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People stood, pushed up against an outdoor stage among a crowd of rowdy fans on the Portland, Oregon, waterfront waiting for the Lady Miss Kier Kirby to appear (the former lead singer of the late ’80s to early ’90s pop disco group Deee-Lite). The audience probably did not expect to be confronted with a moment of media convergence, if they even knew of that term. It was summer, it was a street festival, and friends were celebrating and enjoying the beautiful evening. And there it was, the Lady and the Mac.
Situated center stage sat a Mac laptop that controlled the entire performance. Through that computer, Kirby told the band when to start, added additional sound effects, and managed the playlist for the evening. She also recorded the live show for potential future distribution via multiple social networking sites. Kirby promised that she had rehearsed and practiced with the contraption, but she encountered several glitches, and some sound-tech support raced to the stage, worked their magic, and got the system up and running. With the electronics functioning, Kirby finally mustered the requisite computer skills apparently demanded of a modern pop diva trying to make a comeback and belted out a stellar performance for her rowdy fans.
The convergence of computers, music, and live performance did not end there. While prancing about the stage in her true diva style, Kirby told her fans that all the new songs she would perform that evening were already available on her MySpace page. People in the crowd with iPhones or other similar devices called up her page during breaks between songs to check out what was available. She also gave a shout out to all the camcorder operators she spied in the audience, challenging each of them to post their recordings to YouTube as soon as possible. No longer did Kirby seek traditional routes to publicize her work. In an age of media convergence, she did not need traditional record labels to reach her fans. Given her outlandish outfits and the risqué direction her music had taken, one could assume that being free of traditional outlets, she could let her creative juices take her in whatever direction she wished, even if it included a song about oral sex titled “Baby go down on me.” In a more controlled, regulated industry where the Federal Communication Commission deems wardrobe malfunctions that reveal a nipple for a half a second obscene, such a risqué and adult-themed song might not be possible for a pop diva. In a world where that diva can bypass studio executives, much more is possible.
While this simple vignette may seem odd and uninteresting to nonfans of Deee-Lite and the Lady Miss Kier, it illustrates much of what media convergence brings to the media landscape. First, computers are infiltrating all forms of media, including live music performances. Second, many artists, not just musicians and singers, are using computers to sidestep traditional venues to get their wares out. Third, consumers use easily obtainable electronics to produce their own content, and finally, all this is easily distributable via inexpensive outlets facilitated by the World Wide Web.
This opening example, too, may seem frivolous, but what it helps illustrate is that in an atmosphere of convergence, fans and artists are feeling much more powerful. Each has the tools to go around traditional gatekeepers to produce or seek out content suited to their own specific needs and interests. Conversely though, convergence imposes limitations and steep learning curves on content producers and consumers in terms of mastering new technology and new distribution outlets. Kirby’s miscues with using a computer to run her show highlight this problem. Combine these limitations with a well-healed media industry that desires to cash in with new users and producers who seek to entertain and be entertained, to inform and be informed, and a frenzy of consumer, producer, and corporate issues ensue. Another concern is that the term convergence may be so overused that it has little meaning. Gordon (2003) argues that the term is being overused in so many different contexts that it has “lost its value in focusing discussions on journalism and the news media” (p. 60). Still, the metaphorical power of the term allows observers and critics the ability to understand the intersections between new and old media and how those intersections are changing the media landscape.
This research paper will tackle the admittedly fuzzy concept of media convergence. First, it is important to examine the various definitions of the concept. After defining convergence, the above example of Miss Kirby reveals three important areas to examine in relation to convergence. First, how are consumers and artists or content producers faring in an atmosphere of convergence? Next, how are media companies responding, and finally, how do educators prepare their students for a rapidly changing media world from both a consumer and critically aware citizen perspective and the perspective of students who hope to make a living working in the media in a convergent environment?
