The centre of convergence is the computer — the unsung hero of this column — a machine that will soon become transparent and eclipsed by the internet. Together, they are the leading force behind new culture, although in writing so, we must stress that we do not subscribe to the philosophy of technological determinism.
Convergence as a biological phenomenon is the emergence of similar traits in unrelated species. This similarity results not from a common ancestry, but as a response to the challenges posed by the environment. This explains why such different animals as the arctic fox and the polar bear can have the same white fur. We can think also think of the media in terms of an ecosystem whose inhabitants adapt to external circumstances. Specifically, to the sudden climate change that occurred as a result of the popularisation of the personal computer (to which this week’s column could just as well have been devoted), and later — the internet.
“Once movies and music, phone calls and texts reach households via optical fibre cables, the formerly distinct media of television, radio, telephone and mail converge, standardised according to transmission frequencies and bit format,” the German media scientist Friedrich Kittler wrote in the introduction to his book, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. The common denominators for all images and sounds are zeros and ones, bits of information interpreted by computers.
This convergence of media is especially obvious not just at the level of digital matter, which remains an abstract concept to most of us, and which makes up a growing part of our culture. Technological convergence is also perfectly apparent in our everyday surroundings, and is symbolised by the computer — a machine that is increasingly becoming a basic tool for reading, watching movies, and listening to music. It is even becoming essential in composing, recording, and distribution.
Alan Kay, who created the world’s first personal computer in the 1970s, used the term metamedium. He believed that the computer treated all other media as content to be processed, and could become any other medium thanks to the possibilities offered by simulation. What more, processors can now be found in every piece of electronics (e.g. telephones, cameras, TVs), and even in automobiles, washing machines, and elevators. The computers on our desks are thus merely a symbol of the analogous devices and computing power scattered around us.
The next step in the convergence process was the popularisation of the internet, which gives content mobility not just within the bounds of a device, but at the global level (preceded, to a certain degree, by the development of satellite services). Ronald Deibert, after Jean Baudrillard, describes the hypermedium as “all media linked together into a single seamless web of digital-electronic-telecommunications.”
The advent of computers and their connection into a network has also changed the social perception of media. Following the appearance of “new” media, i.e. the computer, all media became new, having received a digital upgrade. This changed the array of available media and the points of reference we use when speaking about them. The old, familiar forms still exist — they simply have a range of new capabilities under the hood.
Nowadays, we are almost always given a choice between the same media in digital or analogue form. The difference is that digital media enable us to experience privately the content that was once only available publicly. The screening of movie at the theatre — although fundamentally identical to the same event fifteen years ago — is just one of the options currently available to those would like to enjoy a film. It has also acquired a new character, and now involves the ritual of going out, providing a pretext for a social event, rather than simply an opportunity to view a moving image.
In the media ecosystem, convergence introduces more chaos than order. When focused around a single device, it paradoxically provides greater choice, while at once complicating the media ecosystem.
Convergence has also influenced the creators and producers of content. Modern business practices dictate that synergistic content must revolve among different communication channels and media forms (while remaining the property of a single media conglomerate). This applies to more than just Star Wars or The Matrix, movies that have inspired countless computer games, comic books, and mugs; the Warsaw Uprising Museum has been generating a similar media mix around the event for the past few years. Of course, media outlets don’t always retain complete control over their transmissions. If a TV show isn’t posted on the channel’s official website, an audience member is sure to post in on YouTube or one of the many file-sharing networks. Remixes, parodies, and fan fiction supplement the official contents of the mix.
In times of convergence, white fur is worn by more than just large predators; it has become the domain of the small animals upon which the media landscape’s largest players once fed. These small animals happen to be the consumers. Participants in the field of culture — its social dimension — are the last layer to have converged.
Henry Jenkins, an American cultural scientist whom we have mention several times in our alphabet, explains convergence as symbol of a transition from old to new culture: “Welcome to convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways. Convergence culture is the future, but it is taking shape now. Consumers will be more powerful within convergence culture — but only if they recognise and use that power as both consumers and citizens, as full participants in our culture.”
Convergence is thus a fantasy about the blurring (at the social level) of the boundaries between creators, distributors, and consumers. But it is also a warning that if only professionals succeed in harnessing its great power, we may die of thirst on the cultural desert, doomed to drink from a single well of content.
translated by Arthur Barys