In the beginning there was the stream. Ones and zeros ionizing the atmosphere, streaking through silicone, rushing through wire; then held in abeyance in multiple forms of memory until once again they were converted to their previous incarnation as text or image or sound. Convergence 1.0 marked the reductionist movement that reduced all human expression to that never-ending flood of ones and zeros.
Convergence 1.0 also led, albeit briefly, to a period of diversification and specialization. The challenge was to create environments to massage the digital streams of ones and zeros in the service of old media, better music, photography, writing, painting, math and science; more efficient gathering and manipulation of data of all types. We popped open the CPUs and stuck in soundboards and graphics cards. But inevitably those divergent streams found a common canyon — the Internet. It was a Renaissance reconceived.
The polymaths of the first Renaissance, the Michelangelos and da Vincis, had to put down the paintbrush to pick up the chisel, lay aside the lute to gather parchment and caliper. They had to, literally, shift gears and spaces to cast their inspirations in different media. In the converged digital Renaissance the screen became a single workbench for "every medium," the keyboard and the mouse, "every palette." Multimedia became the lingua franca of the New Age. The mantra was not "word or image or sound" it was "this and that and the other."
It was not long before commonality of modality fostered common intention. What, after all, does one do with a platform capable of producing all the creatures of this strange new world — while still, of course, making a profit? One must remember that the Internet is an American creation, and America is as much a creature of the marketplace as it is a product of the Constitution. In America one is free to pursue whatever quixotic quest may call to you. Those that endure tend to pay the bills. In this regard, the Internet is as American as apple pie.
It is undeniable that the Internet provides safe haven, information and solace for individuals previously “alone” in the world. My just completed serendipitous Google search for one-handed violin players did not come up empty. And many tout the ability of the “long tail of the Internet” to gather thousands of isolates together in the joyous warmth, or sometimes, sadly, the vicious darkness, of a previously unimagined community. But on the Internet real profit, real power, is measured in hundreds of millions of users and billions of clicks.
What I call Convergence 2.0 is based on an increasingly obvious dominant Internet business model. Not long ago it was common to refer to “walled gardens” on the Internet. These were online spaces created by content providers with an eye toward keeping us within their environment. We were to be well cared for. Shopping, entertainment, stock reports, sports, communication, community, even government would be within easy reach here in our gated community; as would be the advertisements from the companies affiliated with this particular garden. But as history has proved again and again, it is a short step from walled garden to ghetto. One wonders, even in the most gilded of cages, what is going on outside? And it has been that curiosity that has led to the destruction of the walled garden model. It has been replaced by what is now variously known as Web 2.0, or even more vaguely, social media. We might beneficially think of it as “The Internet Tour Bus.”
Consider the challenge that confronts today’s major Internet entities: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Yahoo, et al. In order to attract the hundreds of millions of users necessary to gain traction in the Internet marketplace, you cannot create an entity that attracts exclusive audience demographics. Rather you must devise a business model that allows you to provide everything that a global audience indicates that it values and desires. You need to provide a Tour Bus from which your users can vicariously participate in the world around them, but from which they do not stray — allowing you to direct their attention to the ubiquitous, revenue creating, ads posted inside the bus, where the eyes of weary riders rest between stops. Hence, it becomes a business necessity to discover, encourage and market those “tours,” or apps, defined by characteristics that appeal to everyone. "Lovely revolution. Good job. Now please step back on the bus. What can we get you for lunch?"
Two paths diverge from such a model. The first path is the more hopeful, although I fear will be less dominant. That path actually increases our appreciation for the complexity of the world: I may just be a kid from Smalltown, Anywhere, but the Tour Bus can take me to the Getty in Los Angeles or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. I may be housebound in Poughkeepsie, but the Tour Bus allows me to make friends with folks around the world. I may be steeped in one cultural, political perspective, but the Tour Bus allows me to visit, understand and perhaps even appreciate others.
The second seems more common, more likely, and is directly driven by increasing convergence. Call it Internet Nation. I steal the idea directly from ESPN’s Sports Nation, although the notion is mirrored across a range of media from serious news sources such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to the delightfully silly and irreverent cotton candy of The Fashion Police with Joan Rivers. The idea is that the tour guide poses a question to the passengers on the bus. They vote and truth is revealed. Sixty-seven percent believe Bin Laden is dead. Fine. Next question, please. Which is better, coffee or tea? How many hurricanes will come ashore this year? Is there life after death? Do fish have souls? Post the numbers that generate “truthiness” and move on.
As an educator, Internet Nation is a terrifying concept for me; truth defined by a vote of the likely uninformed. Just because 110 million people believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776, do we overlook the fact that most historians assert that it wasn’t actually signed until August 2nd of that year? Yet, truth by acclamation seems an increasingly popular phenomenon. The phenomenon would also signal the end of meaningful diversity and minority reports, for as Sports Nation clearly demonstrates, no one really remembers who lost.
My reasons for finding the latter path the more likely of the two are twofold: First, and most important, it is the more profitable option. Appealing to a common denominator draws a larger crowd, and the larger the crowd the higher the advertising revenue. For that reason alone the Internet business community will favor the continued convergence model, Convergence 2.0. The second reason derives from the first. As the Internet business community pours more resources into the convergence model, that version of the Internet becomes more efficient and user-friendly. Why seek to create an Internet-based environment that reflects your particular perspective of the world when you can simply fold your group into the larger GoogleFacebookiLifeLinkedInTwitterMacWindows world? To do otherwise requires effort and reflective thought, focus and attention. And, alas, those qualities and abilities, current research indicates, are precisely the ones being eroded on the single workbench of the Internet-based reconceived Renaissance.
Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" is only one of a spate of recent publications that assert that we lost intellectual, as well as physical, muscle when we no longer had to pick up the chisel to free the sculpture from the stone. Seemingly, the kinetic act of slapping paint on canvas, of hoisting the book down from the stacks, of hauling the Sunday Times up the stairs, sharpens our critical skills, and deepens our appreciation of appreciation itself. The Internet is point and click, cut and paste, thumbs up, thumbs down. Quick, slick and often silly. But, is the “evil Internet” really sucking our brains out through our eyes and fingertips? I sincerely doubt it. It is, after all, just electricity in a box — no matter how sweet or sleek the box. The task that confronts us, therefore, is not to break the boxes. It is, rather, to reinvigorate the mind. The mass Internet beguiles us with the banal. It masks the silly as profound. We must, as we always have, reclaim the medium, resisting the call of the effortless Internet, where appearance masquerades as substance.
I remember well when the Macintosh first brought multiple fonts to word processing. Students felt compelled to use them all in the course of a three-page paper — and in the process covered those three pages with glitzy graphics, but fewer words and fewer thoughts. We seem to have weathered that storm. Today’s most articulate and arcane challenges to technology’s slippery slope leap initially from keyboard to screen. Use the beast to confront the beast. To mash the Bard, the fault, dear reader, lies not in the Internet but in ourselves. Certainly much of what is slapped on our screens via the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters of the world will fade into deserved obscurity. But others will find a place in the canon of human intellect. Convergence 2.0 simply provides the enticing communication environment that inclines us to the trivial. It in no way mandates that we follow that inclination. We choose the trivial … or not.