There’s a word that gets used a lot when it comes to new media. I don’t think it means anything.
Nicholas Negroponte, quite some time ago, divided the world into old stuff made out of atoms, and new stuff made out of bits (or binary digits – 1s and 0s). In making that distinction, Negroponte was arguing in favour of a conceptual break between digital media and everything else.
Newspapers are made out of different atoms than those that are used to make videocassettes. They are not cross-platform experiences. They are ‘divergent’.
But in the digital realm, an album of music, a telephone call, the video content of a DVD, an emailed recipe for soup, a photograph, a blog, a piece of legislation and a forum about Japanese cinema are all made out of the same stuff — 1s and 0s. They are ‘convergent’.
This simple fact has led to the idea that platforms are coming together. Your phone is now your camera. That’s convergence. You email a friend on the same machine that you listen to music through. That’s convergence too. While not the most startling of conclusions about the nature of the online environment, it is, at least, broadly true.
But then we lost the plot. Convergence came to be used as a catch-all phrase to describe the very nature of digital media themselves, and so led to some strong technological determinism about where our media devices are heading.
Apparently, soon your phone will be the remote for your telly and the keys to your house. Your fridge will automatically order refills online when you get low on milk. You’ll be carrying around your own universal media device with all your music, all your favourite TV shows and movies, your email, the web, online games. It’ll be a movie camera and a radio studio, a songwriting tool and a word processor. Going to lectures or turning up to work will be a thing of the past.
Because all digital media are convergent, everything will end up on the same Swiss Army media device. I mean, if you’re going to converge, then eventually everything will come together, and one thing will do all things.
Actually, as nice an idea as that is, it doesn’t reflect any kind of real experience of the way the world works. If you think about it, almost nothing works with anything else.
Sometimes that’s a bad thing, and has to do with interoperability issues coming out of digital rights management. In other words, it’s about corporate control over private media consumption. Music you buy from iTunes, for instance, won’t play on any portable device other than an iPod. Likewise, if you buy music from pretty much anyone other than eMusic, iTunes or the controversial Russian sites, you won’t be able to play it on your iPod.
But sometimes, the failure of total convergence is a good thing. I like a camera to be a camera, for instance. I don’t want to read the news on it. And even if I did decide I wanted to do that, the important thing is that I want to decide.
The point is that the word isn’t helpful. Using the word ‘convergence’ as if it’s a foregone conclusion and just part of the nature of digital media and leading us in certain unavoidable technological directions, or worse — ‘convergence’ as a synonym for all new media effects, prevents us from thinking about our technologies in nuanced and complex ways that help us understand, navigate and take a design approach to our technology.
Swiss Army knives are all very clever, but if I want to cut a piece of paper, I’ll use a pair of scissors.