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Mindjack Magazine

december 01, 1999

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Books / Digital Culture:
The Last Page
by Rachel Singer Gordon
Books, reading, and and modern technology.

vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

Selected Past Articles:

What I've Learned in Sixteen Years Online
by Elizabeth Lewis

Sophie's (Multimedia) World
by Chris Lakeman Fraser

by Neal Stephenson
eviewed by Shawn FitzGerald

by Douglas Rushkoff
An excerpt from Douglas' new book

Howard Rheingold
An exclusive, in-depth interview.

Converge This!

A look at the current state of convergence technology and content, and where it's headed.

by Dan Richards

Lately, it's all about convergence. At least the word. It sounds cool. It sounds like something's happening. If you are working with convergence, you're catching the next wave. I'm working with convergence. I decided to spend some time researching just exactly what that is -or might become.

If you have come here to help me,
You are wasting your time...
But if you have come because
Your liberation is bound up with mine,
Then let us work together.
- Aboriginal Woman

Looking in my trusted Webster's, I find, con-verge [[ L. com-, together + vergere, to bend ]] to come together at a point. -con-ver'gence n..

Wow, the new millenium, "everything's going to come together", I hear. "It's all gonna' be one". Media, formats, ways of communicating with devices, the web's going to become TV and the TV will become the web. "You'll be able to program your Mr. Coffee and VCR with a cell phone -remotely, from anywhere." It's the future!

I've been throwing the word around as much as anyone, I'm currently producing a convergence media project with Nerve, and I have to admit, the word causes excitement. Now that I produce projects combining different interactive media, I thought "convergence media producer" might serve me well as a new hat to wear. I figured, of all people, I should investigate a little deeper into this new buzz word on everyone's lips.

I've been subscribing to a Convergence discussion group. I was also "talking" with some online friends about convergence, trying to get more of a handle on the term and it's implications. Jonathan Korman, Senior Designer at Cooper Interaction Design, suggested that, "what we are actually seeing is divergence". That puzzled me more than anything else I'd seen. Diverge means -to go or move in different directions. It was food for thought. The divergence of lots of new media and applications would seem to reflect the current trend just as accurately.

I, as much as anyone, would be happy to see a convergence of media formats. Even on a consumer level, it's a funny business with all these formats and releases. As an example, let's take a classic album that most of us have, say, The Beatles Abbey Road. On average, many of us have purchased this same piece on different formats. A vinyl album, a cassette, a CD and maybe even an 8-track. We will probably purchase a DVD when the new 24-bit masters are released. And it would be safe to say that several more formats will come to the market. So in a lifetime we are perhaps buying 5-10 different versions of the same work. The music customer certainly doesn't get a break on the "upgrades" provided by the software companies.

The more I began researching convergence media, the more I began to smell the virtual coffee. Keep in mind that technology companies are in the business of selling products. Now think about this for a minute. Do you really think that companies like Sony, Phillips and Toshiba are actually going to give us the carrot that we have been so willingly running after? Hmm, I don't think so. In the past 15 years, I don't have less media and formats, I have much more. I have floppies for different computers that contain files for different programs that don't talk to each other, minidisks, DAT's, Syquest drives, VHS tapes that are for VCR's and also for ADAT music recording systems. I have 8mm video tapes for Tascam digital recorders, zip disks, Gameboy cartridges, DVD's, Playstation CD's, ProTools files, Cubase files. None of these formats are compatable, and none truly converge. As far as recording studios are concerned, a 2" master tape for recording 16 or 24 tracks of music was the standard for years. When the music was released, it came out on a 33 rpm LP or a 45rpm record. I'm not saying we haven't seen lots of development in the areas of convenience with all the media that have been released since the mid eighties, but I see no sign of convergence. In fact, a closer look will reveal just the opposite. As media becomes more application specific, there's more and more of them, with no end in sight. A cursory glance at video formats developed in the last several years will drive the point home.

But all this is just using the older models of media. What if there's something else lurking beneath the hood?

So, along comes the Internet and the World Wide Web, and it's a new ballgame, we think. We hope. As far as being a retrieval system for information and a way to move stuff around, we are all in agreement that the net is powerful. But the Internet and computers are not transmission systems like television. In fact, they function in quite the opposite manner.

Convergence, in a broader sense, has already amounted to many changes. Remember when a phone was just a phone, and we'd never heard of a "video dial tone". Fiber optics were nowhere in sight, and packet-switching networks were just an idea.

"Convergence", in a larger sense, is the way in which people like Nicholas Negroponte, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Stewart Brand have used it.

1) A mixture of text, spoken word, software, video, and so on, ("content") can be constructed, based on the fact that information can be digitized, and that it is getting easier, faster, and cheaper to do this as computers improve. All content is, to a large extent, reducible to bits.

2) Bits can be delivered by any bit delivery mechanism: CD-ROM, phone lines, coaxial cable, direct satellite transmission, or other methods ("new media"). Bandwidth is increasing and there is competition between bit delivery methods. Bits are bits, and bandwidth is bandwidth.

It's all about the bits. A question on a lot of lips these days is Will Web and Television Converge?. The Media Lab's Michael Bove comments:

"TV is a bandwidth pig. Ten years ago, a common assumption was that 45 million bits per second were needed to obtain studio-quality television. Today, that level of performance is possible at 4 million bps. That's quite an improvement, but compared with the 29,000 bps you get when connecting to the Internet (if you're lucky), we still have a long way to go.

There is one fundamental reason for this profligate use of bandwidth. TV receivers are dumb ? in particular, they are forgetful. On a per-cubic-inch basis, your microwave oven may be smarter. A TV set is spoon-fed pixels ? line by line, frame by frame. Even if you compress them by taking out the enormous redundancy that occurs within and between frames and by taking advantage of the characteristics of human vision, video as we know it still uses many more bits than a computer graphics database capable of synthesizing the same images."

Televisions have worked fine for years. From the cheapest to the most expensive sets, plug them in -they work. Even with all the new digital graphics production, our TV's can still receive the fancy images just fine without upgrading to a new plugin everytime some new technology is released. They don't call it the "net" for nothing.

As far back as the late 1970s, Nicholas Negroponte observed media convergence when designing the mission statement of the M.I.T. Media Lab:

"All communication technologies are suffering a joint metamorphosis, which can only be understood properly if treated as a single subject, and only advance properly if treated as a single craft".

Ursula Franklin in the Real World of Technolgy came up with a good definition.

"Technology is simply a way of doing things."

Of course we are seeing a convergence of media technologies, but in looking towards the near future, in the next ten years or so, we need to be looking to new models not older ones. Is streaming video on the Internet really a convergence? Or just a way of delivering one technology through another one. At the same time we're looking for a convergence of media, we should also expect a continued divergence.

And let's not forget the developments in biotechnology. I'm sure someday we'll all be able to go out and buy a new "remastered" and much better version of Abbey Road -on a leaf! Discount price to "club members" will be a mere $40.

The writer of this article welcomes your comments:

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