|Several years ago there was a lot of discussion about ‘convergence’ — specifically how the functionality of PCs and TVs would converge until the two devices supposedly became indistinguishable. As usual, the actual change has been slower in coming than the pundits predicted, and what has happened has not been what was expected.
Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users blog (perhaps the only one in the blogosphere with a name more ironic than mine) has recently been writing about how much more important (some) TV content is than the actual appliance, with all its annoyances and unfortunate behaviours, and how DVDs and BitTorrent-type file-sharing technologies may finally render the TV appliance unnecessary.
The USSR-style collapse of the more popular (still) of the two devices is not the ending that convergence-predictors foresaw, but it is now a very plausible one. It is becoming increasingly clear that people will pay money for good hardware and personalization (useful atoms) but not for software or content no matter its quality (useful bits). That may not be fair, and it may change, but that is the Internet culture and it is growing, not diminishing, even in the face of desperate and hapless efforts by software and content owners to subvert it. In a head-to-head competition between PC hardware and TV hardware, there is no competition. Everything TV has tried to do to improve — interactivity, crisper picture, more personalization of content access tools — is a pale imitation of what the PC does much better, and the PC is just beginning to evolve. I think it’s ironic that Dell has now started selling large-screen plasma TVs — as if we needed further proof of how utterly disconnected that company is from its customers and clued out about its industry’s evolution.
I believe we are less than a decade from reaching the point when all software and all content (information and entertainment) will be file-shared and quickly and simply downloadable free of charge as soon as it is released. By that time there will be some revolutionary changes to hardware as well — it will get much smaller, faster, cheaper (though not free) and wireless, to the point that you won’t bother to keep any content on your personal devices at all (though we may all share our content peer-to-peer through our cast-off wire-anchored PCs, part of a huge distributed network of global file servers, data warehousers that we will be oblivious to, and which will interact only with other machines). The plunging price of hardware and bandwidth and the ubiquity of free content will perhaps, at last, awaken us to the abominably low value of most of this stuff, and the horrific amount of time we spend paying attention to it — and we may (we can only hope) rediscover the superiority of personal, self-created entertainment, conversation, live performances, imagination-provoking fiction, art and poetry, and contemplation of the real world on this side of the screen.
But there will be some other implications, less important socially but more important economically. With the disappearance of advertising, current producers of media content will need to find another business model to fund their productions. That model may vary from a Gift Economy (many of the baby boomers will have retired, and may be willing to write and produce good quality entertainment for the sheer creative joy of it), to a personalization model (sell tickets to the live performance, with a chance to meet the cast afterwards, and give the taped version away free). Those who entertain but don’t perform live (studio musicians, authors who don’t do readings and Q&As, and animated film producers) will need to be more creative in financing their careers (such as teaching — long an admirable and accepted vocation for entertainers, and making customized products). It’s hard to say whether corporate sponsorships (mainstay of US public broadcasting), and product placement will remain viable financing mechanisms. Private ‘memberships’ are doomed to be circumvented, unless they are altruistic and (also like US public broadcasting) bestow no special ‘bit-access’ privileges. Overpaid superstars will be a thing of the past.
The implications for media intermediaries (television and radio networks and print newspapers and other content aggregators) are more dire. These groups simply do not add enough value to justify their cost. I predict that unless they reinvent themselves (and they have shown themselves quite uninventive) they will soon go the way of ticket-punchers, tellers and bellboys (“thanks, I can look after that myself”).
As for those big-screen plasma and flat-panel TVs, sell your shares now. We will each have our own personal screen (perhaps mounted on our eyeglasses, or rolled up around our shirtsleeve for easy carrying) customized as we like it — ‘group viewing’ will be accommodated by electing to share a screen view over wireless networks, as simply and ephemeral as sharing an instant message, whether you’re in the same room or on the other side of the globe. With the purpose of its main appliance gone, the function of the ‘family room’ will disappear, undifferentiated from the already useless ‘living room’. Perhaps this will usher in the age of the all-purpose ‘great room’ — kitchen, dining room and ‘social’ room in one, with the portable, wireless PC becoming more like an article of utility clothing than an appliance that needs room (or a room) of its own.
The end of ‘scheduled-by-others’ programming will also change the organization of our day. The VCR tried to do that, but its poor design defeated it. Being able to watch/hear any content, any time, anywhere, will free us from the tyranny of setting aside scheduled time for anything, and allow us to reset our priorities. Though I may be a dreamer, I suspect that this will mean spending less time watching/hearing ‘canned’ content of any kind, and more time living here, now, in the real world. I think this because I’ve studied our propensity to do urgent, unimportant things before important, non-urgent things, and with no fixed schedule, the urgency of all ‘programming’ disappears.
I read recently a study that showed that children weaned off television spent more time on the Internet, but also more time not in front of any screen, including less time playing video games. Kathy’s post talks about TV as an addiction, so perhaps kicking the TV habit helps break other addictions, or perhaps the rediscovery of the value of social interaction and imagination opens up more attractive alternatives. I recognize that some people are easily addicted to aspects of the Internet as well, but for some reason I find this less alarming — perhaps because it is at least less passive.
So the end of the TV appliance, and its unpleasant associated behaviours, is likely to change to transform the information and entertainment ‘industries’, liberate us from wires and the requirement to be in any particular place (and free up our laps!), change the social dynamics of ‘group viewing’, alter the layout and use of rooms in our homes, eliminate our dependence on others’ schedules, and enable and encourage us to spend more time away from screens and in person-to-person social activities.
Not a bad scenario at all, and one that perhaps signals the end of an era of astonishing infatuation with technology.
(This article was posted Tuesday, Oct. 18 but did not get processed by Radio Userland until Wednesday Oct. 19. Cause of the problem is still being investigated.)
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