channel. Big huge Coke logo surrounds a media player of some sort, and they just let the show be. If picking up shows like that work, who’s to stop them from making their own programs?”

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Every brand will be a studio. ReelSEO.com

Not that this insight is in itself particularly new - brands have often had their fingers in the entertainment pie, supporting rather than advertising - viz. The Colgate Comedy Hour. Sort of, a step to the side of integrated branding. It’s not the Subway sandwich made into a plot element or - as the article mentions - ET following Reese’s pieces - but just brands following the focus of people’s attention. Hovering just to the right of the content itself and going, hey, we paid for this. and you like it. we’re kind of alike, aren’t we? we sort of like the same things. hey kid, i think you and me could reinforce each others’ cool…

But - as the article points out - it’s the emotional connection between audience & content that the brand is trying to leverage. It’s never going to be about “engaging content first, selling product second" - it’s selling product first, and if engaging content does that - then that’s what advertising will mutate into. But what will that world really look like? Will it be brands paying content creators to get the antagonists to drink their rivals’ soft drinks. Content creators threatening to ridicule a brand unless they’re given a healthy chunk of cash (aren’t there already stories about reality stars or celebrities “inappropriate" to luxury brands’ images being paid not to wear their products?).

All of which is fine - art isn’t some kind of ivory-clothed maiden unsullied by the touch of rough commercialism. It has always existed under the eyes and wandering hands of the marketplace of attention.

What might be different about branded content is the way in which we read our art - will the characters in our branded webseries and corporate-sponsored ARGs be reduced to consumers? Is their headache evidence of a brain-tumour or an excuse to do a cutaway of a packet of tylenol, are they starting an exercise regime because of that near-death experience last season or to showcase Nike shoes? Is that broken family getting back together because they’re worked through their issues or because it better represents Coca-cola’s brand values? How long before a brand-exec asks to tweak a piece of content to better appeal to the brand’s demographic?

In an ideal world - these choices would work in a personal/artistic context as well as a market one - but as viewers, we will necessarily begin to parse our texts commercially - whether the text calls for it or not, the characters will all live in a Gibsonian coolhunting future, all content layered over by a compulsive American Psycho narration of product-as-meaning.

Will anyone in a video be able to wear, buy, read, watch, mock, eat, drink or admire anything without the question of whether they’ve been bought off raising itself in the audience’s head?

(Another question: will brands start suing each other over their representations in branded content?)

Will this mean a focus on the contemporary-setting series? Or maybe even a move away from it - to avoid these kinds of choices? Or a kind of BBC-like artificially brandless world, full of Facepages and GNNs and Moogles?

Or maybe the studios will become the next brands? We’ve already got True Blood themed clubs - is it so hard to imagine a world where all real products begin their existence virtually, in a way the apotheosis of this idea of “brand values" - in their Aristotelian, screen-mediated form, the product is exactly what it wants to be, it has an emotional and narrative purpose - as seen on TV, and nowhere else, until its in your hand, and yours and yours. This already exists - American Girl dolls and Moshi Monsters already exploit this symbiosis - merchandising is the future.

Roll on Oceanic Airlines and Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes and True Blood cocktail mixes and Sex and the City clothing lines and Game of Thrones restaurants (oh wait, we already kinda had those.) Maybe the future of content is branding?

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Contrary to some of the rioters’ intentions, even the political grotesque of looting and chaos finds use in the work of Recreational Data, a group that – depending on who is asking or what reward is at stake – is either a trend forecasting agency offering brand optimization for the digital era or an art project staging ironic criticism of such initiatives. The fact that the group’s identificatory position is unclear is perfectly suited to the moment, making them both good trend forecasters and good artists. Whichever way, they are exemplars of entrepreneurial capitalistic practice, asking all the right questions:

“When currency collapses, what will take its place? How do you build brand equity when the markets are freewheeling? How do you turn the vague evidence of a meme into solid wealth creation? How can you make mass civil disobedience work for your brand? And how do you even begin to assess your cultural equity when fear and uncertainty are the order of the day?”
[Recreational Data, Currency Zones of the Future, LuckyPDF, London, 2011]

Addressing such urgent concerns in the promotional document Currency Zones of the Future – distributed via USB – the group proposes to recuperate the riots as consumer data-generation, replacing the pejorative designation ‘feral youth’ with the shoplifter as market indicator. Despite the proposed domestication of wild behavior the document’s rhetoric is unsurprisingly centred around the issue of power play:

Dominating the market means dominating the psychological landscape of the crisis. The State may be forced to interact with the looter and rioter as ‘criminal’, but we may see the looter in terms of potential: as market-modifier and as trend broadcaster.
[Ibid. pp.47-48]

This advice can’t be reduced to the status of mere provocation, as comments by at least one corporate boss confirm. Rioters stole £700,000 worth of stock from JD Sports Fashion outlets during the unrest and yet this news was welcomed by the company’s director who stated that it indicated ‘a strong demand for our products on the high street’

Relational Data also discerns commodifiable authenticity in the political grotesque, outlining ever more radical marketing opportunities:

The looter holds a golden opportunity for any brand, an uncommodified, unsculpted form of ‘realness’ that fills the credibility deficit of the saturated market. The young looter offers a human form for pushing a brand on a level of reach and depth unseen since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans. It will take a daring marketeer to ride the wave, but taking advantage of this “rupture of the real” in the total social conscience will touch a nerve to a real-world social identity that is both neglected and far more vital than constructed social identities favoured by marketeers.
[Ibid. pp.49-50]

As suggested, the cooption of an ‘unsculpted’ form of real world identity in the guise of street disorder by the purveyors of yesterday’s youth culture – ‘rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans’ – should amount to a daring future strategy. However, this apparently novel prescription it is not so far from being realized. Levi Strauss’s Legacy commercial, part of its Go Forth series, was being aired across the UK while parts of London, Manchester and Birmingham went up in flames. The clip features scenes of couples kissing and live rock bands, beach sunsets and city streets thick with tear gas and riot police facing down good looking youths clad in skinny jeans. The collision of marketing fiction and protest, in all of its grotesque permutations, is the new rule. Levi’s pulled the ad but if Relational Data is correct next time they won’t.



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Ping me baby*: Digital pathology and the London riots by Nadim Samma.

(via hautepop)

Welcome to our own Gibsonian future. Does reclaiming the looter into a marketing narrative of “authenticity” (smashing a window for JB Sportswear as the last true & unmanufactured desire?) mean that the protest loses authenticity - if it ever had any in the first place. The hot new buzzword in marketing is “disruption” - don’t worry about your ideology, we can (re)create it for you wholesale?

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