Convergence, Next Phase of the Information Revolution
Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 6, 2008
Revised version of a contribution to the workshop on New Media and the Reconstruction of Popular Culture in the Arab World. Georgetown University Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies. May 17, 2006
Excitement over the revolutionary potentials of new media and information technologies in the Middle East that accompanied the advent of the Internet, satellite television and mobile phones in the 1990s focused on them as alternatives. New technologies, alternative channels, and indications of alternative political and other discourses breaking into the public suggested transformation of a public sphere, in the main organized institutionally, not only with new voices but also new people. The boundary-busting potentials of NMIT were seen first in terms of alternatives by those who welcomed them and by those with reservations. Indeed, reservations – moral, cultural, political anxieties over new information and communications technologies and new media – seemed to confirm their status primarily as alternatives.
Time and experience have outrun this paradigm, however. Many new actors turned out to have roots in old establishments. Often it was the cadet generations of elites who brought the new technologies. Governments proved adept at deploying the underlying technologies to their own ends. Much content seemed trivial, or little more than demonstration projects, while old models of information, such as of journalism, translated all to well to new media. Similarly, cell phones became extensions of the Arab family or the Internet of Arab publishers; early experiments such as Arabia Online were absorbed into media conglomerates; by the millennium established religious figures had their sermons, lessons, and outreach on the Internet for the populations it drew and aggregated. Alongside Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel were many more offering entertainment from old movies to the most recent popstars. Beirut’s old book exhibition hall may have been turned into an Internet café, but Lebanon’s main new Internet media were headed by scions of old publishing families or by religious broadcasters. Plus ca change?
Yes, new media and information technologies afford individual alternatives; but they also become foci of alliances as actors sort and piece together technologies and applications, creating new configurations of tools, tasks, and arrangements that did not exist before, and which transcend mere cooptation, on the one hand, as much as mere diffusion, on the other hand. The ‘alternatives’ model is not enough.
Alternatives models are insufficient because they isolate actors as individuals from the larger story of how micro-processes of networked communication are working through today’s macro-processes of globalization. This is a story of informational and technological mobility, of shifting reflexivities that intensify and remix cultural and other practices, of highly unstable assemblages and contingent effects, and – considered politically – a displacement of politics framed by nation states in terms of massing constituencies and consensus. Instead of moving old politics to a freer domain, knowing how (expertise), showing up (self activation), burnishing of reputations, as well as ideologies of multistakeholderism and subsidiarity come to the fore of the politics of networked communication, or communication in a regime of networks rather than a regime of groups operationalised as constituencies and consensus.
To render more of the sociology and politics of this process, I’ve found it analytically useful to think of three interrelated layers
composing the larger whole. This is not a progression from the material to the ethereal. IT is more than hardware: it includes software, its developers and their educational and other support networks, financiers, regulators, and ties with multiple ‘user’ communities. So do the media, which mix telecos, broadcasters, ‘content’ suppliers, their brokers and market researchers, financiers and regulators. Likewise, demographics covers multiple aspects of populations from numbers to class characteristics, career patterns to lifestyle choices, and how people use (and produce) information that enters this ‘stack’. Each layer could be broken down further, and each is – importantly – itself an extensive network: they have horizontal and vertical relations and, moreover, those are dynamic.
We are only beginning to understand this new regime. An early macro approach was Castells’ concept of a dialectic of self, or identity, and proliferating networks through which it is expressed and thus variously magnified and migrated. Another, represented in this workshop, is a turn from ‘information’ instrumentally conceived and ranging from news to more didactic forms, including religion, to expression, particularly the burgeoning entertainment side of new media in the Middle East.
Some of the attention that initially focused on new media has shifted to entertainment as a site of politics – specifically democratic politics – and brought along the model of alternatives. Star Search from Future TV, with its pan-Arab song contest that some saw as modeled on American Idol, but which also has precursors in the annual European song contests, was hailed with the same accolades earlier lavished on Al-Jazeera and on the Internet. The enthusiastic voting for winners via phone and the Internet was proof of yearning for and capability of democracy in the region comparable, in one version, to the Federalist Papers, presumably for reframing pan-Arabism as an electoral space. Millions of ‘votes’ poured into what was hailed as the first ‘pan-Arab election’. But even discounting the hype, the exaggeration, and effervescence, there is something decidedly odd about such views.
In the first place, such infotainment is widely derided in the West as a degradation of agora to circus, as it were. Yet, here, its mirror image was hailed – circus as agora. How can what is bad in the West be good for Arabs, be regarded as a sort of opening of politics? More exceptionalism?
