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Productive Procrastination #7

Hello from maybe the most famous neighborhood in Germany (Prenzlauer Berg). Another strange week. See

Productive Procrastination

January 18 · Issue #7 · View online
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Hello from maybe the most famous neighborhood in Germany (Prenzlauer Berg).
Another strange week. Seeing almost everyone around me grieving the loss that is the death of Bowie while having no emotional relation to the man myself. It’s one of those weird consequences of having grown up in a Christian fundamentalist context. I missed a lot that was formative to my current friends. I listened to cheesy “contemporary Christian music” (CCM) while my friends got into Bowie. I read Christian teenage literature while they devoured the sci-fi classics. This used to bug me a lot. But I seem to have made my peace with it when I understood that this is a unique perspective. I can read these classics now and interpret them in a different way. It also gives me a unique view when it comes to topics like spirituality and theology. I can still beat most of my friends when it comes to Bible trivia. Having said that, thanks, Mr. Bowie, for giving my friends so much.
Since Sunday last week, this newsletter has grown from 80 subscribers to roughly 360. Which means I know have to pay for most of you to be able to read this according to Revue’s business model. I’m happy to.
But as most of you landed here because of some vague description from Warren Ellis, I thought it might be a good idea to introduce myself a bit more. So I stole Jay’s idea and wrote “What I did in 2015” (see below). Reviews of the past year are still ok as long as it’s January, right?

