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Thinking Digital — The Entropy of Storytelling

“Hey Kwame, I’m standing here talking to you on my cell”.

Kwame, who lives on the outskirts of town, has just acquired his first mobile phone and is looking up to a friend on the second floor of a storey building.

His friend nods at him as Kwame continues to jabba. The watching audience go into spasms of belly-ache laughter.

You see Kwame hasn’t yet figured out that he doesn’t need his friend to be in line of sight to have a conversation, so within earshot Kwame continues to shout into his phone and at his friend, while marvelling at his new gizmo.

If you can’t see the funny side in this, don’t worry. You’re not necessarily supposed to. That it happened in this digital age is the rub, because every bit of the 1s and 0s that materialises into words and texts on your screen, there is an expectation, a given, you should understand. And if you don’t, well there’s something wrong with you. There isn’t.

In the last two weeks I have been meeting with some of the world’s top broadcast and media executives as our start-up within our university gears up for launch and intake of its first cohorts. The Interfactual Media Lab represents meta plus one to the fields it collides with. A science cum arts approach to problem-solving media, digital forms and journalism.

It comes as I’ve just rolled off my proposal to a publisher around the entrails of digital storytelling from six years of research which explores, amongst others, cognitive science and memory and why we remember some stories and not others. It’s taken me to several countries, from the fearful near the border of Syria and the frenzy Chongqing in China.

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There is an elasticity inside films that instigate a ‘cause and effect’, an expectation and reward of enjoyment on the one hand, to the extreme ends of comprehension on the other, where the abstract lay in wait. In these circumstances, the material may become too difficult to follow and you soon lose interest.

However, somewhere in a dynamic middle are tasks, films, texts, we’ll label ‘adorably difficult’. You adore it, but there is a price you pay, because it doesn’t give up its material in that causal manner of predictability.

In fact, invariably the material is nonlinear. You have to work it out. It is art or artistically made and guess what? If you persist, you’re rewarded with a high quotient of satisfaction and you’ll remember these films because in the act of piecing the disjointed scenes togethers you create new memory neural pathways. The science is how you make it adorable, and the extent to which along the pathway of engagement, you maintain interest.

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What now?

The future you know is, ‘bots’ — automation, apps, data, VR, and digital video. If you’re in the story telling business like me, then anyone of those puts a premium on your head. These are the desirable electronic viruses of modern digital connectivity.

Trouble is, I’m told by employers, few journalists can do stories well enough and wrap their heads around code or data mining at the same time. Rather, the traffic appears to be coming the other way — coders learning to do journalism or storytelling. We can help here, given our track record of supervising MA students to build from scratch stories within online environments.

Below are three of my MAs I supervised after lecturing them through a 12 week computational workflow, site build, pitching programme.

If you’re new to coding and you’ve not encountered this code below, you should if you’re into mobile friendly sites.

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">

In a next blog, I’ll deconstruct the work of these former MAs
Tips: basic coding to know HTML5. Java, D3, Python, Ruby, bootstrap

The next thing to take stock of is the nascent war refluxed and about to become personal between techs and broadcasters fighting for the attention of the others. That is the so far neglected 1billion people who have yet to go digital and are about to.

The eye on the prize for completion is 2020. Yep, while you’re still important to Facebook’s algorithm, and broadcasters have pegged your income and spending power, the new bounty, added value, is out there.

The pattern is the the same, in India, South America and Africa. Outside urban sprawls, in townships and villages, there is a market about to up the P/E ratio of businesses and everyone wants a piece of it. Adam Smith just got rebooted. Academia is reinvigorated by this, which is why if you run traditional type courses your VC is hitting you up for exploring new markets.

And this is where Kwame comes back into our story, big time.

Firstly, Kwame’s access to the digital ecosystem has to be as effortless as possible. Mobile phones with one-push button apps which, like WeChat, cater for all his needs. Mobile first may soon become mobile only.

Secondly, those access points taken care of, we’re down to the narrative and contrary to the idea that digital collapses story forms, paradoxically to appeal to Kwame you need to understand his sensibilities, his story telling gene, his cultural baggage and what makes him tick.

And this negates the main way you possibly do stories at present.

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Thus far, at least, spawning from the West is a story language made into an international model for advanced economies that revolves around ‘causality’ and Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey. It illustrates an adventure pathway we find acceptable. At its heart is the protagonist who over comes odds. Campbell’s postulates coincidently were published just as the narrative for television news was being conceived.

But away from that model are deep seated story myths that a large swathe of peoples hang onto e.g. Kwame et al and which nascently speak to a multiplicity of (digital) forms. And that indeed is a strange paradox. Think about it? If analogue was about supra structures and the ambition of one-size fits all, digital was suppose to disrupt that. It has. But it’s forcefully also imposed its own supra rules.

But the inclusion of a new mass of people stands to interrupt this model because of deep seated values, prejudices, cultural norms and hubris. Going niche was always the Net’s hidden force. It may just resurface as a universality.

Take Bollywood’s successful storytelling form that revolves around the complexities of diverse themes. A story can handle any genre and multiple ones at the same time. Loved Brewed in an African Pot (1981) is quintessentially Ghanian, with myths and spirituality being the actors. Kurosawa’s 1950s masterpiece Rashamon (1950) was no fluke to its audience. Not only does it play differently to the notions of aesthetics and time via circles and sumi-e but it is consummately non-linear. In Russia, there is a film DNA strand that draws on Tarkovsky’s unconventional dramatic tropes in The Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979). If there was ever any evidence that digital did not promulgate non-linear story telling industry, you only need to read the list at Wiki.

What does this all mean? Well firstly, culture and anthropology need to find a place in journalism or digital storytelling curriculum. Secondly, whilst it’s still the story stoopid, the next generation storytellers would do well to wrestle theoretically and pragmatically with these new intrinsic digital offerings. We think we can help here at the lab. And thirdly, Kwame’s waiting for you to engage, but just because you’re from a developed economy, don’t think you’ve got his number.

Email David at d.gyimah@westminster.ac.uk Follow him on @viewmagazine

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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