Sunday, November 03, 2013

How digital erodes what make you different

 In the library, between the methodical drone of thesis editing, "Oooh  look there's another stray comma". and reflecting on the next lecture, which has something to do with SEO, I reached for a magazine.

Uni libraries are good for that. I have passed on taking subscriptions, as I tended not to get through the magazines I subscribed to. Time magazine, for all its worthiness, was the worse. Pristine copies would gather dust in the hall way at home.

A quick flick through the New Statesmen became a stimulating distraction. New Statesmen, a political left leaning magazine, is enjoying a purple patch. And its latest edition illustrates perhaps why that is.

Comedian and Actor Russell Brand's guest editing turned out to be a masterly stroke of risk-taking. His interview with the coruscating BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman, ( I am still scarred from being one of his researchers eons ago) was illuminating and a good piece of television. [ Fight ! Fight fight].

Paul Mason, formerly of Newsnight, now the Digital Editor on the other side,  C 4 News, likened it to a mutually aided symmetrical skewering contest. Brand got one up on Paxman, who also dug the knife in rather systematically.

And, if you want to see how journalism truly benefits from cultural baggage, witness the gesticulating finger jabbing of the presenter (Paxman) akin to a lovers tiff: "You're so selfish, you bastard", or headmasterish command "go-and-stand-in-the-corner "syndrome.

As Mason said, they both had a go. Paxman, on a more supine programme (Graham Norton) later in the week, let go of his feisty daschund persona to reveal that he believed Brand was correct to bang on about people being tired of politicians.

At that moment, along Tory hallways across the land, you could hear the thud of a door closing as Tory person (A) got into their Aston Martin to drive 50 metres to Tory person (B) to confirm, what they'd always maintained, and that is journalists are biased.

Of course they are! Who isn't. Except they are, what's that phrase I heard this morning on Radio 4? Yes, secular! That means many a journalists Jon Snow, Paxman, Humphreys and the late Charles Wheeler can be as cranky or disagreeable as they like, based on their own prejudice, but in a studio they make every attempt to be fair and honest.

I have been banging on my own mantra, which piquantly described journalism as a cultural construct courtesy of the writings of American academic Michael Schudson [read Deuze]. 

Being different
It seems rather controversial when I say this, and it is perhaps understandable, albeit erroneous. If you consider how Willem Defoe's  (of Robinson Crusoe fame)  separated himself from the creative writings of his peers, it becomes a little clearer.

He was after the stated facts. Getting to the truth or pulling together the facts is the bedrock of journalism and journalism putatively does so based on its parity with the judiciary.  A pound of flesh, is a pound of flesh Mr Shylock.

Brand's rhetoric and Paxman's interventions open up a secondary debate alongside abject discrimination amongst the disenfranchised young and the getting-rich-and-fuck-anyone-else gentry.

Sigh! Blimey, it's taken me this many paragraphs to get to the point. The point? Digital has no more redefined the media landscape than Barney makes children scared.

It's an odd thing to say. I'm an ardent digitalist. Without it, viewmagazine. tv and the bits and bobs I have focused upon would never have left my study room.

But the perspective from where I sit ( Yeah who cares ?) seems patently clear.

In the 80s and 90s, I was campaigning (banging on) about the inequities of media. To get a job in the big five as the broadcast media were back then, there was no room for culture to be displayed on your arm.

It was a frustrating period. I was into South Africa, science, and youth culture. The period was  made enjoyable by periods in broadcast media where as an individual ( Channel One TV) you were encouraged to pull from your cultural moorings to talk about the things that bothered you.

If traditional media successfully showed that media was done, one way and one way only. A big fat wrong! Then digital media was going to expose this, because of the methodologies of doing things differently.

The method includes the  process, so yes Twitter offers a new digital media outlet, but the sociology of journalism had remained the same. Nothing has changed. Today you hear less about what it means to be young and unemployed, or being black and being discriminated against or being a woman and being harassed.

Yes you can read/ see it somewhere in the pit less vaults of a Youtube or or some website off the digital landscape, but the brilliance of an alternative media impacting upon the heavyweights and thus changing the way we do business has not happened.

Thatcher's legacy has been more powerful than anyone could ever have managed. In her prime with social networks available, what would she have made of them? Cynically her phrase there is no such thing as society, would apply. There's no such thing as social networks. If so what have they done? What have they changed?

It's nothing more than self-interested individuals fleetingly flirting with others. Digital has failed us. Of course this is all relative. If you've never had the attention Twitter gives you, technology is all the rage.

However, if the point of technology is to make our livelihoods remakarbly better,  (Naively it never has e.g. Nuclear) then it's done it for the few. Russell Brand's inevitable revolution looks like a shoe-in.

Yes there have been movements, along the lines of either tacitly or intentionally calling themselves social networks, but as yet that seismic thing to change the status quo has yet to truly happen.

More so within journalism, where we still believe culture doesn't matter. And that diversity is a badge you wear to show how many different friends you have from  spain or say, Ghana.

 We need more stimulus from the external voices that shape our politics and for digital to be more than a gateway to more of the same. Brand's revolution-in-waiting is as much about politics as it is about information, less ordained, more explosive emerging. When?

At this rate we may have to wait for a  new movement  e.g. quantum,  to take form. I'm holding my

Here's ten things digital could have changed, but hasn't.

1. We're still interested in those self-interested subjects e.g. fame, celeb, meism. If anything digital expands conditions for all of us to be self-centred.

2. We've hardly invented a different journalism, and if we have its popularity is along the lines of Hogwarts and big foots. Sighted once in a while,  mythical ever so often, and trammelled where there are green shoots into oblivion

3. Digital: the have and nots of traditionalism have no become the haves and have-nots of the new system.

4. The view of the world is hegemonically based around a corpus of opinion. Thank Goodness Kenya's tech society is punching about its weight.

5.  When was the last time you went to a tech meeting and the diversity of people e.g Women and people of colour blew you away. Nah ! Thought so. I was at one two weeks ago. No comment!

6. Digital has become so corrosive as to discombobulate cultures. We all seek solace in a hashtag culture that erodes rather than strengthens. Somehow too digital has become a Western come-to-product.  If you've nothing to say, even though you might have bombs raining down on you. Shut up, as we listen to an ageing Joe 90 give us a peak.

7. Have we become less experimental now? Was 2000-2005 the last of the chaotic experiments, with big ambitions to change the world. Because now everything looks so well defined as to embolden complacency and erectile dysfunction set in because, guess what. There's no rush anymore, and yes you get this thing digital.

8. Most of the conferences and water holes of the digital spark of the 2000-2005 have folded. Others have been taken over by the multi-companies. Yes I read Clue Train  Manifesto when it first came out too.

9. Digital makes us less empathetic. You notice this in tertiary education. The availability of everything renders little emotional premium attached to the pursuit of that something. It's almost as if there's been a technological revolution, but not a social - digital one.

10. Explore what you can do for others, not what you can do for yourself. Otherwise proclaim yourself an absolutist. Alas there's no problem in doing so, but stop calling yourself digital social networker.

David teaching videojournalism at the Chicago SunTimes

David Dunkley Gyimah is a university lecturer and teaches digital journalism