Second, the assessment rests on the liberal habit of blurring commercial and political popularities around the notion of free individual choice, the “sovereign consumer.” This construction analytically isolates individuals from structural and practical settings of their actions and frames IT and new media primarily in terms of agency enhacement. Even if this highlights agency, and the agency-enhancing features of IT, and even if all, or only some, of the voters in Star Search were obliquely sending a message to their rulers, as Al-Jazeera watchers are said to be doing, or just grasping the opportunity to express opinion, this is still cultural politics in a field of consumption. And, third, that is a realm that is truly transnational when it comes to music (and other expression, notably religion) in the Arab world, and so at least partly beyond the bounds of citizenship.
Locally, Star Search was absorbed into cultural politics. Star Search’s local/regional critics included old liberals, for whom politics is serious business and who make it their business to take politics seriously. What if the renaissance is rock-and-roll? Among other culture managers weighing in, religious traditionalists looked askance from perspectives in which music is suspect and entertainment a diversion from what they view as serious business. So, we have elections that resemble nothing so much as commercial choice, in a realm that is popular but also commercial, or in structural terms part of a continuum that includes serious literature (hence the liberal critique) and pop culture but also folklore, religion and commerce; structurally viewed, such actions could have occurred anywhere along it.
But these are not separate systems. The homonymous assessments of Star Search (as moral harbinger, moral crisis, or just a diversion) demonstrate connections. But what kind? Stepping back for a moment, framing Star Search – and, by extension, other forms of entertainment in the Arab world – as politics by other means or proofs of democratic capability or another iteration of pan-Arabism infiltrating politics from a cultural realm may miss structural features of this mixing and morphing of the political and cultural, expressive and instrumental, that converge in this spectacle.
Over a generation ago, Ithiel da Sola Pool looked at early networked communication and saw a series of convergences of
- computing and communications
- different channels into a single channel
- different kinds of data into a single stream
- work and leisure into a single activity
that we have come to know in the Internet, mobile telephony and satellite television. This concept of ‘convergence’ carries some baggage in the social sciences, and not least in Pool’s, where there is a direct line from Max Weber to Pool’s colleague W.W. Rostow, who famously cast modernization as a convergence of all economies into a Western model, and on to Fukuyama’s anticipation of the ultimate adoption by everyone of parliamentary democracy and market economies. Pool’s view of convergence was infused with this vision, which is not only empirically problematic but has been abandoned in turns from modernization theories in last generation to globalization in this one.
So what does convergence look like under globalization? A lot less like homogenization of the modernization theorists and a lot more like blurred boundaries, de-centering, remix and other characteristics of post-modern culture. Moreover, its primary, or at least most visible, sites are those most characteristic of the post-industrial economy – namely, the rise of service sectors and, within them, of information services and a general ‘informationalisation’ of services.
Why should this matter in the Middle East, which many in the region think largely bypassed by industrialization and a global laggard in its diagnostic networked communication, the Internet? Well, because Star Search, when viewed more inclusively than as an Arab version of American Idol or of the Federalist Papers – which is to say, when viewed in its own context and how that context shares larger ones – is an example of convergence under the regime of globalization. Contestants from all over the Arab world competed to be chosen top Arab singer by audience voting. Observers were quick to seize on the spectacle of the first transnational ‘election’ in the Arab world as a political indicator, not least because it became framed as Arab politics are popularly framed, as identity politics. But perhaps the direction of this flow is the other way. Out of the limelight, but only barely, the regional technology community noticed, too. Voting that was recorded on the television show was done via telephone, e-mail over the Internet and SMS (text-messaging) over cell phones that not only had become ubiquitous throughout the region but are interoperable between countries. That is, ‘voting’ occurred in a space that was not only transnational, it was not even national at all, by fans and in a space of communications; despite active lobbying and campaigns for home-country favorites, it was not organized by or through national organs or institutions of state but some cases in spite of state efforts to forbid such voting.
Taken as a whole, there could hardly be a better example of boundary-crossing, or ‘flows’, and unstable associations characteristic of globalization. Transnational Arab satellite TV programs already pointed viewers to associated websites and frequently solicited SMS messages, which they ran as banners on the screen. They already invited audience participation that extended mobile and Internet interactivity to previously passive television. They sought interaction for a multitude of reasons from quick-and-dirty market research to come-ons in pursuit of competitive advantage to branding in order to hold particular audiences. Second, this had spread throughout both entertainment channels on satellite TV and the Internet as well as those devoted to news and opinion (including religious channels and websites). Third, this is, if anything, pre-political in its aggregation of individual preferences translated unmediated by institutions into individual actions: one click, one vote. The messages were sent not to Cairo or Damascus or Riyadh, but to a television company; they were sent over wires and waves that telecoms companies charged to use.
