Technological convergence and the practice of design

The world has changed. And the way we relate to the world has changed. The vertiginous technological growth of the last couple of decades made us witnesses to one of History’s biggest shifts in the way we interact with each other and our surroundings, but also in how we handle knowledge, truth and even labor, impacting society in more ways than we can to this day imagine.

New devices such as laptops, smartphones or tablets mean we are now constantly connected and that we can process and share all kinds of information from and to literally anywhere. It means having in the palm of our hands at a relatively low cost what before had been almost impossible. A smartphone, for example, has millions of times more processing power than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969. But, with no disregard to the fact that this day-to-day gadget is more powerful that the technology that got man to the moon, its most fascinating aspect is the fact that, as Mark Deuze put it “people increasingly use the same device for multiple functions, making the computer a truly ‘universal machine’”

To a certain extent, I believe that what truly boosted this change in paradigm is the possibility of owning a device with almost endless possibilities in media playback, production and editing technologies. Any of these gadgets is simultaneously a camera, a tv or a music player, and they allow one not only to create and edit content but to distribute it as well, enabling the audiences to shape and participate in the media discourse, thus “blurring the lines between production and consumption, between making media and using media, and between active or passive spectatorship of mediated culture.”

Photo by Daniel Frank 

In this sense, we must understand that our converged collective experience does not come solely from technological evolution, but also from a shift into a more participatory culture where there’s a flow of information across different channels and multiple ways of accessing it, and a complex relation between top-down corporate media and bottom-up input from an ever engaged public. As Henry Jenkins argues, the “convergence culture” presupposes a reconceptualisation of the audiences, what they define and constitute, and the need to rethink the traditional communication model, as these no longer are exclusively the end point of the exchange.

Proof of this permeability in media production is everywhere; and we’ve grown to look at it casually. Starting with the popularity of memes, as discussed by both Shifman and Jenkins, and its increasing cultural significance, a startling example of participatory culture: an idea that can assume multiple forms, that appropriates resources from different means, and that spreads being circulated, imitated and transformed via the internet by several users, hence becoming a “socially constructed public discourse”. 

We could also mention other relatively new phenomenons in which technological convergence and its digital culture is constantly impacting the media discourse, such as the distribution of music on Youtube or fan-fiction stories that extend their influence past the digital world into the more traditional media, becoming fabulously lucrative books and films, such as the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, originally posted in a Twilight fan-fiction blog.

Much has been said about how this exchange in media production affects our view of reality, and how the collision between grassroots and corporate media, the so-called “citizen journalism” and the professional newsmaking, has an indisputable preponderance in our shared perception of symbolic experience. Convergence culture manifests itself in more ways than the sharing of ideas and cooperation in order to add value to a determined subject. It’s omnipresence and omnipotence, through news websites, blogs or social media, puts us face to face with the idea that information can come from anywhere, and, as new forms of media arise, one’s notion of “trusted source” becomes more and more obsolete.

Phenomenons such as fake news occur precisely due to the fact that we are in a constant state of producing and exchanging knowledge within a determined social circle, that organically chooses to highlight or undermine certain information.

Photo by Kayla Velasquez

On the other hand, if there is an active interest to deliberately pursue a twisted vision of reality through the dissemination of fake news, there is also a different side to the story. Take, for example, Wall Street Journal’s data visualization project “Blue Feed, Red Feed”, that aims to demonstrate how reality may differ for different Facebook users, considering the social network’s evident preponderance in the way people consume news today. The project shows how, depending on which side of the political spectrum one falls on, it is possible to have wildly different perspectives on a certain subject. It aims to prove that Facebook can act as an “echo chamber” that amplifies opinions already aligned with ours, algorithmically leaving outside of the discussion different points of view. 

So, in what ways does this technological and cultural convergence impact the practice of design? To which extent does it alter the structure of media production? And what effects does it have on media workers and the creative industries?

