[1 November 2006]
During the fall of 2001, a creative American high school student decided to post Photoshop-ed images on his homepage of Bert from Sesame Street posing with Adolf Hitler, having sex with Pamela Anderson, and mingling with Osama Bin Laden as part of a humorous “Bert is Evil” series. A Bangladesh-based publisher, who didn’t recognize Bert but appreciated the likeness of Bin Laden, reprinted the picture on thousands of posters distributed in the Arab world. When anti-American protestors in the Middle East demonstrated and held banners that featured Bert and Bin Laden together, CNN broadcast the image internationally as part of the news. As a result, the Children Television Workshop (creator of Sesame Street) threatened to take legal action. But who would the company sue—the high school student, the Asian printer, the protestors, or CNN? Such is just one of the problems/paradoxes of the new convergence culture, according to MIT professor Henry Jenkins.
This story, meant to be illustrative rather than apocryphal, illustrates that the relationship between media producers and consumers has changed and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The professor sees this as mostly a positive thing because it allows the consumers of goods and services to become actively involved in their production. But as the strange tale of Bert and Bin Laden suggests, the results of convergence can be more enigmatic than enlightening.
Jenkins defines convergence culture as the “place where old media 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”. He notes that the conventional media has changed due to technological advances that encourage smart spectators to become active in shaping what they spend their time with. The professor focuses primarily on television and the movies, but he also examines popular literature and American government. The book includes case studies of such mass culture phenomena as TV’s Survivor and American Idol, the films The Matrix and Star Wars, Harry Potter novels, and mainstream party politics. Jenkins’ detailed analyses of these subjects allow him to provide lots of interesting examples and anecdotes about how convergence culture operates in everyday life (i.e. how sophisticated consumer interactions on reality shows are consciously mimicked by today’s Army recruiting officials). Jenkins offers no great insights that anyone who has paid attention to the media doesn’t realize, but does a good job of providing depth and detail to the picture.
Jenkins has modest aims: “to help ordinary people grasp how convergence is impacting the media they consume and, at the same time, to help industry leaders and policy makers understand the consumer perspective on these changes.” The professor spends much of his time debunking myths about the old and new media. He differentiates between what media is—say, music—and delivery technologies, such as record albums, CDs and MP3 files. While technologies may become obsolete, the media never dies. Accordingly while the content and audiences of a particular media may change, the media itself continues to exist as part of a larger cultural system of communication. Those who believe, for instance, that television killed radio ignore the fact that the old form of media simply had to co-exist with the newly emergent technology. The function of the old technology simply became altered; radios played more music and told fewer stories than they once had once TV became popular.
Of particular note to the study of convergence culture is Jenkins’ discussion of “the black box fallacy”. Some futurists believe that eventually all media content will one day flow from a single black box in our living rooms (or in our increasingly portable, mobile society, a little black box we carry with us wherever we go). The presumption here is that technological change trumps our cultural needs—we just have to figure out how to make the perfect black box and everyone will own it and companies will be able to figure out how to best create product for it. In reality, Jenkins argues, there are more black boxes than ever to serve our many desires. The typical middle-class American family now has (at least) a VCR, a digital cable system, a DVD player, a digital voice recorder, an answering machine, a stereo system, a game system, a desktop computer, a laptop, a cell phone, an MP3 player, a portable game system, etc. The old idea that all devices would be replaced by one central device that did everything has been proven wrong in practice.
In the meantime, convergence has occurred on the digital level as all content can been digitized. One can use a cell phone to make a call, send an email or text message, surf the Internet, play a game, hear a song, take a picture, watch a video, and so on. The proliferation of black boxes is a “symptomatic of a moment of convergence,” according to Jenkins, because no one is really sure of what kinds of functions should be combined. It’s become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to find an appliance that merely serves its original function—a phone that is just a phone, for example.
“Ready or not,” Jenkins proclaims, “we are already living in a convergence culture.” This has changed the way we consume media and has changed the way media is produced. Whether this will free us to participate in mass culture or co-opt us to large corporate owners of production is unclear, but the professor understands that the more we know what is going on, the better we will be able to make decisions and participate in making our own futures.