Convergence and Divergence: Two Parts of the Same Process

ReaderMorgan Ramsay flaged a column by Al and Laura Ries which argues that we should be thinking less in terms of convergence and more in terms of divergence. Here's part of what they say:

Convergence captures the imagination, but divergence captures the market.... Why divergence and not convergence? Because convergence requires compromise and divergence satisfies the evolving needs of different market segments.... Irreconcilable differences will always doom such convergence concepts. Television is a "passive" medium; the Internet is an "active" medium. A couch potato will never put up with the complexities of interactive TV and an Internet junkie will never surf the Net with an awkward box designed for another purpose. Like automobiles, different market segments demand different products... Companies today are pouring billions of dollars into such convergence concepts as smart phones, smart gas pumps, smart homes, smart watches, smart clothing, smart refrigerators, smart toilets and smart appliances. This is a tragic waste of time and money. Companies would be more innovative, more profitable and more successful if they would focus on the opposite idea: divergence.

Here's my response. This may get a little more theoretical than some of my posts.

The Black Box Fallacy

Mr. and Mrs. Ries see convergence primarily in technological terms - that is, the combination of different media functions within the same device. This is what I call the black box fallacy. To some degree, this kind of convergence is already taking place - have you tried to buy a cellphone recently that only made phonecalls and did not perform a range of other media functions? Our cellphones represent this technological notion of convergence gone wild and the last time I looked consumers were gobbling them up even if they didn't use those other media appliances very much if at all. The camera/phone, for example, has taken off in a way that the flying boat never did. It is now the digital equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife. At least some convergence devices do capture the market. But if we are waiting for all of the media technologies to merge into a single media appliance, we will be waiting for a very very long time.

Convergence is a Cultural Process

My book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide isn't terribly interested in convergence on a technological level. Rather, my focus is on convergence as a cultural process which involves the flow of stories, images, sounds, brands, relationships across the entire media system.

Here's what I write in the book's introduction:

Keep this in mind: Convergence refers to a process, but not an endpoint. There will be no single black box that controls the flow of media into our homes. Thanks to the proliferation of channels and the portability of new computing and telecommunications technologies, we are entering an era where media will be everywhere....Our cell phones are not simply telecommunications devices; they also allow us to play games, download information from the Internet, and take and send photographs or text messages. Increasingly they allow us to watch previews of new films, download installments of serialized novels, or attend concerts from remote locations. All of this is already happening in Northern Europe or Asia. Any of these functions can also be performed using other media appliances. You can listen to the Dixie Chicks through your DVD player, your car radio, your walkman, your computer's mp3 files, a web radio station, or a music cable channel....

In turn, media convergence impacts the way we consume media. A teenager doing homework may juggle four or five windows, scan the web, listen to and download MP3 files, chat with friends, word-process a paper, and respond to e-mail, shifting rapidly among tasks. And fans of a popular television series may sample dialogue, summarize episodes, debate subtexts, create original fan fiction, record their own soundtracks, make their own movies--and distribute all of this worldwide via the internet.

Convergence is taking place within the same appliances... within the same franchise... within the same company... within the brain of the consumer... and within the same fandom. Convergence involves both a change in the way media is produced and a change in the way media is consumed.

In such a world, all of the media systems are increasingly interconnected; we use them all in relationship to each other, whether or not the technologies are actually hardwired together. I doubt we are going to see a stable relationship between the technologies any time soon. I doubt we will live any longer in a world where various media can be understood as discrete and self-contained.

Convergence is an Ad Hoc Process

The notion of convergence which Al and Laura Reiss are critiquing would indeed require top-down coordination and systemic management of the technological infrastructure and would seemingly priviledge some relationships between devices over others. I share their skepticism that this kind of convergence is coming anytime soon. But we are already living in a convergence culture. A cultural model of convergence allows us to examine incremental, ad hoc, decentralized, unofficial, unauthorized and uncoordinated change. This model of convergence focuses on conflicting goals and expectations amongst different groups (commercial, amateur) involved in the circulation (legal, illegal) of media content. Technological convergence requires control, where-as convergence culture is out of control.

Convergence culture is occurring precisely because the public does not want a one-size-fits-all relationship to media content. Consumers want the media they want where they want it when they want it and in the format they want. On the technological level, this does indeed involve divergence between technologies; on an economic level, this may involve fragmentation of the market. On the cultural level, though, this desire for a divergence of technology works to spread media content across every possible delivery system and insures that there will be multiple points of entry to many of the most successful media franchises. The "couch potato" and the "internet junkie", in the Riess's comments above, will establish very different relationships to this content as they consume it on different terms and in different media, yet increasingly, they are both engaged with aspects of the same media franchise. (Both of these are fictional constructs, by the way, since nobody consumes simply one medium nor does anyone enjoy a purely passive or purely active relationship with media content.)

Technologies of Freedom

My book is inspired in part by the work of MIT Political Scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool's Technologies of Freedom (1983) for whom convergence and divergence are interrelated processes. Here's what he wrote more than two decades ago:

A process called the 'convergence of modes' is blurring the lines between media, even between point-to-point communications, such as the post, telephone and telegraph, and mass communications, such as the press, radio, and television. A single physical means--be it wires, cables or airwaves--may carry services that in the past were provided in separate ways. Conversely, a service that was provided in the past by any one medium--be it broadcasting, the press, or telephony--can now be provided in several different physical ways. So the one-to-one relationship that used to exist between a medium and its use is eroding.

Pool predicted a period of prolonged transition, during which the various media systems competed and collaborated, searching for the stability that would always elude them:

Convergence does not mean ultimate stability or unity. It operates as a constant force for unification but always in dynamic tension with change.... There is no immutable law of growing convergence; the process of change is more complicated than that.

We are still learning just how complicated the process of change really is as we watch agents at various levels respond to the shifts in the ways our culture operates.