There is no one singular definition of convergence. According to Gordon (2003), the term had its origins in math and science. Gordon indicates that it is unlikely that we will ever know for sure who first applied the term with regard to media, but what seems to be a very early occurrence came in Pool’s 1983 book, Technologies of Freedom, where he discussed convergence modes. Convergence modes were the coming together of conversations, entertainment, news, and other media, all delivered electronically. Since then, prolific use of the term has made a single definition of the concept difficult. Instead, most scholars and media critics writing about convergence parse the term into a variety of smaller ideas that are more easily defined.
Henry Jenkins (2001) highlights the difficulty in defining convergence when he wrote, “Part of the confusion about media convergence stems from the fact that when people talk about it, they’re actually describing at least five processes” (p. 93). Those processes according to Jenkins are (1) technological convergence, where various forms of media find their way into digital formats; (2) economic convergence, which is highlighted by vertical and horizontal integration among media companies; (3) social or organic convergence, defined as what’s happening inside a user’s head as he or she learns to navigate new technological and information environments; (4) cultural convergence, which emerges as new forms of storytelling develop from the intersection of various media; and (5) global convergence, as various cultures’ media making collide to create a new sense of McLuhan’s “global village.” Jenkins, in his text Convergence Culture (2006), focuses mostly on the new storytelling abilities we are discovering and the newly empowered consumer in convergence culture. Others tend to define convergence more narrowly and focus solely on journalism and newsgathering or on the media corporation consolidation happening among once separate media organizations.
Gordon offers two views of the term. First, he focuses on technology convergence in terms of content creation, distribution, and consumption. In each of these areas, the digital revolution influences how the media operate. Most content is now produced with computers, distributed and consumed in digital forms, such as being able to view last night’s episode of your favorite ABC sitcom via the Internet and your personal computer. Gordon’s other view is similar to Jenkins’s. Gordon speaks of five areas of convergence: ownership, tactics, structure, information gathering, and presentation or storytelling. Ownership convergence is one most consumers and media scholars are aware of because it concerns the rash of media mergers in the industry. Companies are merging in both a horizontal and a vertical manner. They are acquiring more production outlets while also acquiring more distribution outlets, many of which are digitally based. Tactical convergence involves partnerships between two previously separate media organizations, such as a newspaper and a television station, while remaining separately owned. This form of convergence has the potential to benefit both entities in terms of sharing resources and information as well as opening up new ways to sell multiple advertising packages across different media platforms. But employees stay focused primarily on the main media format in which they work. Structural convergence takes tactical convergence one step further by actually creating merged jobs that require employees to cross into different mediums, such as having a print reporter actually produce a video piece to be aired or posted on a Web site.
Information-gathering convergence brings together the tools of the trade from various mediums, where now a print reporter might carry along a digital camera or a digital video camera in addition to a notebook and pen to gather information for a story. The purpose is for journalists or information gatherers to obtain multiple types of content for multiple uses. Finally, with the almost unlimited space that digital storytelling offers, new forms of storytelling are likely to emerge in order to take advantage of this extra space. With the limit of space in print, the inverted pyramid dominates the way a story is told, but that might change in a digital environment when space is limited only by storage and bandwidth, when a written story can encompass thousands of words rather than a few hundred typical of a USA TODAY story and could also be accompanied by a video clip that does not conform to a standard short broadcast news story. Instead of a quick lead-in by a talking head and a 90-second explanation, short videos lasting 5 minutes and longer are possible. New storytelling formats will emerge, and consumers could benefit in terms of becoming better informed. Alternatively, consumers may not be able to keep up with the growing demands on their time and may skip new formats in favor of a quick digital form of something like USA TODAY that is delivered to their e-mail inbox every morning.
Dupagne and Garrison (2006) offer a model of convergence that differs from the previous approaches discussed. The authors break convergence into four areas that have varying degrees of influence on each other and on the process of convergence: economic convergence, technological convergence, regulatory convergence, and convergence effects. According to the visual/graphic model of convergence offered, effects are produced by all three of the other categories, yet the model indicates that convergence effects have no influence over the others. This may be the case now, but as consumers take advantage of the opportunities that convergence provides, they will certainly influence economics and regulations, and with their purchasing and usage power, consumers will have a hand in which technologies thrive and which go the way of the 8-track. The model demonstrates that while there is no simple way to define convergence, there are many interrelated components that help understand convergence.