To answer these questions, I believe it is crucial not only to consider the introduction of new technologies and the way these enabled new and old media to merge in some sense, but also to consider the structure of the media industry and of media labor itself in order to fully comprehend its effects on the public sphere.

Media and Technological Convergence

The development of modern media started around the same time as the development of computers. On August 19, 1839 Louis Daguerre presented to the Parisian society the first publicly available photographic process. Five months later more than thirty different descriptions of the techniques were published all over the world and, only two years later, after various improvements to the process, portrait galleries opened everywhere. On the other side, in 1833 Charles Babbage started designing a device called Analytical Engine, that contained most of the key features of the modern digital computer.

In fact, it is not surprising that Modern Media and Computers developed hand in hand, as they were essential to the functioning of modern mass societies. The ability to, according to Lev Manovich “disseminate the same texts, images and sounds to millions of citizens thus assuring that they will have the same ideological beliefs was as essential as the ability to keep track of their birth records, employment records, medical records, and police records. Photography, film, the offset printing press, radio and television made the former possible while computers made possible the latter. Mass media and data processing are the complementary technologies of a modern mass society; they appear together and develop side by side, making this society possible.”

These two trajectories firstly developed in parallel, without crossing paths, and it is not before the 1990’s that we are witnesses to what the author calls an “invisible revolution” that gave us hybridization and technological convergence:

“(…) moving-image culture went through a fundamental transformation. Previously separate media – live-action cinematography, graphics, still photography, animation, 3D computer animation, and typography – started to be combined in numerous ways. By the end of the decade, the ‘pure’ moving-image media became an exception and hybrid media became the norm.” 

In this sense, the merger between media and computerization is what brought us the new media of today. A meeting that challenges both the identity of media and of computers themselves – no longer one or the other – media hybridization can mean the intersection between video and computer graphics, 3D mapping technology with moving images, etc.

Said technological evolution has very obvious repercussions in the media industry. What before required the labor of dozens of people can now be very easily replicated by one single machine.

Nevertheless, we have seen that the effects of this convergence revolution go beyond the immediate consequences of introducing new equipment, and one of the greatest factors has to do with media companies’ horizontal and vertical integration. 

Around the mid-eighties, a new buzzword started appearing in media articles: Synergy. It concerned the actions of industry mogul Rupert Murdoch as he began the acquisition campaign that would lead to the formation of Fox Network. By 2000, Murdoch’s News Corporation owned over 800 companies in more than 50 countries. Today, it is the world’s second-largest media conglomerate. 

This convergence of ownership where previously distinct media industries and companies merge to create larger conglomerates is also described by Jenkins: “fueling this technological convergence is a shift in patterns of media ownership. Whereas old Hollywood focused on cinema, the new media conglomerates have controlling interests across the entire entertainment industry. Warner Bros, produces film, television, popular music, computer games, Web sites, toys, amusement park rides, books, newspapers, magazines, and comics.”

Besides Warner Bros, it is interesting to note Disney’s history of acquisitions. In 1996, as it intended to grow its entertainment offer, the company bought ABC. Since then, it purchased the entire “Star Wars” franchise, as well as Pixar. The latter has since then received criticism, as some believe the animation studio’s signature creativity has been diluted in Disney’s brand. 

Photo by Denys Nevozhai

In essence, these cross-media holdings are a natural expression of the market in order to cross-promote products, generating greater revenue and keeping profits in-house, but they do have serious outcomes regarding the free circulation of information, as “corporate structure, strategy, management, and behaviour likewise impact the nature and supply of content.”. According to this line of thought, the integrity of media is at risk if a small number of companies control the market, as profit driven mass media conglomerates will be primarily loyal to advertisers, as they’re directly dependent, rather than serving public interests, what subverts the primary democratic role of the “fourth power”, but also in the sense that an oligopolistic industry increases the barriers to entry, strangling healthy market-based competition.

