We’re killing creativity with badly designed Hacks and we don’t even know it.
I’m at a hackathon. They have become the standard bearer for generating new ideas and many of them yield results for their constituents. This one by Techraking on Climate Change, sponsored by Google, was well organised with substantive learning outcomes.
Those who work tirelessly behind the scene so that we can meet and share with one another deserve our gratitude.
I’m at another hack, but this time I have spotted something. The group are discussing that perennial vexing question about the future of news. Why in the first place, I have become inured to, as much perhaps as you have.
We’re becoming obsessed about the journalism of tomorrow, when the inherent problems with it now are multitude. It was not like this ten years ago. Perhaps, this quest is to safeguard jobs, or the kudos of being compared alongside Alvin Toffler, or even the scent of riches from creating the Amazon best seller and touring road show.
The ideas from the cohorts flow. I’m an observer — active participant walking around the room, gently sampling and enquiring of the audience’s likes. It’s something I’m known to do in my lectures on post structural media. They are generally under graduates and post grads.
An age old question surfaces. It is one that philosophers and scholars have debated ad nauseum to do with knowledge, reasoning and creativity. In slightly modified Kantian terms I ask this question: ‘How do you know what the future of news will be? This is not a question about temporality and future gazing, but one that pricks at knowledge — what you know — and your experience.
If you crack that, here’s one that may test the conceptual framework I’m getting at: How could you harvest fuel in space to get you from one planet to another? If that’s more difficult to answer, I might label this as the ‘space question’ for some people in the room.
This second question which a friend of mine Dr. Bruce Damer (below) has considered and nudged to NASA stumps me. I have little knowledge of Space, so all I can offer in essence is apriori info and a weak one at that; knowledge that I know at this moment because I do. By the way Kant expresses this in more nuanced ways.
This is not a question on the monopoly of ideas, who is more privileged than others to entertain ‘difficult’ questions or that your views, sitting quietly in the back of the class, don‘t matter. It’s about productivity and ways of maximising tasks.
Ideally, the people you would want to attend a hackathon would be those with meta knowledge of media or journalism; that is they regularly think or practise media and journalism because perhaps they are students of the field, or it’s their chosen career.
Their knowledge of journalism may derive from reading books about journalism, seeing journalism in action or listening to a speaker. Then, there are those who may have gathered experience working in a news room. The apriori group, for this argument, are those who are not from news and journalism. Computer scientist, coders and designers might fall into this category. They’ve never shot a video or read The Power of News by Michael Schudson, The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, or Edward R Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards, yet they too offer something, mainly based on computing and behavioural science.
When I enquire amongst several people in the group, I receive a not uncommon sentiment: “I don’t watch TV, it’s boring”. Books on Journalism and news too generate marginal interest.
The curator asks, “So what do we think news will look like in ten years time ?” The question could not have been more aptly framed, but I get the impression it is offering very little to empower the agile minds in front of him.
Many a lecturers, I imagine, will as I do, tell their students they hold so much power at the moment, because the balance of media making and consumption is shifting in demographics to them— at least in the West.
Yet the art of brainstorming is inherently limited by the knowledge and creativity of those who contribute to the process. The convenor has yet to frame the playground, where participants can rummage around to find pandora’s boxes — good and bad ones. Proclaiming a radical agenda for attendants delimits the source of their creativity.
Ideas, ideas, ideas
In his much enjoyable book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steve Johnson hits on the theory of the ‘adjacent possible’. To the convenor the future of news, by default, as thought experiments reside in news — indeed it mimics models of existing news. And why not? Anything that deviates from that is adjudged beyond the realms of the Hack’s remit and not journalism.
What defines new ideas, when often examining journalism is configured around constructs, based on the notion of what news and journalism is, as a construct. In other words, according to news folk to consider what the future of news will be is framed by what it is at present. They are looking for the adjacent possibility.
An alternative approach in an attempt at positing the future is to understand the past from technology, social and multiple disciplines. In 1948, the BBC launched its first News programme. It was not highly regarded by its audience, but through many meetings and development the model was honed.
Think though what might have happened, in say, 1947 or even in the 1920s, when BBC TV News did not exist. For the practitioners at the time, their future thinking was modelled by an adjacent possibility and a view to discard the status quo, which was dominated by social documentary and fictional films.
