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Henry Jenkins, the future is calling

In the introduction to his book, Henry Jenkins says he’s attempting “to document conflicting perspectives on media change.” But by advancing his Black Box Fallacy, he does more to create conflicts than sort them out as he waffles on his own idea that a single device will someday converge the diverse media offerings we now consume on multiple devices.

Granted, Jenkins is writing in a period where things are changing quickly, so he doesn’t get the benefit of the long lens of time to prove or disprove his theories that we’ve seen in other readings. But I would suggest he revisit his theory:

Much contemporary discourse about convergence starts and ends with what I call the Black Box Fallacy. Sooner or later, the argument goes, all media content is going to flow through a single black box into our living rooms (or, in the mobile scenario, through black boxes we carry around with us everywhere we go).

If he begins and ends the thesis in the living room, at least for now, Jenkins makes a pretty good argument. But when he includes mobile devices, the assertion gets a little wobbly, even by his own admission.

In the home

I don’t know about you, but in my living room, I am seeing more and more black boxes. There are my VCR, my digital cable box, my DVD player, my digital recorder, my sound system, and my two game systems, not to mention a huge mound of videotapes, DVDs and CDs, game cartridges and controllers, sitting atop, laying alongside, toppling over the edge of my television system.

Even in the time since this was written, convergence is beginning to take hold on these devices.

While I have about the same number of “boxes” near my television set as Jenkins, several of them are now nearly obsolete as others have expanded capabilities.

  • We don’t keep a VCR in the living room and don’t own many videotapes anymore, but there are still multiple options when we want to watch a movie. We can play a DVD, order a movie on demand through the cable box, download one on Netflix via the Xbox 360 or download through iTunes on the Apple TV.
  • TV shows can be streamed via Apple TV or through the cable box — in real time or by using the built-in DVR (one of the best inventions of the last 10 years). I bought a ReplayTV when they first came out, but I gave it away when we got the news digital cable box with a DVR inside.
  • When we want music, there is still the stereo for radio, a CD player (though we don’t keep many CDs handy; they’re all in boxes waiting to go to a secondhand store), channels on the cable box and streaming options through the Apple TV box.
  • Likewise, we have two options for video games with the Xbox 360 and Wii.

So, of the Apple TV, Xbox, cable box, stereo receiver/tuner, DVD player, CD player and Wii in our entertainment center, we could easily do without the receiver, DVD player, CD player and Wii at this point, consolidating seven boxes to three. As more services become available on multiple boxes, more if these could be rendered useless.

The game changer in this scenario is the continued digitization of media. Jenkins talks about the “huge mound of videotapes, DVDs, CDs and game cartridges” in his living room. But the success of digital music downloads have already shown us that lots of media now being delivered on plastic discs can be more easily and effectively delivered via the Internet.

Part of the reason we continue to keep a Netflix account is to have online access (through the Xbox or via a laptop, though we don’t tend to consume long-form video on the computer in our house yet). We don’t rent movies from a brick-and-mortar store anymore, we download them. No disc has to be made and no packaging is necessary. That’s an ecological bonus for us as well as an economic windfall for distribution. This is likely to spell a decline in the number of video rental outlets, if that isn’t taking place already. More video games are being distributed digitally now as well, which is bad news for game resellers.

If you downloaded a video game to your cable box and your Xbox (or PlayStation or Wii) controller could be linked to that device, would you need a dedicated game console any longer? If Netflix were a channel on your cable box instead of a competing service, would you still drive down to Blockbuster for a DVD? I might not want to download songs from iTunes to a cable box, but I might be interested in the type of music service where I only rent the tunes from a large catalog for a small fee.

These kinds of offerings only make sense, especially since cable companies have been attempting to consolidate their place in the living room by offering to bundle their traditional service with Internet and phone. If Jenkins’ theory, as applied to the living room, stands up over time, it will only be because the cable companies can’t duplicate these services or can’t convince other providers to let them deliver their services.