“The disproportionate power that ownership over mass media outlets gives its owners or those who can pay them” or the Berlusconi effect, as argued by Mark Deuze and Yochai Benkler, arises together with the notion that there’s a “displacement of public discourse by the distribution of commodifiable entertainment products”, something that Jürgen Habermas suggested in “The Structural Transformation Of The Public Sphere”. According to the philosopher, the rise of mass media had a very direct influence in the commodification and consumerization of the public sphere, alienating rational political debate. Said transformations happen because, in the society of masses, because the communication processes are largely owned by a minority, one’s level of consciousness is fairly low, widening the gap between the 99 and the 1%. 

An oligarchic media concentration has very direct consequences in the industry’s work distribution, with people employed either in a small number of large companies or in a multitude of very small firms. To better illustrate these circumstances, Deuze refers to it as the “hourglass” effect, where few labour in fewer medium size enterprises. 

This, allied to “the liquefaction of the cultures of production and consumption”  weakens the “social division of between companies and industries on the one hand, and consumers on the other” . We can, in essence, observe an exploitation of labour in the creative industries. The flexibilization of the market, allied to the fact that more and more of the creative process is becoming automated, has triggered a shift in our understanding of workers’ rights in the media industry. As there are more individuals available than actual jobs, as most of the market is project-based, and as technology  ensured it is now easier to perform a certain number of tasks, a considerate part of the creative industries manpower works either for free or is precariously employed. As a matter of fact, as of 2015, according to a UK’s Creative Industries report, 43% of the whole workforce was freelance.

Photo by Brooke Cagle

Considering the current trends, it is safe to admit that the neoliberalization of the industry and the proximity between creating and consuming content won’t slow down anytime soon. This means that, as mentioned above, “the pervasiveness of such production questions the legitimacy of a fixed distinction between production and consumption, labour and culture”. However, “the increasingly blurred territory between production and consumption, work and cultural expression, however, does not signal the recomposition of the alienated Marxist worker. The Internet does not automatically turn every user into an active producer, and every worker into a creative subject. The process whereby production and consumption are reconfigured within the category of free labour signals the unfolding of a different (rather than completely new) logic of value, whose operations need careful analysis.”

Technological convergence significantly altered the media landscape. It created a super powerful entity that surpassed its original form and purpose and became ubiquitous, completely transforming the public sphere and its power relations. There’s now a much broader choice of content and formats, as this fast-paced, always-changing environment forced media to compete for audience’s attention. We have collectively been redefining how we experience the world and mass media companies were quick to follow. Even traditional broadcasters like BBC have made efforts to converge old and new media, and as of today there isn’t a print newspaper that doesn’t have some kind of online version. 

We are constantly online, constantly consuming and producing information, and even though this has massively positive consequences, there is a downside to this ever-present connectivity. Content circulates faster than we can absorb it, it is manufactured and managed, being increasingly difficult to trial the flow of information, what can lead to the alienation of the masses, resulting in a sense of confusion, due to the lack of real ties to the universe of experience (Habermas). 

In the same chain of thought, it is easy to argue that media workers, as “the creative work that takes place both within and outside the cultural industries becomes ever more contingent on global market conditions and producer-consumer relationships”, have a greater exposure to said negative effects, as the current market based definition of creative labour strictly qualifies talent in commercial terms. This is not only negative as of labour itself, but also in the sense that creativity for-profit results in a linear way of production, or what Neilson and Rossiter define as “an oxymoronic disingenuousness that wants to suggest that innovation can coexist with or become subordinated to the status quo. In this context, innovation becomes nothing more than a codeword for more of the same – the reduction of creativity to the formal indifference of the market”.

On the other hand, and on a more positive note, there’s endless potential to technological and media convergence in the sense of the democratization of knowledge and social evolution, but I am a firm believer it has to be subject to heavy regulation in terms of concentration of power, as well as of the high importance of thorough education of the general public in digital, tech and civil matters.