Disruptive tech is still as weird and interesting as it used to be
A view from Jeremy Ettinghausen

Disruptive tech is still as weird and interesting as it used to be

There are paradigm-shifting solutions to big problems on the horizon - not just drones delivering burritos.

There will come a time, if it hasn’t already arrived, when you catch yourself telling someone, probably younger than yourself, that "things aren’t as good as they used to be".

And however righteously you’re feeling it, the moment the words come out of your mouth, you’ll hate yourself for saying them and thinking them and being that person – the professional cynic, the pessimist. That old git.

Now that you are old, there are plenty of things that can spark such bitter nostalgia. Music and movies and grammar are definitely fair game, but how can anyone possibly moan about technological innovation?

After all, we’ve got artificial intelligence and virtual reality and mixed reality and the Internet of Things and Alexa and THE (new) BEST iPHONE WE’VE EVER MADE every single year.

"Yes, but," the old gits moan, "the web definitely isn’t as good as it used to be." And they/we might be right.

Everything’s so vanilla these days. The corners have been rounded off, the platforms all copy each other’s features and, instead of the anarchy and chaos of GeoCities and Myspace, we’ve got the order, the regime of material design and "the stream".

When I was asked recently whether digital marketing had lost its lustre (and digital marketers their joie de vivre), I could well have sighed, stroked my beard and reduced my questioner to a state of catatonia by harking back to the glory years of SXSW and Second Life and Whopper Sacrifice and… you get the idea.

Happily, though, on this occasion, I was still buzzing from a visit to the Friday Club, a monthly gathering of marketers and start-ups.

The marketers get to meet a curated selection of interesting tech entrepreneurs who might have applications useful for agencies or the brands they work with. And the start-ups come to the Friday Club with a marketing challenge that they hope to solve through speed-mentoring sessions with some seasoned marketing minds.

This particular session was a Friday Club special, focused on the blockchain – the protocol that allows the creation of new sorts of contracts and the technology that underpins bitcoin.

Before meeting the start-ups whose applications are built on the blockchain, we had a guest speaker in the form of Vinay Gupta, whose Twitter biography describes him as a "global resilience guru".

In a seriously provocative 20-minute discourse, Vinay described the blockchain as "the biggest political innovation since communism" with the potential to fundamentally disrupt the contractual underpinnings on which capitalist society is based.

He asked us to imagine a world in which the market’s margins disappear, a world where traditional forms of authority are replaced by mathematics, a world where the internet takes over the government. Heady stuff and a definite mental leap from day-today digital marketing reckonings on the importance of vertical video or pizza-ordering messenger bots.

The blockchain start-ups we heard from were not crypto-anarchists bent on overthrowing society; Provenance uses the technology to track food from farm to table, adding trust and transparency to the supply chain.

Vchain helps airlines verify passenger identity and flag inconsistencies without breaching privacy and data-collection regulations. And Jaak uses the blockchain to allow traceable and seamless content licensing – "content as a service".

As marketers, we often nibble around the edges of the seismic changes that technological advancement produces. Our use of new technology can feel banal and trivial. Can we deliver burritos with drones? How about burgers? Can we deliver coupons in VR? Can we get brands to sponsor YouTubers to entertain the passengers of driverless cars?

So hearing an impassioned (and evangelical) expert talk about the blockchain and meeting start-ups that are using this disruptive technology was a welcome reminder that things are actually as interesting as they once seemed to be.

That there are some brilliant minds creating paradigm-shifting solutions to big problems. And that we’re lucky to be witnesses to, if not participants in, developments that are dramatic and important, not just for brands but for society as a whole.

AI, VR, the Internet of Things, the blockchain – these are technologies in their infancy. Their impact has hardly been felt yet. Things are going to get weird. This is going to be fun. 

Jeremy Ettinghausen is the former innovation director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London and BBH Labs