What’s all this talk about “media convergence,” this dumb industry idea that all media will meld into one, and we’ll get all of our news and entertainment through one box? Few contemporary terms generate more buzz-and less honey. Consider this column a primer on the real media convergence, because it’s on the verge of transforming our culture as profoundly as the Renaissance did.
Media convergence is an ongoing process, occurring at various intersections of media technologies, industries, content and audiences; it’s not an end state. There will never be one black box controlling all media. Rather, thanks to the proliferation of channels and the increasingly ubiquitous nature of computing and communications, we are entering an era where media will be everywhere, and we will use all kinds of media in relation to one another. We will develop new skills for managing information, new structures for transmitting information across channels, and new creative genres that exploit the potentials of those emerging information structures.
History teaches us that old media never die. And before you say, “What about the eight-track,” let’s distinguish among media, genres and delivery technologies. Recorded sound is a medium. Radio drama is a genre. CDs, MP3 files and eight-track cassettes are delivery technologies. Genres and delivery technologies come and go, but media persist as layers within an ever more complicated information and entertainment system. A medium’s content may shift, its audience may change and its social status may rise or fall, but once a medium establishes itself it continues to be part of the media ecosystem. No one medium is going to “win” the battle for our ears and eyeballs.
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:
Much as the historical Renaissance emerged when Europe responded to the invention and dispersion of movable type, these multiple forms of media convergence are leading us toward a digital renaissance-a period of transition and transformation that will affect all aspects of our lives. The first Renaissance was a period of political and social instability, and the old monastic order crumbled. Today, media convergence is sparking a range of social, political, economic and legal disputes because of the conflicting goals of consumers, producers and gatekeepers. These contradictory forces are pushing both toward cultural diversity and toward homogenization, toward commercialization and toward grassroots cultural production.
The digital renaissance will be the best of times and the worst of times, but a new cultural order will emerge from it. Stay tuned.