Television journalism would be like no other and it was brilliant at winning audiences in epic proportions. What they came up with was that which we now use. In her book When Old Technologies were New, Carolyn Marvin traces the development of some of the most innovative and transformative discoveries such as electricity.
She writes that:
focusing attention only after people start relying on a medium misses the critical era in its development. By the time an audience has gathered around a source, many of the negotiations over purpose and mission are complete. Routines have already been developed. Limits have already been set. A ‘hard pattern’ of processes and purposes might already be guiding the product.
Building the future of news based on hardened patterns now, may more than likely, yield an adjacent possibility that does not stretch or delimit the possibilities of our thought.
We seek to maintain the status quo. No, really even when you factor in mobile phones and the desperate attempt by traditional media to conform social media networks. To quote a former senior BBC executive Pat Loughry, now Vice Chancellor at Goldsmith University: “If you keep on doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep on getting what you get”.
It’s the convenor’s role, I believe, who must offer this possibility, a world consisting of different far-off possibilities. But not too far so they become abstract thoughts — that’s the balancing act. All the tech in journalism at present does little to tackle Lynton Crosby’s brilliantly deployed dead cat strategy to skew an opponent’s story. As Patrick Wintour writes in the Guardian when the Tories deployed Fallon to verbally assault Prime-minister hopeful Ed Miliband:
Miliband’s team seethed at the tactic, though several confessed a lingering admiration for its effectiveness.
Similarly, the unaccountable, unattributed story condemning Snowden’s leaks as endangering lives, when a couples of days earlier an independent reviewer of terrorism legislation David Anderson QC, was critical of the UK’s government’s snooping powers is a matter for journalism to consider now. And what about race and cultural reportage? What future can we bring to that now to make jourmalism more accountable?
In his ground breaking text in 2001, The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich visualises the future of online and the flow of information based around both the sensorium, knowledge he had acquired, and the experiential — his background as an artist, coder and cineist.
The book serves as a deeper knowledge reservoir for tackling the crisis upending news by its translation of concepts in new media to journalism.
For Manovich the future of broadband cinema or macro cinema is ‘spatial cinema’- an esperanto in Ocular hardware and second screens? And the work of a Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov from 85 years ago resonates with the evolving language of new media. It was equally instrumental in my doctorate thesis on present journalism forms.
Vertov’s film, Man with a Movie Camera is a par excellence show of work — even today by Sight and Sound readers who voted it the best documentary film ever. To Manovich, Man with a Movie Camera turned ‘effects into a meaningful artistic language’ — a database film in which images are pulled, recycled and reused. That a film made in the 1920s captures the future of online is something to marvel about, and it bearely merits as an adjacent possibility.
In my doctoral study, I posit that where journalism and videojournalism in particular could find new ground is in cinema. Strange?
Mark Stephen Meadows’ Pause and Effect — a book every graphic or interactive designer should have on their shelf takes the reader though an odyssey of Art, architectural space and narrative. These foundations open up enquiries into cinema, animation and interactive narratives.
Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez in 1656 is a model of the refined perception of perspective, but it holds several mysteries within its narrative expressed by multiple focal points. This ensemble cast presents the possibility to tell their own story. It’s akin to Soderbergh’s Traffic featuring four intertwinned stories.
In my text, Beyond the Realms of Video Stories, I play with similar themes, asking the question what were the range of disciplines that created video journalism before they were standardised. The exciting period is, to cite Robert Stam in Film Theory, the 1920s, when as Stam says anything was possible. The icing is the last 70 years of knowledge in mass communication yet this knowledge is not to be treated as sacred. That’s the problem with modern journalism. There’s little room for modernisation.
The lesson I take from this hack is the need for pedagogy and inspiration that pulls on diverse ideas, disciplines and personnel. Also that the Wisdom of Crowds is only as good as the knowledge residing in the crowd, but we can do things to reconfigure this. But it’s as much about the architects framing the possibilities.
When asked, I often say the present of news is cinema, let alone the future. It may not be daft idea after all when you dig deep.
On the other hand we can stop fussing about tomorrow and concentrate on what we do now. That appears to be far more difficult.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a leading voice in cinema journalism and video journalism. He is the recipient of several awards including the Knight Batten for Innovation in Journalism for his work on Viewmagazine.tv which described how online would evolve. He;s background includes working on Newsnight and Channel 4 News. He’s a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster.