Saturday, April 27, 2019

Game of Journalism. The Battle of Ideas. Lost notes uncovered that changes the game

In the end, the executives would have a change of heart not because their better selves could see the moral bankruptcy of their decision, but somehow they were made to feel like lesser men. Standing in front of them, cutting a lone figure, a 34-year-old, whose history making would be all the remarkable for what he aimed to achieve. Antonius Gvilielmus Amo Afer was not asking for pity or that the Christian faith of the facing men regard him and his kind worthy, but that that those judging him take a look at themselves.

It was a bold move. One that struck at the masculinity and civility of these intellects. Rationale and empathy would prevail during this time of great knowledge growth. This story may sound like another man facing a stern panel of judges, in say, America’s three strike system, looking for clemency, but this is much more. Much, much, more. Amo’s deft move would perhaps suggest a new thinking fit for modern times.

Today, society, men and women in boardrooms and broadcast executive suites resist attempts to recruit men and women from diverse backgrounds. The methodology over the years has morphed from morality, generosity, it’s the right thing to do, to a business proposition. Netflix’s juggernaut and its growth which has been demonstrated to be inclusive is evidence, but in the UK the dial has rarely shifted.

 Amo was a philosopher. His vision also brings forward historical precedence to question one of the most epoch philosophical statements about life and being in history. In 1734 this polymath Ghanaian stood in front of his examiners in Germany to defend his PhD thesis. He was a lone African intellectual in Europe; a sequence of unusual events resulted in him being one of the most learned men of his time. He spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Dutch. He had a degree in law and studied at the University of Wittenberg, specialising in philosophy, history, and medicine. Yet chances are you may not have heard of him. His PhD thesis Of the Apatheia of the Human Mind, encapsulated thoughts from previous works ‘‘The Rights of Moors in Europe” otherwise the “Rights of an African in Eighteenth Century Europe”.

This was the period of Enlightenment, the launch of rationalism, Cartesianism Vs Leibeiziniam and the Church’s waning stranglehold on power. Amo’s defence, from Gottfried Ludewig’s Universal Historie published in 1744, was this. They, learned men, could hardly align themselves with Roman values by not acknowledging the rights of the individual. “Mysteriously”, writes Howard University’s Dr. Marilyn Sephocle, his thesis disappeared. His other works: The Apathy of the Human Mind and his treatise on mathematics, remain.

Amo was born in the Gold Coast ( now Ghana), enslaved or gifted to gentry Duke Anton Ulric, and then his son August Wilhelm. His ascent to professor at Halle University and then Jena was the impossible feat made possible. But when his patrons died, and French racism seared through the land, in 1747/51 he returned to Ghana and lived out his life as a hermit. Lewis R. Gordon writes in “An Introduction to Africana Philosophy” about France that: King Louis XVI saw it necessary to enforce a new law in 1777 called Police des Noirs. As opposed to the previous two laws that applied to black slaves only, the Police des Noirs focused on all nonwhites. Entry into France was prohibited to all blacks and people of color regardless of their status as slaves or as freedmen.

Why, amongst the cannons of philosophy, Descarte, Kant, Schelling, Hegel and Hume to name a few, does Amo not prefigure? Either he wasn’t that good, yet scholarly texts dispute this, or historians ignored him because he was black, or that his ideas were explosive for his audience? These reasons resonate in modern times within industries that systematically ignore others for their ideas and the potential of a workforce from diverse backgrounds. Hume’s racism was well documented, Kant’s surety of the inferiority of blacks because of the heat ( really!), known too, so draw your own conclusions.

“I think therefore I am” is one of the resounding philosophical statements, which has informed generations since, yet we learn of how Amo elegantly pulled this apart, and in the process emphasised an African situatedness from the metaphysics of Akan, a Ghanaian language. This is breathtaking and gets to the heart of culture, language and intellect. Marshall McLuhan, a 20th century media scholar notes in Understanding Media “Each mother tongue teaches its users a way of seeing and feeling the world, and of acting of the world, that is unique”. Another idiom points to how journalism could be blindsided within the universal language, English. “If you want to know the temperature of water, don’t ask a fish”, says McLuhan. Language shapes shared ideas, shapes narrative, story and subsequently this multi-billion construct called news.

To Amo, “I think therefore I am”, writes one of this century’s enduring African philosophers Kwasi Wiredu is problematic for Akans — one of Ghana’s many people. Wiredu writes:

He (Akan) or she would be compelled to ask, ‘‘You are what? Where?” Wo ho” is the Akan rendition of ‘‘exist”. Without the ‘‘ho”, which means ‘‘there”, in other words, ‘‘some place”, all meaning is lost. ‘‘Wo”, standing alone, does not in any way correspond to the existential sense of the verb ‘‘to be”, which has no place in Akan syntax or semantics. [Return], now, to ‘‘I think, therefore I am”, and consider the existential component of that attempted message as it comes across in Akan. 

Wiredu continues:

In that medium the information communicated can only be that I am there, at some place; which means that spatial location is essential to the idea of my existence. It is scarcely necessary to point out that this is diametrically opposed to Descartes’ construal of the particular cogitation under scrutiny. As far as he is concerned, the alleged fact that one can doubt all spatial existences and yet at the same time be absolutely certain of one’s existence under the dispensation of the Cogito implied that the ‘‘I”, the ego, exists as a spiritual, non-spatial, immaterial entity. The incongruity of this sequence of thought, quite apart from any non sequiturs, must leap to the Akan eye. 

And concludes:

There is, of course, nothing sacrosanct about the linguistic categories of Akan thought. But, given the prima facie incoherence of the Cartesian suggestion within the Akan conceptual framework, an Akan thinker who scrutinizes the matter in his or her own language must feel the need for infinitely more proof of intelligibility than if s/he contemplated it in English or some cognate language. 

If you’re a storyteller, or work in news, this has profound meaning for how African storytelling at its root, through language, differs in many ways to European forms. I’ve been learning Mandarin and there are comparisons too with the “I”. In a previous posts I spoke about the Akan expressions “sankofa” that points to the ineluctable thread of memory, the past, space and its influence on the present for Ghanaians. Chinese culture’s relationship with the past too such as Confucianism and its impact, not widely taught, on the likes of Kant warrants attention.

As CGTN in London, China’s global network is setting out to launch a super network. How might they promote a different sensibility to news creation and stories, as thus far the adoption of current western ideas invariably flattens cultural values.

Take this example of how the avoidance of “fake news” and false witness is embedded in Ghanaian culture. A couple of week’s ago, I learned from my cousin that his mother had died. Ghanaian tradition calls for certain protocols, so my siblings and I set off to visit my cousin, whom by deference, because of his age, we call uncle. Once greeted at my uncle’s door, we filed in with drinks, something for the wake keeping that will be shared by close family. We sat down caught up with old news and then when the momentum of the conversation dropped my Western sensibilities led me to state earnestly why we had come.

Ghanaian tradition demands the converse my uncle gently reminded me. It was my uncle’s prerogative to enquire in a sombre tone: “what’s the purpose of your visit?” Such formalities remove any ambiguity as my uncle would go onto explain whether you’re here under other pretenses. Are you being sought after and seek shelter? Are you in danger? No I answered and in responding made my second faux pas when I noted the news and how sorry we were. Traditionally my uncle reminded us you should ask that you’ve heard some news and you want to know whether it’s true. That’s in spite of the fact my uncle had told me earlier on the phone.

Yet such face-to-face verification removes doubt or hearsay. If there was ever a cultural moment that by its very nature arrested false news or fake, this was it enshrined within culture. This thing we do with television, produced as a social tool bringing people together, has been engineered to prey on our fears. I have spoke at length about this from depth manipulators e.g. Edward Bernays and political spinsters.

Watch here too the response from a Ghanaian masters student about western journalism from the question I posed, “If”, recorded in 2006.

Like many cultures, Ghanaians have a complex advanced diverse culture, which is often overlooked, or ignored for its simplicity. Amo reminds us, as does Professor Wiredu, and indeed my uncle what we’re missing. The Johari window’s unknown unknowns renders us impotent, without us knowing it. Journalism deserves a systems thinking approach. It strikes me too that the China-African pact gaining in currency speaks to what philosophically and culturally is common ground, that’s being awakened. Journalism should do the same.

