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Ambivalence Towards Convergence: Digitalisation and Media Change

Editor: Tanja Storsul, Dagny Stuedahl
Publisher: Göteborg, Sweden: Nordicom, 2007
Review Published: November 2009

 REVIEW 1: Fiona Martin

Convergence was one of the master signifiers of neo-liberal media and communications policy at the end of the twentieth century. From the 1980s, the digitalisation of communications networks and devices suggested the eventual erasure of regulatory demarcations between media, IT and telecommunications, and the rapid proliferation of new media markets. Then in the wake of digital conversions the world saw corporate mergers, multipurpose technologies, and multi-skilling, cross-platform strategies designed to exploit abstracted notions of a grand digital coming together, a la Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983). Now, as western newsrooms and journalism schools are reinventing themselves as convergent media sites, Tanja Storsul and Dagny Stuedahl's edited collection Ambivalence Towards Convergence: Digitalisation and Media Change explores what such shifts might mean, where they are taking place, and why.

The book takes stock of the many meanings accreting to convergence, asking what conclusions, if any, we can draw from the changes wrought in the name of this concept. The collection, with a few exceptions (notably Divina Frau-Meigs), is the work of researchers from the University of Oslo. As such, the authors employ several disciplinary perspectives (primarily media studies, but also educational and industrial design, sociology, and literature studies) but with a strong northern European focus to their empirical research. Their demonstration of the diverse, divergent outcomes of convergence thinking makes a significant contribution to our comprehension of why the term has held such rhetorical potency. The book has four sections which, broadly, cover definitions and models of convergence; changing production regimes in media institutions; differing industrial approaches to integrating technical processes and practices; and transformations in the conceptualisation of media genres and social practices.

In part one, Storsul and Anders Fagerjord categorise the ways in which convergence has been conceptualised, reflecting briefly on the importance of digitalisation and digital networks to its conceptual power. Frau-Meigs then starkly illustrates the limitations of convergence as a regulatory principle for the Internet with a detailed analysis of the struggles to negotiate an international governance strategy at the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) and afterwards. In her analysis, convergence is interpreted in terms of social intentions and acts rather than technological ends. This perspective helps for a critical unpacking of the alternative, divergent positions on maintaining an open network: the tensions between governance and territorial government, service and open source models, and debates about promoting and sustaining cultural diversity online.

Part two offers the collections' most coherent contextualisation of convergence via studies of emergent cross media and mobile publishing strategies. Anja Bechmann Petersen contrasts the centrality of internetworked platforms and devices to convergence in media theory, with fine examples of how and why the Internet still plays a subordinate role to traditional media in Danish cross media productions. Ivor John Erdal's more critically-styled review of cross media journalism in Norwegian public service broadcaster NRK then locates the key organisational driver of convergence planning -- doing more with fewer resources -- and reviews media workers' difficulties in meeting that objective. Finally, Vilde Schanke Sundet provides a structural overview of mobile media market expansion and reveals the mechanics of mobile publishing's almost symbiotic relationship with web media, based on case studies of four mobile portals.

Importantly, as media studies have dominated convergence analysis, part three grounds technological idealism in other forms of design and application. Ilpo Koskinen notes the unique, practice-based nature of design disciplines ordinarily is resistant to convergent proposals but that individual designers may usefully delimit such ideals through experimental, collaborative, and boundary testing works. Stuedahl tracks the growing interconnections between museums, libraries, and archives through the notion of digital cultural heritage. More than any other author in this book, he successfully presents the epistemological challenges of sharing digital systems, tools, standards, and practices between cultural preservation projects with differing interpretative processes. Knut Lundby then uses constructivist activity theory to contemplate the difficulties in mediating and realising a wireless competency training package for medical students.

In the final section, Gunnar Liestøl mixes schematics and allegory to unpack moves from convergent metaphor to divergent outcome. While his work is a meditation on digital remediation and recombination, Marika Lüders resists the proposal that we need a new, hyperpersonal concept to describe the blurring of interpersonal and mass media communications that we find online. She argues that the communicative behaviours found in blogging, social networking, and mass media user participation projects still occupy a spectrum between the old poles, but the differences are better explained using a tripartite schema of interaction, participation, and social integration. Using a Founcauldian lens, Lin Prøitz then questions the usefulness of trying to apply old genre labels to new modes of digital self-expression, using young people's mobile phone love text messaging and self portrait practices as examples. Andrew Morrison and Synne Skjulstad demonstrate ways in which advertising online is becoming convergent in Henry Jenkins' sense: employing cross medial, multi-referential, and participatory techniques to engage users. Finally Göran Bolin draws together threads developed across the collection in a discussion of transmedia storytelling, the relationships between industry actors, and the commodification of users.

There is considerable bleed between sections of this otherwise valuable work, particularly in defining convergence and making sense of its antithetical outcomes. A stronger editorial hand might have crafted a more coherent, concise whole and eliminated signs of a rush to print, such as the absence of a keyword index.

In particular, two concepts deserved more attention. Digitalisation is acknowledged as a catalyst for convergence yet aside from Stuedahl's contribution, digital policy, processes, and practices get little detailed attention. This is disappointing for a couple of reasons. First, an analysis of digitalisation costs and risks would make greater sense of structural moves to reclaim those expenditures through new markets and rationalised production processes. Second, the founding myth of technological convergence is fundamentally exposed by investigations of the development and user negotiation of competing digital communications systems, applications, protocols, file formats, and codecs.

Similarly, Jenkins' idea of participatory culture as convergence is invoked, as well as ideas such as performativity and prod-usage, but they are not always sufficiently theorised or interrogated. This is not to say that the authors underplay the importance of social shaping or even non-use. Rather, I am signalling that participation, as signifier of myriad ideas about user-led content creation, is as ambiguous, problematic, and multivalent a term as the focus of this book. Perhaps, given its rhetorical force in ideals of our networked societies, we can anticipate a future collection from Nordicom entitled Ambivalence Toward Participation.

Pool, Ithiel de Sola (1983). Technologies of Freedom. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Fiona Martin:
Fiona Martin lectures in Convergent and Online Media at the University of Sydney and is a former print and radio journalist. Her research on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's adoption of interactive media is at epubs.scu.edu.au/theses/66/.  <fiona.martin@usyd.edu.au>

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