Menon (2006) offers one final example of how convergence has been defined by focusing simply on the technological aspect of convergence. Digitalization and integration of platforms, contents, and production processes in a global context are examined. Menon concludes that while convergence may be on the minds of many, in reality the convergence process on a global scale is only in its infancy. Developed countries have access to a wealth of technology and resources, but many other countries do not. Furthermore, no one standard for compatibility exists, making it difficult to bring many media elements and technologies together. Much more work in terms of technological access and compatibility needs to be done in order to realize convergence throughout the world.
Jenkins, Gordon, Dupagne and Garrison, and Menon offer comprehensive and overlapping definitions of the term convergence. Jenkins focuses most on entertainment and storytelling, particularly among fan cultures and the benefits convergence brings, while Gordon focuses more specifically on journalism and how convergence requires new skills for reporters and new opportunities for consumers to stay informed. Dupagne and Garrison offer a visual model that depicts the interrelations among various aspects of convergence, and Menon, with an eye toward technology as the backbone of convergence, indicates that whatever convergence might mean, we are far from living in a technologically converged global world.
There are many competing definitions of the term convergence, but most important to consider is how consumers are faring in an atmosphere of convergence. With the need to be informed more important than ever, are media consumers, are citizens, getting what they need? Or, as McChesney (2007) argues in Communication Revolution, are consumers poorly served by an increasingly consolidated media environment where good political journalism suffers and an age of infotainment rules? Can we take advantage of this moment, this “critical juncture” or “communication revolution” of changes in our public communication systems, to build a better, more robust democratic society? Consumers may not always be creating or be drawn to highbrow intellectual content, but the newfound ability that convergence provides, of consumers becoming more active creators of content, is encouraging.
The Consumer Turns Producer
Many argue that the consolidation convergence brings limits consumers and consumer choice, but lower entry costs and creatively active citizens and consumers are bringing much diversity to media content. Weblogs, or simply blogs, are here to stay and are perfect examples of how beneficial convergence can be for a community.
Take Steve Patterson’s Urban Review (www.urbanre viewstl.com), a development-minded urban-oriented blog in St. Louis, Missouri, as an example. There are likely many community blogs to consider, but your author has witnessed Urban Review’s popularity firsthand while attending a Media Forum conference held in St. Louis. First and foremost, Patterson has become a citizen journalist covering city hall, with a particular interest in development and zoning, in ways that local news outlets used to do. The buyout of local independent papers by large chains hurts local news coverage. Although the chains usually promised before taking over control of local papers that there would be little change, they usually cut expensive local staff and replaced local content with cheaper, nationally syndicated columns and more advertising. It was simply cheaper and more profitable to run a local paper in this manner, which made stockholders and Wall Street happy, but did not necessarily serve the local community well. Of course, citizen journalism has its limitations in comparison with typical objective journalism standards, but Patterson’s contribution to community knowledge is vast, and he has been recognized by a variety of more traditional media outlets for his good work. St. Louis Magazine has recognized the blog on various occasions, including naming Patterson the best blogger in 2008. A local St. Louis alternative weekly paper, The Riverfront Times, named the blog the best civic-minded blog in 2005, and the blog won readers’ choice for best blog in 2006 and 2007. The free benefit that Patterson provides to the community creates an easily searchable visual and verbal archive and history of significant events regarding progress and development in St. Louis.
One limitation clearly is the potential for biased interpretation of events and ideas. Patterson reveals up front to readers of his blog the lens he uses to guide his posts. He is a new urbanist, who among other things predicts the end of suburbia (a term he borrows from a documentary of the same name) sooner rather than later. Regular followers of his blog know his bias up front. What they get in return is someone passionate about development and city politics, who bothers to attend as many council meetings as he can, makes sunshine requests, and then provides that information to the community. Patterson makes a very small amount of money via advertising on his site, and the greatest cost to him is his time in terms of attending meetings and following important project proposals in the community, time that he would give anyway.
