Westminster’s disLAB Philosophy

No one saw it coming. A moment in time when your day was so compressed with events, when Social Media consumed your down and uptime that squeezing 5 mins to read something else was the equivalent of running a marathon with hiking books — not going to happen.

And when you do roll out of bed, chasing that digital dragon, the opiate of the 21st century — news — it turns out to be as ….. (you fill in the blanks) as the current leaks from New York Times’s coverage of the UK Manchester bombing.

The UK government and police are livid. Forensic photographs of Manchester’s bomb scene and the identity of the bomber have surfaced in US newspapers. We’ve arrived at the uberisation of content. Is it great business. Get it quick to outsmart others? Or the production of data at any costs. Whatever apoplexy ensues will eventually blow over, when a new day with new issue arises.

The leaks, the British authorities say, is damaging an investigation that is live and ongoing. One tweet summed it up, either the NYT has incredible contacts with British Police, or some very deep throats in US intel agencies.

Cognitive dissonance. On other days, the flip side surfaces. NYT and swathes of the US press appear to be practising Dooley’s decree. “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” To give a voice to the unheard and unseen, but is this serendipity? A year or so again the crisis in news looked palpable figuring out why and how many consumers would pay for news. How could you make a profit in a market saturated with content?

Then our predilection to Hollywood, a religion that pervades our lives, emerged an extraordinary character with his own A-camera. The press has found, for the moment, a cash cow. He sells airtime and copy packaged for ‘build them up, the pull em down’ — a practice often attributed to the fecundity of Brit tabloids, unfairly or otherwise.

Two weeks ago the press doxed a British computer whizz kid. All he’d done was discover the kill switch to a pernicious virus taking root across the world. It may be a surrealist’s thesis for future generations that, like Nixon, it took the present occupant of the WH to re-invigorate journalism, momentarily. Surreal, because a profound aftermath of this era is the recognition of alt facts and worlds — something the surrealists hoped for way back in the 1920s. How cool it is to be a journalist now, or exhausting.

Here’s not the place to contextualise journalism news over its 300 years, but it’s all gone hoary. Seems to do this periodically. Is it becoming increasingly difficult to call them ‘News’ papers, when opinion and comment continually masquerade as objective truths.

In the UK, academics cite the disparity in political coverage. The UK’s equivalent of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn who leads the labour party has his problems, but when you watch the TV and read the newspaper, is that journalism? Isn’t journalism about giving those you accuse a right to reply, to attribute what both sides of a divide say in good conscious.

The juggernaut we’re riding in news content production is sometimes obfuscated by the sheen of technology. We’ve maxed out our own reality, bored of what we see, we’re going into an unreal realm. There’s relevance in it, accompanied by an education of comprehending the world differently. Straight parallel lines never meet, we’re led to believe. Einstein, as part of quantum proved otherwise. Oh yes they do, but it’s not the light that bends it, but the matter it’s running through. Do we need a quantum state of cognition in journalism?

Meanwhile, it’s not going to help, or give those on the fringes, who claim to be ignored, any comfort.

In India recently, I marvelled at a low-fi scheme. Indian states are deploying young graduates, often women, labelled ‘professionals’ to live in villages and towns outside urban conurbations. Their task, to assist in digital literacy, to ‘comfort the afflicted’, to help redefine livelihoods. And what if we could take that same ethos in the way we educate a new generation of content cum comfort providers.

We have an idea at the University of Westminster. It’s called the disLAB, the digital and interactive storytelling LAB and it’s these ideas and some — social, cognition, behaviour, tech — that we believe should be the at the centre of journalism engagement.