The author Dr David Dunkley Gyimah gained his doctorate from University College Dublin which researched, amongst other things, cognition in storytelling and the science of thinking. He is the first Brit to win a (US) Knight Batten Award. The Guardian and Storyful were subsequent winners. Originally an Applied Chemistry grad, he would work for the BBC, Channel 4 News and ABC and become one of the Southbank Centre’s first batch of artists in residence under Jude Kelly OBE. David is designated a leading videojournalist and is one of the top 20 writers in journalism on @medium platform. He is at the Cardiff School of Journalism.

Monday, April 01, 2019

How my DNA literally inspired innovatory storytelling

When they ran the tests, for a moment time stood still. Did it work? The data was a series of dark dashes of varying shades — a sort of morse code internalised, fixed within us. The government finally relented. 

It’s 1985, the first ever practical use of DNA genetic fingerprinting in the world. The tests would change the course of my family’s life, and mine. 

For two years we’d battled with the home office aided by a local law centre for whom we will be eternally indebted. A mix up at the airport when our youngest brother was coming back from Ghana would result in a protracted maternal legal case. Andrew, then a teenager had called mum “auntie” arriving at the airport; a term of endearment for Ghanaians. 

He hadn’t seen mum for many years since we’d all been sent to Ghana to live in the 1970s. Shy and withdrawn, his response was redolent too of his predicament. He knew who mum was but more from fading memory so called her the term that came to mind. Immigration didn’t get it.Two years dragged on. Detention centres, visits, and home temporarily. 

Immigration did get it after geneticist Dr Alec Jeffries from Leicester University served up his pioneering evidence. It would be the first practical use of DNA fingerprinting and it proved unequivocally the link between all the siblings. The odds? One in some billion. The landmark test case Sarbah Vs Home Office which involved an exhaustive odyssey to prove one’s identity, had finally ended. We won. DNA won. Science won. And unknown to me then innovatory storytelling had won.

Science and Art
Storytellers have a aphorism: “The world is too important to be left to journalists”. Journalism is seen as the exemplar for trading much needed information to make sense of the world, supported by a trillion dollar industry. Funny that when you consider modern print journalism is about 120 years old, radio about 100 and television around 70. 

Our story had been on BBC national Television News. The reporter was John Harrison, who would later become the BBC’s South Africa correspondent. We’d been on the most popular BBC magazine programme Esther Rantzen’s This Life which drew viewing audiences in the double figure millions. We’d been in the newspapers. And yet it was another form of data that solved the problem. 

Whilst each piece of reportage exposed parts of the story and the hidden absurdity; the photos we had proved we were siblings etc, the story forms also revealed shortcomings. That would stick with me. It has stuck with me. 

Case done, I could settle down full-time to my studies and pursued an Applied Chemistry degree in Leicester which shaped the following, and there’s a reason why I’m profiling this for later: 

  1. Take a hypothesis (an idea) based on substantiated theory. A theory is more than just a hunch. 
  2. Test it through various assumptions and parameters. 
  3. Evaluating and document the results to discover whether they align with the initial theory. 
  4. If not, try again by altering some of the test’s framework and rechecking theoretical claims. 
  5. If it fails again, it may be useful in providing data nonetheless, otherwise if the test proves commercially viable (prototype) take steps to capitalise on it. 

My Chemistry note books from my Applied Chemistry Degree in Leicester 1988 Bythe time I’d hit my second year in uni in 1988 I wanted to become a journalist, remembering the BBC reporter at our house. By combining my science understanding with the DNA experience I sought a home. BBC Radio Leicester would take me on a freelancer. 

My first report was on a new illness, AIDS, sweeping the US that was said to have originated from Africa. A professor and a pundit were almost trading blows during the interview. Couple of years later doing my postgrad in journalism in Falmouth, I would create a 40-min radio documentary on genetic fingerprinting interviewing the philosopher Baroness Warnock she recently died) and finally meet Dr Alec Jeffries whereby after interviewing him I thanked him. He drew a blank. I had to explain. It was a moment for both of us. 