When Patterson took on the local Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15) over the approval of a very suburban-styled fast-food restaurant in a distinctly urban neighborhood, he shook up the political structure and demonstrated how what happens in the blogosphere often makes its way into more traditional outlets. St. Louis Magazine covered Patterson with a short article about the flap with Alderwoman Florida, complete with a creative graphic depicting Florida and Patterson as characters in a rock-’em-sock-’em robot game, a game Patterson eventually won, as the fast-food restaurant was never built. Many in the community post reactions and alternative viewpoints to his blog, a blog where he only edits posts for obscenity and the like. During the conflict with Alderwoman Florida, many posted that he was no journalist and he had no right to be harping on the story. He was invited on local talk radio to discuss the issue, and he made it clear that of course he wasn’t a journalist, he was a concerned citizen with a wonderful new tool for free speech—a blog. These new tools provided Patterson and fellow concerned citizens the ability to stand up to politicians and corporations and be heard. Previous avenues of attending meetings and voicing opposition, while helpful, pale in comparison with the publicity and reach that a blog provides.
Patterson crossed over into two other mediums, radio and print, from his popular Urban Review blog, which gets an average of over 80,000 hits a month. His prolific posting before and after a stroke keeps regular viewers of his site well-informed about the happenings at city hall regarding development in a way that the local paper does not, and since most do not have the time or the passion to attend often long and boring council meetings, his blog clearly provides a service to the community. Furthermore, because space limitations are much less pressing, he can provide detail that other media simply cannot. His blog also demonstrates the synergy that often occurs between blogs and more traditional forms of media, such as radio and print. And having joined the board of the St. Louis chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Patterson will certainly learn about journalism while also influencing how we define journalism and journalists in the future.
Patterson has become handy with a digital video camera. With that camera and the advent of YouTube, he has been able to illustrate many problems and opportunities in St. Louis. His videography may not be of broadcast quality, but the images he captures reveal problems such as lack of handicap ramps and access, unfriendly pedestrian environments, and ill-planned development. He has also posted at least two “gotchas.” First, he taped a restaurant owner shouting obscenities at him as he complained about all the street parking near a restaurant taken up with valet parking cones, and second, he caught on tape a city official parking illegally on several occasions to do business more conveniently.
The River Front Times has called him a town gadfly, and perhaps he is. Patterson has gained a much enjoyed local notoriety that brings more attention to his Web site and his point of view. Some reader posts to his blog criticize Patterson for fueling controversy when compromise might work better. But what he does illustrate is that concerned citizens have access to the tools to get messages to the public in ways that they never have before. However, what has not changed is that those concerned citizens must still be active citizens, significantly involved in the community, if they are to have a message at all. Patterson must take the time to attend council and community meetings, to stay abreast of proposed development and zoning regulations, and to keep up with the local political climate if he is to maintain a blog that attracts the numbers that he does.
Patterson’s blog is but one example in many of how consumers are becoming producers of content. Civic mindedness is not the only impetus that energizes consumers’ creative juices. Jenkins (2006), in his text Convergence Culture, highlights a variety of other avenues that various fan cultures and media consumers are taking advantage of, including inexpensive audio and video production and easy distribution methods such as YouTube and other Internet sites. Jenkins outlines how fans of reality shows used the social networking capability of the Internet to spoil the popular reality show Survivor. In addition, fan cultures of many different films and shows, most notably Star Wars, have produced alternative takes on well-known stories as well as clever spoofs such as Chad Vader or, though perhaps more mainstream, Family Guy’s “Blue Harvest” episode.
According to an interview on the DVD edition, Family Guy’s episode was sanctioned by the Star Wars franchise, and there is an interview conducted by the creator of Family Guy with the Star Wars guru, George Lucas. Not all spoofs are sanctioned though, and many media companies, including Lucas’s media enterprises, explore ways in which they can maintain control over their intellectual property while still encouraging fan participation. At times, media companies have used their deep pockets and media lawyers to threaten consumers with law suits if they infringe on copyrighted works, even if the infringement is only intended as spoof or homage.
There are countless examples on a local or national scale that illustrate similar concepts, but a local civicminded example was chosen purposely to highlight the benefits to local communities that blogs provide. The blogosphere, when attended to by savvy users, provides information outlets with great benefits. From the bloggers’ side, they find a way to express themselves and their passions in ways unavailable just a few years ago. And a personal benefit to Patterson was the outpouring of community support after his stroke. Patterson truly has become a fixture in the local community, and his recent accolade of best blog of the year according to St. Louis Magazine demonstrates clearly that the new and old media are not just colliding but mixing in terms of function and content.
Cable television arguably began an era of narrowcasting, where the audience was segmented into specific taste groups. Viewers could tune into music videos, BET (Black Entertainment Television), Spanish-language channels, cooking shows, sports, and politics—the options are endless. Corporate media producers, however, select the options that viewers encounter. With the advent of digital media, consumers are further segmented into different taste groups. Academics can tune into podcasts of lectures at scholarly conferences that they are unable to attend; editorial cartoonists, such as the creative team behind JibJab, can animate and distribute their work with limited obstacles; and everyone via social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace can make friends across the world and learn of different cultures and different viewpoints with a few simple clicks of the mouse on the computer.
Certainly, the other examples of fan participation are not as beneficial from a civic-minded point of view, but they are examples of media consumers becoming media producers. No longer are consumers relegated to being passively perched on their couches at home letting the latest entertainment offerings wash over them. No longer must consumers restrict their participation in community affairs to reading the local newspaper and perhaps writing a letter to the editor—they can now participate much more actively and contribute to the public dialogue on countless topics. Unfortunately, countering such good examples of new media converging with old, such new opportunity for media consumers are corporations that seek to co-opt the process and profit.
Ben Bagdikian, in the latest revision of his now classic work The New Media Monopoly (2004), argues that the consistent movement toward more and more corporate media mergers hurts consumers by limiting the options they have for obtaining information. Mergers and corporatization also damage the media business in general by limiting competition that might improve the overall quality of media. Bagdikian’s text is a classic, having been updated multiple times as new information and mergers come to light. Bagdikian chronicles how media mergers reduce options for consumers and inhibit honest reporting. The text provides countless examples to support the claim that consumers and democracy are not served well by a growing conglomerated corporate media. Many corporations whose main business is not media are beginning to own the media companies that should be investigating unfair corporate practices. As Bagdikian argues, these multitiered corporations are often able to squash negative coverage before it blossoms. Although the text is not specifically convergence focused, it provides an important perspective on the current state of the media business. Croteau and Hoynes’s The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest (2001) builds on Bagdikian’s argument. The authors examine corporate media through the lens of a market model versus a public sphere model of mass communication. In the market model, mass communication is guided by the overwhelming drive to deliver large audiences to advertisers via programming, including news programming. The public sphere model is guided by the general notion of “public interest,” with the underlying assumption that having an informed citizenry is better for democracy overall. Croteau and Hoynes’s belief is that the corporate media business environment fueled by media mergers values the market model over the public sphere model and in turn does a disservice to citizens by not serving the public interest. The question being asked is “Does Wall Street’s demand for profits trump the need for a well-informed public in a democracy?”
Stephen Quinn (2005) views the conflict between market and public interest differently. The competing interests, he argues, are between a business model and a journalistic model. The business model sees convergence as a great opportunity to cross into multiplatform publishing and broadcasting, allowing for a repurposing of content from different media, a savings in resources, and a greater audience reach, which turns into greater advertising revenues and potential savings in terms of being able to reduce staff. Staff reductions may not be good for the journalism employment market, but proponents of the business model argue that they are better able to serve their customers and the public by providing multiple options for accessing information to consumers. The journalistic model sees convergence as a chance for reporters and other content providers to perform their craft better by giving them access to multiple storytelling methods and venues. Multimedia formats engage viewers more, allowing journalists and storytellers to more creatively approach their craft while providing better service and better stories.
