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Digital Convergence

Naveed Usman

July 30, 1999

I recently uncovered an essay I wrote about the converging forces that were shaping the Internet, nearly 20 years ago. Keep in mind, this was written well before the proliferation of webblogs (AKA blogs). I’ve posted this for posterity purposes really. My key takeaway from this piece is that despite the many shifts in access, technologies and providers, the original thesis behind the Internet, and the many positive prognostications that were discussed in the late 1990’s, have indeed come to fruition.

The future of the Internet is limited only by your imagination. The Internet has the capability to tell a story, sell and distribute products, and uncover information, and offer a twenty-four hour access to news and current events. But most importantly, the Internet can bring communities closer together. This empowered world of the Internet uses previous inventions of the twentieth century, and combined them all to the produce an easier and more productive society. Audio, video, images and texts all come together to create the ultimate vehicle for humans to communicate with one another. And when would they go to get such valuable information? Someplace which is there and not there. No one can physically feel such a place but it exists. Everyday transactions are taking place in the world in which we can not touch. And every day, we communicate with others we cannot see. So what does all of this mean? The convergence of such powerful technologies can only mean one thing: The creation of new communities.

The existing communities do not just disappear, rather, a re-weaving of social and cultural life takes form. Sven Birkets claims that the new modes of communication, one in which the Internet currently employs, requires it to users to encode and decode, or “receive and react to the content of those new communications” (Croteau and Hoynes 1997 p.273). In addition, time and space can be rearranged by breaking a special connection between physical and social. It allows the user total control of what the content is and to be explored and which is to be ignored. The idea of cognitive dissonance can be the result of such empowerment, but the user is able to engage in the medium as an active participant.

Active participation gives rise to a new entity in digital environments. The creation of the avatars, usernames, aliases, or masks allows users of this new Community to create their own sense of self. Mask is too strong of a term, but actually, that is what one can accomplish in such an environment. The active participant in such an environment can just as easily slip on a new mask or new identity, when communicating in a virtual manner. The physical appearance has disappeared with a replacement of text based messages, images and sounds. (Negroponte 1995).

So how can a user become empowered? For example virtual art galleries can be experienced from far away; website can be showcased for newer methods of functional art. Movies can be created without large financial backings from investors. Songs can be converted and posted for others to experience without the distributive means of record industries. The same goes for the pictures or images and poetic prose or words. The user can create the content or engage in it. Any one can create an digital environment, so long as they understand how to use the medium. The point is that there are far less structural constraints involved. And this allows the user to experience the medium as they see fit, either as a producer or spectator, or both producer and spectator. This is what is meant by the user becoming empowered.

The reweaving of existing communities means and upgrade to the preexisting system. Marshall McLuhan speaks of different mediums either as hot or cool. Hot mediums are those that are static in their presentation and transmission. There is not much on a radio show, newspaper or film piece, in that the content is a complete package (Metz 1999). There is no room for variations, because the product is complete, and there is only one way to receive these messages; that is passively. Television on the other hand is considered a cool medium in that it allows the user to fill in the blanks, to become an active participant in what we choose to engage ourselves in (Metz 1999). Digital environments, particularly, the Internet, will allow the user to go one step beyond.

In his book, Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte explains it best as to how the user will achieve this next step. Unlike the hot and cool mediums that already exist, the Internet will provide the same message but in different forms. “A message might have several in body meant automatically derivable from the same data” (Negroponte 1995 p.71). He uses the analogy of a sports broadcast. He proposes that in the future, broadcasters will send out the converted data, in audio, video or pictorial (still image) form. There the user will be able to choose which form they wish to engage in. The structure will be more that of a theme park than a static book, movie or film. He states that this new way of assembling data will be explored in different ways. The user is empowered to pick and choose which avenue they wish to explore. Furthermore, these forms or elements of the broadcast do not necessarily have to be experienced apart from one another, but can be fused together or translated from one medium to the next (Negroponte 1995).

As the bandwidth increases, so does the possibility of engaging in such a medium. Technically speaking, bandwidth refers to “the capacity to move information down a given channel” (Negroponte 1995 p.22). Through the use of copper telephone wires, we are capable of caring six billion bits per second (bps) with an appropriate modem. (Negroponte 1995). Currently, we employ the copper telephone wire, because the lines have already been installed. With the rise of the fiber optic cables, we have the capacity to transmit 1,000 billion bits per second (Negroponte 1995). So what does this mean? It means we can travel through the Internet and amazing speeds, transmit data and most instantly, retrieve and recover information, video, audio, periodicals, magazines, books, and full length movies in a matter of minutes. “We will no longer need to learn about the world; instead we will need to know how to access the data that will tell us about the world“ (Croteau and Hoynes 1997 p.274). But for now we must rely on DSL and T1 connections for fast transmissions. The communicative process is limited in that only 20 percent of the American population utilize the Internet (Metz 1999). Therefore, the need for fiber optic lines will arise when the amount of users on the Internet increases.

The future of the Internet does not seem so far away. Its popularity is slowly growing to include people from all over the world. The idea that current media technologies, which incorporate video, audio, images and text, can converge into a single medium, gives users the ability to access information as they see fit. They are empowered to engage in the medium as active participants. Ultimately, altering how we communicate with each other.

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