The bulk of LBC’s income from arguably one of the most popular Arab television shows of all time as measured by viewership came not from sponsors but through revenue-sharing with telecoms companies, which made millions. One estimate (based on call rates and numbers of calls) was $2.1 million in voting revenue for 6.5 million votes in 2003 and $1.8 million voting revenue for 4.5 million calls in 2004 attributable to mobile and voice telephone voting in the first Star Search flowing to the telecos that provided those services. In business terms, Star Search ‘monetized’ amateur performance by selling rights to vote on it through a third party, for whom they generated the traffic. (This while telecoms have anxiously sought additional content to expand their custom from wireless email to multimedia messaging to mobile television.)
This is what ‘convergence’ looks like as globalization: it includes media that morph into each other, messages that migrate across boundaries and technologies, unanticipated assemblages, shifting reflexivities and leveraging externalities. Returning to the model of a stack of IT, New Media, Demographics and thinking of each layer as a network of relations with multiple others that may be attached to the stack, we may conceive of the convergences they represent as fusions of networks (in the model, along vertical axes). For each activity, project, or practice, connections between the layers are different, engaging some nodes in each layer and not others. In this way, we can see how Star Search is, first, different from politics in some respects and similar in others and, second, how these linkages are dynamic. It wasn’t because voting was political behavior but because the format was already shared between entertainment channels and those for news-and-opinion. In addition, relations of television to mobile telephony and the Internet forged through messages shift when revenue-sharing is added; the relation of cultural to other politics shift when states respecify uses of SMS, much like attempts to structure Internet services (and so the business opportunities) by social policies such as previously for telephony. And so on.
If we think of convergence as fusions of networks, we must think of them as multiple and dynamic rather than determinative or derivative. So what are limits, conditions? Some of the enabling conditions include standardization, which makes networks interoperable. The type site is the Internet, which is solely software based and designed from the beginning to operate over any network, any format of signals propagation – hence, the ease of its spread and its flexible, but also incomplete, adaptation to social and political structures. Something similar is seen in the rapid ‘convergence’ of mobiles and satellite TV; part of their attraction is that both are ‘transnational’, hence the move of mobiles’ SMS messaging to TV, in one direction, is matched in the other by business use of messaging for aggregation (such as sending market information, weather reports, etc.) or for multimedia. As industries come together, and old relations come apart, different media practices and information engage different numbers and kinds of people that resolve variously as publics, niche markets, age and class cohorts.
Conceiving of these primarily as bringing choice to the fore obscures their intermediating structures. Remixing (such as in combining entertainment and voting, television and Internet) and moving to different platforms (politics to culture, mobiles to television, and vice versa) depend on convergences not only of platforms but also on user contributions that are also features of organization by networks. The first phase of convergence as fusion of networks may have been the migration on-line of all transnational and nearly every major local Arab newspaper that, among other things, opened each to every others’ market or readership. With the prices of moving increments of the same information tending toward zero, when all are online, monopolization shifts from controlling channels to branding, or to ‘network externalities’ such as who is on the network. This is, if anything, more apparent in the migration online of religious networks. Even the aggregators present distinct perspectives, and even in implementing the universal imperative of outreach. Initially, going on-line migrates the message of a shaykh or school or dawa organization to another demographic, one that works and recreates on-line, whose practices and interests they have to mesh.
Let me suggest some empirical features of convergence as fusion of networks that seem to stand out and to be connected. In no particular order, they are:
1) Rapid expansions of telecommunications. This brings more access, often by shifting consumer use to new media. New media bring not only new networks, but also those who use them into relations with each other. With expansion of telecommunications capacity and channels, capacity to transfer information (data for work, entertainment, religion) across borders also expands.
2) Software platforms stabilize, providing bases for developing applications within a wider community than when each machine had its own operating system, or where each company promoted its own, keeping streams of information separate and hindering the informatization of services.
3) Commodity computers and software applications replace customized ‘integrations’– the same is true for mobile phones, which are computers – shifting convergence up the “stack” where end users create the input, extend uses, and ‘remix’ contents (i.e., treating them as commodities).
4) Instead of the disintermediation initially predicted, new intermediaries arise to provide services that involve combining technologies, channels, types of data on top of relatively stable platforms. At the individual level, this facilitates ‘citizen media’ and ‘remixing’ different data streams into one’s own product.
5) Elites embrace ‘off-shoring’ practices and as a business model, particularly for transnational media and for building out the soft infrastructures of the information revolution. What may begin as catch-up, in time not only shifts from vertical integrations to horizontal relations, but out-sourcing tends also to move from commodities like testing and programming to design or, likewise in media, from supplying material to conceiving it.