Convergence, be it via horizontal or vertical media mergers or via multiplatform storytelling, has not always produced positive results, from either a market or a public sphere perspective. Gracie Lawson-Borders (2006) in Media Organizations and Convergence: Case Studies of Media Convergence Pioneers indicates that “convergence pioneers” struggle to operate in a converged media environment and that the benefits of convergence are not always equal for the different converging groups. Differing cultures in the various news-gathering environments created conflicts and confusion as different news cycles and deadline structures clashed. Another case study on what is believed to be the first occurrence in the nation of convergence between a newspaper and a television station, both located in Oklahoma City, revealed little benefit for either entity. The authors of the case study, Stan Ketterer Weir, Smethers, and Back (2004), indicate that there was some useful collaboration between print and television journalists but collaboration was often difficult because previously these journalists were in competition for stories, scoops, and sources. Most helpful in the collaboration was the ability of television new stories to be able to point viewers to the newspaper for further information on a story. Such a result, given the time limitations of the broadcast medium and the relatively greater space availability of print, is predictable but also a clear theme within the convergence that consumers should expect. A video news package can only accomplish so much in 2 minutes, but the benefit of convergence may be in making it easier for news consumers to find additional information on topics of interest.
Television, according to John Caldwell (2004), has always been well positioned for convergence because of its well-developed infrastructure and networks. NBC, for example, was foresighted enough to invest in Tivo-style technology in order to have a hand in and understand a potential threat to their industry. Furthermore, television’s foray into the Web world succeeds by amplifying viewer interest in programming well after an episode of a favored series has been aired. Peruse any popular series Web site, and you can learn countless tidbits about the various characters and the actors who play them. Additional detail and backstory are often available, and if you missed an episode of a popular series, you can view it online at your own convenience, with limited commercial interruptions. ABC even provides ready-made widgets for free that viewers can add to their own blog, MySpace page, or Web site. These widgets may be free to viewers, but they also provide free advertising and linkage to what ABC is trying to sell. Television’s approach to convergence is increasingly sophisticated and demands a much more educated and critical consumer to respond critically and to participate actively in the process.
The one wild card for media corporations is regulation. The rules for cross ownership have been relaxed significantly recently, which fueled mergers and various forms of convergence. Consumers can now get television from their phone company or phone service from their cable provider, and satellite television companies are now offering Internet service. High-definition digital television is increasing in popularity and availability, and which companies are able to own and offer the array of services consumers demand is in flux. Content regulation continues to be of concern. Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl garnered a steep fine that, as of this writing, was reversed in court, but with a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that finds a half-a-second view of a breast indecent, what might be on the horizon for all the new home-grown media producers who show much more skin and deal with more adult content? Will the corporations that provide the Internet services that allow content to be distributed be liable for content that the FCC deems obscene? CBS argued that they did not know that the artists would be performing as they did, but the FCC still found them liable. The court that overturned the fine indicated that the FCC was being inconsistent and arbitrary, but the issue is not settled. Regulating a converged media environment will present significant challenges moving forward.
Teaching for Convergence
Educators in journalism, broadcasting, and communication programs face a challenge in preparing their students for careers in the industry. First, considering the rapid changes that convergence brings, keeping up with the pace in academic institutions that are programmed to move more slowly and deliberately is problematic. Second, making room for new courses and new technologies in already packed curricula is painstaking, and finally, in a more general sense, how do educators prepare the students of today and tomorrow to approach a converged media environment in a critical and thoughtful manner?
Traditionally, journalism curriculums are broken into tracks. There are print and broadcasting tracks, and perhaps photojournalism. As Elizabeth Birge (2004) points out, with the advent of the World Wide Web, individuals who graduated with multimedia skills were considered to have a leg up on their competition in the job market. For example, a previous student of the author who graduated in the early 2000s landed a job at ABC News in Washington, D.C., in part because, in the words of her supervisor, “She could write, and she had the technological skills to get some audio and video and edit a complete small story package.” No longer is the ability to write well necessarily sufficient to landing a job out of journalism school. The problem becomes then, in curricula that are already packed with course requirements, where do the multimedia courses fit? Some programs are creating multimedia tracks, and most programs are offering some form of converged writing programs and courses that teach students how to write for print, the Web, and broadcast. The need for quality writing will not vanish, but added into the mix now is a host of digital abilities that successful students (job seekers) must master.
