This Just In: “Convergence” Still Doesn’t Mean Anything

Culturebox’s first rule for cutting through media consultant-speak: Question the dominant metaphor. At the “whither-media” conference held today at MTV headquarters in New York (the event was co-sponsored by; click here to read its coverage), “convergence” was the word of the day, as it has been for the past three years–it’s the “synergy” of 2000. The executives on the panel didn’t seem to notice that the study they’d gathered to discuss argued persuasively against convergence, rather than for it. Convergence, as you probably know, is the belief that the world’s many different “media platforms” (usually television and the Internet, though not necessarily) are soon to unite mystically into a technological entity that will be one in spirit, if not necessarily in body.

The study was based on MTV’s interviews with 4,070 Americans of all ages about how much and what kind of media they used. The biggest bullet point was the finding that, as MTV research head Betsy Frank put it, “Americans have effectively created a 30-hour day.” We spend more and more time consuming different kinds of media simultaneously, and if you added up all the minutes we devoted to each device in 1999, you’d end up with a 30-hour day. To put it simply, people are multitasking more. Frank expressed some surprise at a corollary finding–that young adults (34 and under) multitask more than children, who have long been presumed to be the multitasking generation. (Culturebox, a working stepparent often required to juggle many tasks at once, found this development to be entirely comprehensible.)

Frank called the rise of multitasking “behavioral convergence”–“people acting as if their media platforms have already converged even though the technology isn’t there yet.” co-chairman Kurt Andersen, who hosted the panel, called it “jerry-rigged convergence.”

But the more obvious implication of the rise of multitasking is that media are proliferating, not merging. There are now more ways to digest information and entertainment, not fewer. There are radio and televison and telephones, as well as the Internet and videocassette recorders and video games and personal computers, and of course there’s still the print media. If you want to consume all these at once, you can’t really get around the need for separate gadgets. You can’t watch television and read a magazine and surf the Internet all at once on the same machine, and who’d want to? You want the magazine in your lap and the laptop on the desk and the television functioning as sonic and visual wallpaper, off there in the corner by the couch, where you might occasionally plop down for a break.

James Gleick (Chaos, Genius, Faster) wrote an article two years ago in the New York Times Magazine expressing similar doubts about convergence, on the basis of the same MTV study–the 1998 version. Convergence seems no more likely now than it was then, and it may be less. The most interesting part of this year’s MTV study was a chart that broke down which appliances get used with which. Television turns out to be the thing people use the most and pay the least attention to. Roughly 20 percent of TV viewers have their computers on while they watch television; another 20 percent talk on the phone; 34.2 percent read magazines and 31.4 percent read newspapers. Even radio commands more respect: The number of people reading, looking at magazines, playing on their computer, or talking on the phone while listening to radio never reaches above 7.6 percent.  The point is that for most people–who, according to this study, watch an average 3.2 hours of television a day, up more than ten minutes from last year–the boob tube has become a kind of decorative element, one step up from elevator Muzak. (Video games, by contrast, seem to command absolute concentration–no more than 0.8 percent of users multitask while playing Nintendo or PlayStation.)

Let’s face it: We aren’t going to pay our bills or answer e-mail on a thing we think of as background, like car noises or wind. We’ll use it as we now do–for zoning out. Frank admitted as much then added hopefully that music–which is what Internet users tend to download, rather than images–“may well be a better model for convergence than TV.” Pressed on this point later, the only explanation she or any other executive could offer for the Internet user’s preference for music over video is lack of bandwidth–audio files being easier to download than video ones. That will surely change once the country is better wired for broadband access.

But even if Frank were right, all she’s talking about is how we get our music–not how we play it. Me, when I download my music, I want to put it on something with especially fabulous sound that I can take into the kitchen while I cook. I don’t want to keep it on my computer. Does that mean that convergence will occur with portable devices, rather than with desktop computers, equipped with cutting-edge sound for music and paper-like screens for books and all the record-keeping functions of personal digital assistants? That’s a possibility, though Culturebox can’t imagine that the hardware manufacturer would welcome that scenario, or that a gadget with so many functions could perform all of them well. Another moral of this study is that we’re getting used to handling more electronic appliances on a daily basis, not that we’re pining for fewer. Maybe one day all of our entertainment and information will flow through the same fat pipe. But that doesn’t mean we’ll want to watch or read or listen to it on the same overprogrammed gizmo.