DNA and storytelling
At this point in proclaiming how my DNA literally inspired innovative storytelling, I could talk about whether my DNA revealed signs of creativity, or that built into my genes, or otherwise Junk DNA that still baffles scientists, was my programme to tackle life — indeed the resilience and determination to want to become a journalist, but no that didn’t happen. 

And our DNA only reveals part of the answer about who we are, our environment and external influences too shape our being. Science architects an approach to finding results to problems. That combined with my knowledge of Dr Jeffries’ work, and that the fingerprinting process was about evidence gathering, which today you might easily call data journalism, proved a powerful elixir. 

Another aphorism, “Data persuades but storytelling inspires”. Who are we? And how do 23 pairs of chromosomes in 4-base pairs of DNA frame us? My parents come from Ghana, where I spent 8 years of my teens. I grew up being looked after by foster parents, who wanted to adopt me. My late grandmother is German, arriving with her father to Mina (Elmina) as settlers from Europe’s slave trade. I met her once — a slight woman, who spoke little English. And my dad was a fierce Ashanti. 

Questions like these set purpose in life’s petri dish. Over the years many extraordinary things have happened influenced by events of the past. Remember that saying journalism is too important… and that data persuades... In 2005, jaded by mainstream media’s narrative and having learnt action scripting in Flash and HTML/CSS I built a website which would win one of the US’s major prizes for innovation in journalism. — David’s award winning website 

Some years later storytelling, culture, history, behaviour, economics, journalism and tech would fold up into a PhD. Stories inspire… but how do they do that? a kaleidoscope of styles and form were stripped and rebuilt. I would call the process and practice cinema journalism, paying homage to the Cinéma vérit/ Direct Cinema pioneers of the 1960s, such as Robert Drew, whom I would get to speak to. A film I made with this approach would net an international award. 

Cinema is a cultural construct influenced by literary and social issues. Author Jerome Silbergeld writing about chinese contemporary cinema says it’s: rested not on a simple aesthetic of good looks but rather on the ability of such works to communicate deeply and richly to create and effectively interrelate image and text to engage subject and context to artistically and convincingly raise complex social and philosophical issues. 

A film like Chen Kaige’s 1984 Yellow Earth may not be the commercial cup of tea for an Indian audiences, just as G. P. Sippy Sholay (which I saw more than 30 years ago) would be for US audiences. Or Med Hondo’s Soleil O could be at odds to mass British audiences. It tangentially brings to modern life James Walvin’s Black Ivory — history of Slavery. And amongst US audiences Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is replete with cultural symbolism, you could easily miss. Somewhere in the engineering feat of television news journalism, nuances and culture are more often than not jettisoned. 

Factual Cinema is the original moving image form towards storytelling and its collocation with journalism or documentary provides huge potential to see blind spots in problem solving. Problem solving is key here. What’s more cinema journalism practitioners, I have come to know, operate much like their fictional counterparts. 

In storytelling everything and anything is deployed to articulate meaning within the frame and the story at large. For instance, that drone shot for that establisher, data display as in The Big Short, or The Kingdom’s opening to relay facts, mobile phones if you’re searching for a certain intimacy, powerful photography embracing cinematographer and design principles for the mise en scène and the unfolding narrative. And the approach? You may have recognised the science procedures earlier and its identical framework to design thinking, which has become de rigeur in hackathons and design approaches. 

As an expression of the science/ DNA influence on me, a couple of years ago, working with a team I headed back into the lab, a storytelling one where, just like like digital start ups, agility, fluidity, entrepreneurial and creative skills is the emphasis. is the norm with an onus on . Learning to understand failure and reframe questions (see no. 4 above) is all part of the mix. 

Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new // if you’re not experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it, says Ed Catmull, President of Pixar. 

The extension of the LAB approach places an emphasis on enterprise, working collaboratively with industry, third parties and competing commercially. It’s Science meets Art meets storytelling. And from it we can provide in-depth research to practical and creative ideas on in problem solving within society. Heavens knows we face a few, but if you’re a co-creator or collaborator, I would love to hear from you. All because of that single strand of DNA.