A popular phrase in academia currently is “teaching and learning.” The phrase seems to presume that teaching does not lead to learning, but in an age of convergence, how students learn has morphed significantly. A trip to the library today is markedly different from just a few years ago. Students are just as likely to be scouring Internet databases for articles, information, maps, and data than they are to be found trudging through dusty stacks of journals, books, and documents. Collections are increasingly more digitized and available to a much broader audience than just those who can travel to a particular library to peruse the collection in person. The Library of Congress serves as an exemplar of this phenomenon. Their collections of documents and images, from historical documents to photographs to editorial cartoons, are increasingly available in digital form via the library’s Web site (www.loc.gov). Downloading them at your home office desk computer may not be the same experience as having a librarian bringing them to your desk in the stately Jefferson Reading Room in
Washington, D.C., but the convenience and the increased access to multiple collections for a broader audience has great potential to produce better learning experiences for students and scholars who have the technology and the training to gain access to these collections. Access may not be available to all though, as many cannot afford the cost of the new digital world, and this fact raises issues of fairness and economic equality. POTS (plain ol’ telephone service) was a standard that made telephony cheap and available to everyone to have a level technological playing field, but in a converged digital world, such a standard may be more difficult to achieve.
At the time of this writing, otherwise sane individuals were lining up at Apple stores across the country for the privilege of being one of the first to fork over $199 for the new iPhone G3. One store in a suburban neighborhood in the Washington, D.C., area that is located in a small open-air shopping area with wide sidewalks and nice parks dealt with people lining up the day before. Many soon-to-be-proud owners of this new gadget spent the night camped out on the sidewalk on a hot July evening, waiting. In a Washingtonpost.com online video report the day the sale began (a perfect example of new storytelling methods), a camper was quoted as saying that he had to be among the first to have the “one little convergence device that does it all.” Perhaps Jenkin’s admonition that there will not be one little black box that does it all is not quite right. While the iPhone and similar devices cannot do it all yet, they can provide TV, music, movies, Internet, gaming, and phone service, and that seems as close to doing it all as you can get. Having a device that does it all, though, still does not solve what John Durham Peters terms the “intractable problem of communication.”
New techniques for human communication, be it writing, the telegraph, or the latest convergence-driven electronic device, do not necessarily improve human communication. Peters (1999) writes,
Communication, in the deeper sense of establishing ways to share one’s hours meaningfully with others, is sooner a matter of faith and risk than of technique and method. In the thinner sense of tuning to the same frequency, the concept is ultimately unhelpful as a solution to our most vexing puzzles. It makes knowing into the governor of our dealings with others. It puts the burden on husbands and wives, diplomats and colleagues to dial in: yet once the parties face each other in the same language, the adventure has not ended, but only begun. The dream of communication stops short of all the hard stuff. Sending clear messages might not make for better relations; we might like each other less the more we understood about each other. (p. 30)
Peters is not a Luddite, though. He does believe that new technologies can help:
Certainly people can improve in suaveness, coping and sensitivity. But the conceit that techniques can correct the painful and happy act of our mutual difference not only is misguided, it is based on rare scenarios in which the ambiguity of signs can be fatal. Most of the time we understand each other quite well; we just don’t agree. (p. 269)
New communication technologies in a converged media environment provide multiple new avenues for citizens to be informed, for consumers to participate and be entertained and for corporate media to make greater profits, but these new techniques, in Peters words, stop short of the hard stuff. Patterson’s blog might provide more information to St. Louis citizens and perhaps keep elected officials
more honest; fan cultures and significantly reduced production and distribution costs may provide opportunities for individual participation in mass media in unprecedented ways, and new corporate media conglomerates may garner significant power to profit in this convergent environment, but all these new techniques will not magically fix or improve the age-old process of humans learning to live together.
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