Thursday, August 20, 2009

Media Convergence

The digital age has brought an extraordinary convergence of media that I have not seen remarked on anywhere. In the old world, each type of media was manufactured and delivered in its own different way. Movies were printed onto film and shown in movie theaters. Newspapers were printed on newspaper printing presses and delivered through a content delivery network that ends up with the product being thrown onto driveways in the early morning hours. Books were printed on book printing presses, bound and delivered through wholesalers to bookstores around the country. Records were printed in record presses, delivered to music wholesalers and then to record stores. Radio and TV were produced in studios, sometimes recorded and sent around the country to be broadcast on local transmitters.

That has all changed. In the new digital world, each media type has the same underlying form. Spoken words, music, written words, pictures, moving pictures are all buckets of digital bits. While we can still get each type of media in its old form we can also get them all delivered to our computer, cell phone or media player through the internet or the cellular phone network.

Even the devices we use to consume media are converged. Most of them can handle everything, so lets take an extreme example, the Amazon Kindle book reader. While the primary purpose of the Kindle is a book reader, it also has text to speech and handles audio files so that you can listen to music while reading. It will also display black and white pictures in the 3 common formats. So when you come to list the types of media that a Kindle can handle, it is quicker to say what it cannot do, that is color and moving pictures, than list all the things that it can do.

This change to digital media is just upon us, so it is going to take some time for all the consequences to shake out. At the moment, there is great wailing and gnashing of teeth from the newspaper industry. Newspapers rely on advertising which always does badly in a recession, but this time they also have to deal with the air being sucked out of their lungs by internet advertising and free listings. For some time, movie producers have been worried that they may be MP3ed like the music industry. More recently, book publishers have become aware that their business model is targeted and they are starting to behave like deer in the headlights as well.

These are just media industries and their travails are just the price of doing business in a time of technological change. The interesting question is how it will affect culture. If all types of media are fundamentally equivalent, will our preferences, being unfettered, change? One change is that there is a move towards shorter forms. For example, online journalism is certainly shorter and more punchy than the printed equivalent. This is just one example of one direction that change could go in. I am sure that there will be more consequential changes, so let me know what you think.

No comments: