I resonate with Henry Jenkins’ preoccupation with the black box effect, and I think the fourish plus years since the publication of Convergence Culture has only deepened the ongoing kludge of our relationship to media technology. Every feature integrated into a device, a new digital community, entertainment venue, or writing space beckons us to acquire more hardware. What we end up with at the current time is both convergence and divergence.
As an example of the divergent, I’ll fess up to some of my own embarrassing hardware missteps. Around 2007, I had thusfar resisted and in fact disdained the Blackberry trend, boggling at how difficult it was for some people to simply disconnect and acknowledge that their time just wasn’t that important. Then came the first iPhone. While my needs for mobile communication had not changed, I, as so many did, fetishized the device. I was lured by the promise of integration – of convergence. Here was a device that was both my phone and my music player, something I had actively been annoyed at carrying separately at this point. The fact that it also offered continuous access to interesting or fun or useful or illuminating content was not as important, but was easily rationalized in favor of its purchase.
I sat out the rush for the first model and came on board with the iPhone 3G. It was everything I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t perfect. I realized its limitations; it wasn’t a robust processor, it provided fenced-in content, and I realized that while it was great for short writing burst, its tiny touch screen came up short for lengthy writing. I never expected it to replace my laptop or desktop. I happily used it and enjoyed as its usability expanded through various updates, and moved on to the iPhone 4 two years later.
Concurrently, my interest in the iPad was increasing. I know this makes me sound like an Apple fanboy, but what I was drawn most to was the form factor. Plainly stated, it was just a big iPhone, but I hoped it would be the balance between the bulkiness of a laptop (the same laptop whose lightness, thinness, and relative power I marveled over only a couple years before) and the confines of the phone. Again I resisted for over a year, but again, I broke down and my wife and I bought one to share.
This is where the divergence begins to reappear despite all these seemingly convergent devices. Despite some buyer’s remorse over the iPad – for it really was just a big iPhone, so what did we expect? – the device has remained and inserted itself into a niche of use. My relationship with four very similar devices is thus: the phone I obviously carry with me everywhere (the irony of my former disdain for the Blackberry cult is not lost on me) and use so frequently for tasks both silly and serious, I cannot see having a “dumb” phone again. The iPad does what I don’t need the laptop’s serious power for, and also enables me to engage in longer and more comfortable screen reading than a laptop can, such as reading articles for classes and my own research. The laptop is there for when I need to seriously settle in to productive, high-intensity writing or research. Finally, a self-built PC desktop rounds out the onslaught as my access to the more processor- and graphics-intensive gaming world, something my laptop was incapable of doing for very long.
I have four devices that do extremely similar things, yet I’ve let them settle into precise and unique roles. This list can expand further, with my wife having a kindle for sustained digital reading, and our accumulation of 10 years worth of gaming consoles, an internet media streaming device, and a music and video serving device. Even one of the consoles has a fractured identity, having found new use recently in streaming downloaded video through the gaming PC. What galls me about this is that despite my wish to simplify, I have carved out so precise a niche for each of these items that I have difficulty considering how to let one go.
Thus, the divergence Jenkins foretells is realized, but in the name of convergence. I can’t deny the device fetishization at work, but each time I’ve acquired one of these devices, its cost relative to its offered service always seems a bargain. Before long, the device has carved out its niche and another golden calf appears on the horizon, promising to be the one device you need to restore balance to our fractious, fraught hardware existences. While I believe only the laptop holds the distinction of being truly required, I know I would sweat the loss of functionality the rest of the pack brings. I can only hope that true convergence happens in the near future, bringing a single (or hell, at this rate I could get by with only two or three) convergent messiah device to unify all these digital wants and needs, and that this is just the divergent storm before the convergent calm.