Issue 13 – After Convergence

After convergence: what connects?

After convergence: what connects? Making this question the subject of this special issue we set out to address two questions at once. The first was: ‘Are we after convergence?’ and by this we meant to invite explorations of the exhaustion of the original convergence model. The second was: ‘What kind of convergence are we after?’ Which is to say what kind of convergence do we want? These were at heart of our concerns in developing this issue, and, in posing them we also asked a series of subsidiary questions:

  1. What are today’s convergent processes? Is assessing convergence a useful way to map contemporary developments in ICTs, can it adequately map a process that it is never purely technical, but always techno-cultural? Addressing this requires consideration of the critical, political, cultural stakes of contemporary forms of techno-cultural innovation. This in turn means asking what convergences with what and/or who converges with whom.
  2. Are there more or less ‘desirable’ routes along which new forms of networked communications might develop? If so, once again the issue is ‘desirable for what or for whom?’
  3. What was it that we are now beyond? What was distinctive about the 1990s ‘convergence’ model and the processes it mapped, and what distinguished this cycle of ‘convergence’ explored as a process, as a tool, as a dynamic, from developments today? Current processes of convergence are rooted in earlier ones: at times indeed a cycle seems to be repeated so that even as a set of developments are hailed as all new, they strike us as very familiar. A certain déjà vu arises but we are aware that this can be deceptive. What may appear to be more of the same may be new, in intent, in scale, in execution. And we may miss what is most important because of its very invisibility.

In relation to these questions we are wary and aware. We look at a series of developments in the contemporary informational landscape both as technological innovations and as techno-cultural formations and we seek to consider their significance. As we do so, we are aware of a discourse circulating around these innovations; one that proclaims their importance, underscoring and perhaps overplaying their radical novelty. This discourse also retrospectively constitutes ‘old’ convergence in particular ways. This makes us wary, but still, we understand that there are changes in the information networks increasingly embedded into our everyday lives, our institutions, and/or/as our technologies, and we wish to understand their significance.

Amongst these changes are the arrival of wirelessness and wireless networks, the growth of pervasive and embedded computing alongside screen-focussed media ecologies, the rise of networks and services that are ‘smarter’ or at least ‘more’ semantically informed than previously, the rise of a networked (media) economy increasingly based on social capital rather than (as well as) traditional content. We also see that these innovations are bound up with shifts in the political economy of information systems, that they produce transformations of the (new) media industries, and that they find their significance and form in relation to cultures of production and in relation to their everyday use.

Some of the transformations we explore might be adumbrated under the banner of 2.0. Our instinct has been to avoid this. Exploring change and its significance we want to critically examine the kind of traffic between cultural theory and technological innovation, between technical discourses and critical perspectives of various kinds, and we want to explore and perhaps judge possible future trajectories for convergence processes. 2.0, particularly in its most expansionary form, does not start with these questions, but on the contrary, tends to presume they have already been answered.

Each of the papers in this issue takes up one or more of these questions and does so in diverse ways. What the papers share is (1) a refusal to take 2.0 at face value, as the replacement for older convergence models and (2) an insistence on exploring/re-appraising both the new form and the means of critically looking at that formation. The forms of re-appraisal and analysis deployed across papers are thus critical, methodological and empirical.

One of the major innovations within ICTs in the past decade has been wireless technologies. In his piece Adrian Mackenzie, inspired by William James’ concept of radical empiricism, explores the stakes of ‘wirelessness’ through an examination of experience, and in particular through the experience of change, within contemporary networks.

Part of what Mackenzie is trying to do is to find a way to grapple with an invisible component of networking communication. David M. Berry’s piece also takes as its focus something elusive, in his case the focus is on code, regarded as the articulatory condition of possibility for the operation of computer technology.

Jonathan Sterne and his co-authors, Jeremy Morris, Michael Brendan Baker and Ariana Moscote Freire, also take for their focus not a discrete technological object but a network possibility. In this case the authors consider the distinctions between broadcasting and podcasting, anchoring the rise of each of these within specific historical contexts: such a contextualization they argue, produces a reappraisal of both the new form and the old.

Caroline Bassett is also concerned to reappraise new media systems, both in their real and their promissory aspects, in relation to their historical contexts. Her paper explores the claims ‘2.0’ makes to correct earlier cultural and industrial/technical models of convergence and offers its own map of contemporary modes of participation which draws on earlier models in a somewhat different way.

Teodor Mitew, in his piece, works through mapping, examining the cartography of convergence. The text considers locative media and its origins through two divergent spatial projections. This results in two forms of mapping: the unveiling and the attaching. The former are described as ‘totalities in need of unmasking’ while the latter are ‘effects in need of tracing and explaining’. In the final sections of the paper Mitew uses these different mapping perspectives to consider a series of locative media artworks.

Aylish Wood, concerned with aesthetic production, turns to systems theory to examine the degree to which the concept of convergence exerts influence on various expressive practices, asking in particular how we may better understand the interplay between human and technological participants in convergent systems. The idea of the digital intermediate thus operates, in this article, as a core concept in the system, and as a way of setting up a new form of thinking about the intersection of technologies of vision.

Wood’s argument extends in part to digital games, and her work is then complemented by Helen Thornham’s very different emphasis on gaming in everyday life. Thornham’s work, invoking and reminding us of the way in which ‘traditional’ forms of materiality intersect with virtual activities, offers us a rethinking of technological, narrated and domestic systems through an investigation of the ‘agency’ of game objects in domestic spaces.

There are many common threads emerging across these pieces:

One is distinction – where are the edges, the ends, the distinctions between different elements, modes, activities, spaces, technological actions and human ones, in ‘new’ new media systems? As a part of this we have asked not only what makes ‘2.0’ distinct from ‘what came before’ but also how it will be be understood in the future. We ask this question not least because we are somewhat alarmed by visions of proliferating version control as 2.0 merges with 3.0 and 4.0 looms on the horizon.

A second is disappearance. Many of the writers here are concerned with what cannot be easily seen or grasped but is nonetheless central to our experience of contemporary ICTs A number also argue, in different ways, and in different contexts, that working through experience might be a way to render these elements visible. We also note that disappearance is a quality discussed in relation to material technology (wires are not the only technology to be become less here), and in relation to the cultural construction of the technological itself – for instance in Thornham’s piece on the technology of domesticity.

A third thread is restoration: a number of papers want to insist on the need to restore historical contexts to technologies and the models they discuss. It is this that directs the exploration of the podcasting in Sterne et al.’s piece and the consideration of 2.0 and its cultural analogues as a ‘corrective’ model in Bassett’s.

Finally, this special edition explores some of multiple ways in which convergences play out. And we would like to focus here on play. In these papers we have moved beyond the constant search for new terms, new applications, beyond a play with ‘newness’ as a value in itself. Instead, we have found a new depth in these papers, offering multiple perspectives on existing phenomena, looking at the stuff behind the screens, at everyday structures, at the spaces between, that can only be felt and experienced transitively. Depth is sometimes a result of play – and sometimes play manages not only to throw new light on disciplinary formations, but to break them down.

Converging ideas and using media was a necessary precondition to overcome the regimes of geography whilst producing this edition. All the authors were extremely inspiring and reliable. It was a pleasure to work with them. The same applies to the Fibreculture team. They were encouraging and helpful. We would therefore like to thank Andrew Murphie, Lisa Gye and especially Ned Rossiter, who first had the idea for this issue.

Caroline Bassett, Maren Hartmann, Kate O’Riordan

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