What I did in 2015
“If you still don’t know what we do, well, I guess, then we have done a good job.”
–Marty Kaan, House of Lies
Inspired by Jay, here’s my attempt to collect what I’ve done professionally in 2015 to give you a better idea about what I do (Marty wouldn’t approve).
Third Wave
This year, Igor and I celebrated the fifth anniversary of our company Third Wave. We work somewhere in the margins between a business consultancy and a think tank. Our main job is to help organizations make sense of what has been summed up as “digital transformation”.
This quote from Ramez Naam has become a sort of motto for us:
“To understand a thing is to gain the power to change it.”
Our goal is to give our clients agency by helping them to understand the changes happening around them better. 
Our core business is monthly retainers. That means we have some clients that have booked a time budget from us each month. How they use it is up to them and varies from client to client. Some use us as sparring partners to get our opinion on ideas and develop new ones together. Others receive a more formalized report on interesting developments in their industry from us. Some, we help to execute their strategies by finding vendors etc. But for all of them, we are long-term partners for adapting and iterating their digital strategy. We believe that this is the best way to do strategy in this age. Among our retainer clients are an aluminum facade manufacturer, a payment provider, a literature agent and the youth outreach of an animal rights NGO. So you see, we enjoy diversity.
Beyond the retainers, we’ve also done a couple of individual projects for other clients. I’ve worked a lot with different employer (read: lobbying) organizations from the skilled-crafts sector, creating a digital strategy with them to interest teenagers in doing an apprenticeship in this sector.
I’m most interested in understanding the internal politics of these companies and organizations. That’s the starting point for developing a strategy that fits the organization exactly. We then help them implement it in a way that can evolve continuously.
I also spent some time this year, helping an agency with digital strategies for one of the largest infrastructure cooperation in Germany. By sheer randomness, I was also invited by another part of that cooperation to join a network of experts, advising them on future scenarios for their employee management and culture. 
Daily Business
Unlike most other consultancies, we don’t work for one client for a couple of weeks or months and then move on to the next. The retainer model means that we usually switch between different client work each day or sometimes from hour to hour.
Days at the office are usually spent researching, brainstorming or putting a strategy document together. When traveling, it’s mostly to go to the client for a meeting or a workshop. Most of our clients these days are based in Berlin. That means no frequent flyer status for us, which we consider to be a good thing.
We’ve done more workshops this year as we try to work closer with our clients. We found that providing a solution to the client is the easy part. Taking the client along with you and helping them understand the deeper changes that come with digital, is the actual challenge. One, we quite like.
We also travel to learn and make new friends. We went to Manchester for FutureEverything and I stopped by a couple of conferences and events here in Berlin.
Reports & Podcasts
We somehow ended up writing a lot less this year. We also stopped recording our podcast in April. Even so, my highlight was our framework for media companies that I wrote up for the Tinius Trust Annual Report.
I have a feeling that we will put out a lot more this year. Having both started doing a weekly newsletter, it looks like we’re getting back into the habit of writing. (Subscribe to Igor’s newsletter here).
Fun fact: the most read text, I’ve published last year, wasn’t even mine.
Our Office
We still quite like our small office on Rosenthaler Straße in Berlin-Mitte, which we share with two friends. It’s a nice place to come to each day. Besides that, we’ve started to look for a new one. We like change… as much as a better kitchen and a shower.
I gave about 20 talks in 2015. Most of them were around the topic of jobs, automation, and the gig economy. Another topic was wearables and what might come after the hype.
The highlights were that one week in May when I gave talks on three consecutive days, my perfectly timed 7-minutes talk at the IAM Weekend in Barcelona and the visit to Tel Aviv in September where I gave two presentations.
I also did a workshop on social media strategy together with my life partner Nicola.
…that’s a rough summary of my work last year. I hope it made it a bit easier to understand what I do each day. Feel free to ask if you want to know more.
Buying Recommendation
If my comic book recommendations in PP #3 got you interested, this month’s Humble Comics Bundle is perfect for you. It’s a fantastic collection of comic books from Image Comics featuring two volumes by Warren Ellis and other favorites of mine like Saga, Bitch Planet and Wolf. If you’re looking for a route into comics, I couldn’t imagine a better start. 
My favorite comic reader app for the iPad is Chunky btw. 
Blue Ant, Satin Island and DLD
For some reason beyond my recollection, Gibson’s Blue Ant agency and its founder Hubertus Bigend have been on my mind last week. Here’s how they were introduced in Pattern Recognition:
She’s here on Blue Ant’s ticket. Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational, the agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores. Or perhaps as some non-carbon based life-form, entirely sprung from the smooth and ironic brow of its founder, Hubertus Bigend, a nominal Belgian who looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins’ blood and truffled chocolates.
Pattern Recognition btw. remains one of my all-time favorite novels. I’ve started re-reading it every year. Gibson’s talent for capturing the zeitgeisty fringes of a certain period of time is so, so good. I guess, this is why this novel with it’s deeper undercurrents doesn’t seem to get outdated. Bigend and his agency are part of that. Gibson writes about him and how he behaves throughout three novels in a way that the character keeps fascinating me. I enjoy the ambiguity I feel towards him. Being this sleazy agency guy, but also, the one who’s interested in what’s happening on the fringes. And I seem to be not the only one fascinated with him. Here’s Dan Hon in his newsletter in July 2014 (here’s his follow-up). It seems to have a lot to do with us just wishing for people to pay us to investigate interesting stuff.
Anyway, found this one from Warren: Haunted Blue Ant.
“A quarter of the way through Tom McCarthy’s fine new book SATIN ISLAND and I encounter what I can only describe as a Hubertus Bigend figure: one of those cultural-commercial spooks who darkly alchemise outbreaks of the future into product and wealth.”
So I ordered Satin Island from my local bookstore and read it last Saturday. Here’s the official description:
“Meet U. – a talented and uneasy figure currently pimping his skills to an elite consultancy in contemporary London. His employers advise everyone from big businesses to governments, and, to this end, expect their ‘corporate anthropologist’ to help decode and manipulate the world around them – all the more so now that a giant, epoch-defining project is in the offing.
Instead, U. spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there, U. wonders, a secret logic holding all these images together – a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our age? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news? Perhaps; perhaps not.”
That is the whole story line. You follow the random train of thoughts of the protagonist while nothing is happening at all. As someone who has spent a bit of time reflecting on working in the context of agencies and how our minds work in this age, I was a bit underwhelmed. On the scale between the shallowness of The Circle and the cultural sensors of a Gibson, it falls right in the middle IMHO. More a meditation than a story.
What made this book special for me was that I watched the opening of the DLD Conference in Munich yesterday. In case you don’t know, most of the global elite is heading to Davos this week for the World Economic Forum (WEF). For 11 years, the Hubert Burda media empire has used the opportunity of most of these people passing through Munich on their way to Switzerland to make them take a break and jump on a panel.
So watching the opening session yesterday, with the mental fragrance of Satin Island still in the air, I was finally able to fully appreciate the absurdity of business conferences these days. The certain language, the rituals (“Turn to your right and shake the hand of that person. Now turn to your left and rub noses with that person.”), the self-affirmation. All those aspects that make up the business elite dance. I remember the first time the DLD offered a live stream and with this a look inside a usually rather closed circle. The tweets were perplexed: “WTF? I don’t even… What the hell is this?”
And still, there’s this part of me that would like to be there. I mean, I spent an hour on a Sunday to watch the live stream, knowing full well how it would be. I tell myself that I do it for entertainment purposes. But to be honest, somehow I still find it appealing. And not in the not-being-able-to-look-away-from-the-accident kinda way. The craziest aspect: I’ve attended a couple of DLDs. I used to do their live-blogging with some friends in my earlier days. I also have been to DLD Tel Aviv this year, which was thicker with Californian Ideology than almost any other event I’ve been to. Maybe, I just hope to see Shingy again. But no, I think it’s my FOMO and the appeal of elites that I can’t shake completely. Satin Island actually helped with that as it gave feelings and words to my former vague perception. After Satin Island, it was much easier to grasp the superficiality on stage and I closed the tab.
So, read Satin Island if you like reflexions on our attention and need a cure for the appeal of business conferences. Only go to DLD if you’re on your way to Davos anyway. Now, about that Bigend guy…
Reading Recommendations
With all the new comic books and Satin Island, I didn’t read much on the web. Here’s what I found the time for and deamed worthy of your attention. 
Netflix Founder Drops $100 Million to Join Billionaire Crusade to Privatize Our Public Schools
Nnedi Okorafor Is Putting Africans at the Center of Science Fiction and Fantasy
An Afrofuturist Reading List
Favorite Quote
“But we haven’t taken responsibility for ourselves in a manner that befits the wealthiest and most powerful industry that’s ever been created. We fancy ourselves outlaws while we shape laws, and consider ourselves disruptive without sufficient consideration for the people and institutions we disrupt. We have to do better, and we will.”
–Anil Dash, Toward Human Tech
Thank you
Kudos if you read all of that. Not sure that text about Blue Ant, Satin Island and DLD makes sense to anyone but me. Anyhow, it helped me to formulate some thoughts that have been bouncing around my head last week. And now that they are out of there, there’s fresh space. You’ll have to wait until next week to find out if that’s a good thing…
See you next week. 
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