On the road

Jenkins leaves himself an out to the first part of his theory when he says that if a single black box for the home does become a reality, it is probably far down the road.  But mobile platforms are another story. Converging technologies is the key to the smartphone, as Jenkins points out in a post on his blog:

To some degree, this kind of convergence is already taking place – have you tried to buy a cellphone recently that only made phone calls and did not perform a range of other media functions? Our cellphones represent this technological notion of convergence gone wild and the last time I looked consumers were gobbling them up even if they didn’t use those other media appliances very much if at all. The camera/phone, for example, has taken off in a way that the flying boat never did. It is now the digital equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife. At least some convergence devices do capture the market. But if we are waiting for all of the media technologies to merge into a single media appliance, we will be waiting for a very very long time.

I have an iPhone 3G S now. At one time, I carried a Palm organizer and a cellphone, but my phone includes both functions now. With the increased storage capacity on my new iPhone, I don’t need to carry my iPod anymore, either.

What else can I leave at home? The new phone has a digital camera, a digital video camera, a Web browser and a fairly accurate positioning system. That frees me from dragging around a digital camera, video camera, laptop and GPS.

Apple said this week that it has sold 30 million iPhones (and 20 million iPod Touch devices). While that’s still a small percentage of the mobile phone market, it’s an impressive start in just two years. And other carriers are quickly trying to follow Apple’s lead.

Dan Hesse, the CEO of Sprint Nextel Corp., was on Charlie Rose this week talking about how he expects the role of smartphones to increase once the wireless carriers roll out their 4G networks:

What’s been happening in the industry as we move to, let’s say smartphones, which are 3G, is they’re really becoming Swiss Army Knives. It’s my watch and my calculator, my e-mail. It’s my camera. It’s my GPS. It’s my computer.

As the next generation of wireless bumps data transmission speeds another 5x, these devices will be able to handle much larger files, Hesse said. He said Sprint is currently working with Google, Intel, Time Warner, Comcast and Brighthouse to build its 4G network. That tells me future Sprint phones might run on Google’s Android operating system, on chipsets and technology produced by Intel, and carry content from the top cable companies.

Interesting that Jenkins and Hesse both used the Swiss Army Knife analogy when talking about smartphones. And even more interesting that Sprint is working with three cable carriers.

If the remaining part of the Black Box Fallacy stands the test of time, it will probably be because the cable companies can’t agree on a way to pipe the various types of digital content into the home.

Category: Weekly Readings

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6 Responses

  1. Brett says:

    Do you feel that cable companies are still a litte behind the times? Perhaps they need to converge a little themselves. I worry that apple TV is a great idea but was released too soon. They should really push it again in a couple of years and buddy up with cable companies and lower the price more.

  2. Chuck says:

    You may be right about the cable companies. I have Time Warner and I’m considering AT&T’s Uverse service, if only for the kind of dedicated Internet speed only fiber optics can provide. They seem more worried lately about finding ways to charge for bandwidth than adding value to their service.

    I really like the Apple TV. There was some speculation that it was going to get more attention at last week’s event, but that didn’t happen. Have you tried Boxee on it? I was interested in that when Hulu was an option, but I don’t think that’s available through there now.

  3. Pat Daddona says:

    The mobile phone does indeed have the capacity to be the “black box” of our future, already is, as you have pointed out. But when I read Jenkins, I identified with the point that convergence “is a process not an end.” So in fact there could be a number of technologies that are central devices, the iPhone, AT&T’s U-verse, the laptop in its own way, portable, all purpose computing on the go. There’s just no absolute, must have device. Yet. (and depending on people’s chosen lifestyle, maybe never). Anyway, I think convergence is more about the processes, like Wi-Fi, that enable multiple systems and integration across platforms.

    • Chuck says:

      If I understand Jenkins, he sees convergence as two sides of the same coin. It’s the process, but it’s also the technology.

      • Alex H. says:

        I’m not sure I read it that way. I think his aim, in this chapter, is to say that the technological deterministic view of convergence kind of misses the boat: it’s the cultural piece that matters.

        So, maybe he isn’t saying “technology doesn’t matter” but I think he is saying that it’s not as important as the cultural, economic, and genre convergence(s).

  4. Zamna Avila says:

    The detailed analysis of your works show the depth of effort you make in grasping the concepts of the reading. Congratulations! I also like the simple layout you’ve chosen. It isn’t too flashy and very user-friendly. I really need to figure out how to vamp up my blog design. Funny thing is I have one in WordPress already and I don’t remember having that much trouble figuring it out…Anywho, thanks for the food for thought.