6) Venture investing increasingly competes with central planning, both practically and as a model for resource allocation. More sources feed and feed on specialization over integrated enterprises.
7) Globalization of education that began as access to foreign training has proceeded to institutional and curricular convergence (around international standards), and then multiplication of delivery channels (private universities, corporate training centers, online training).
8) Business/legal convergences in the ‘soft infrastructure’ of trade and property, such as WTO and WIPO, tend to shift the focus of monopolization to branding, and with that the focus of regulation from protecting industrial sectors to protecting ever-growing lists of products, services and (most problematically) information.
This is primarily a list, not a theory, but enough to suggest that what we see in Star Search and in entertainment generally is not a move of politics to culture or the kind of convergence imagined in the modernization paradigm. The former projects a kind of individual hydraulic, while the Rostov paradigm, which Pool shared, imagined all systems becoming more alike, ‘converging’ on a single model. But convergence today is more a matter of boundary crossing, recombinations, highly unstable assemblages, intensifying mobility of media, messages, and technologies that shape convergence as fusion of networks.
Recasting convergence as fusion of networks opens such processes to analysis of alliance-formation and building coalitions around new technologies and new media. In these more political terms, we may see beyond the expressive agency foregrounded in entertainment to instrumental agencies as, for example, different expertises become assets. I do not wish to suggest that the more expressive sides, exemplified in entertainment, are without political significance. They are objects of intense politicking as cultural watchdogs weigh in or as contests develop over the revenue streams they generate. I do mean to suggest that what they signal, however, is not an alternative to or replacement for politics that dare not otherwise speak its name. Instead, Star Search represents a specific irruption of politics that emerges in network societies and networked communications, where mobile media and technologies morph and remix; where claims to participate are based on showing up, on expertise and on appeals to universals; where unstable assemblages and contingent effects may vanish instantly in all but memory when everyone goes home, some move to the next event, or the whole thing proves fleeting. It may be better to think of these as post-national politics because they do not presume the features of national states, such as formation of constituencies or of consensus (whether by consent or imposition), both of which are far more temporary and limited in scope under conditions of globalization, but also more dynamic.
With Star Search and other entertainment programs that solicit SMS and email responses, opinion shows with phone-in, websites that invite visitors to vote on issues or topics of the moment, conceptualizing convergence as fusion of networks captures equally observable facts of fragmentation, failures of meanings to resolve in a unitary fashion, and that users may be interacting with each other. We may unite these processes analytically as fusion of networks and get on with tracing what, precisely, is being brought together. It may not be information sources and information seekers. For, if youth are voting on and campaigning for singers over the heads of their elders and the borders of their countries, they are also ‘branding’ revolution for TV, and playing to more than just the cameras by advertising for participation via SMS and over the Web, such as also recently in Lebanon (see Kraidy, Beyond Al-Jazeera: Social and Political Dimensions of Arab Reality Television).
 Jon Alterman, New Media, New Politics (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998).
 Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, “Birth of a New Media Ecosystem.” In New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, Dale F. Eickelman & Jon W. Anderson, eds. (Indiana University Press, second edition 2002).
 Michael C. Hudson & Jon W. Anderson. Internet Pioneers in the Arab Middle East: Routes to the Information Superhighway in Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia (CCAS Occasional Papers, forthcoming).
 Jon W. Anderson. “Producers and Middle East Internet Technology: Getting beyond ‘Impacts’” The Middle East Journal 54(3): 401-31, Summer 2000.
 This bundle of features is laid out paradigmatically in the Introduction and explored in individual case studies in Reformatting Politics: Networked Communication and Global Civil Society (Jodi Dean, Jon W. Anderson and Geert Lovink, eds. Forthcoming from Routledge, August 2006).
 Manuel Castells. The Information Society (Blackwells, 1996).
 Dale F. Eickelman & Jon W. Anderson, eds. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere (Indiana University Press, 1999; second edition 2002). Also Gary Bunt, Islam in the Digital Age (Pluto Press, 2003).
 The program was produced by FreemantleMedia, which is based in Europe and produces over 260 TV programs for 39 countries per year. Arab Advisors Group. “Superstar’s second season voting is not as stellar as the first season’s.” Media Strategic Service Report. September 5, 2004.
 Tyler Mackenzie. “Found in Translation: A TV version of the Federalist Papers? Yes, in a Way. We know it as ‘American Idol’” Wall Street Journal, 24 September 2004.
 Ithiel da Sola Pool. Technologies without Boundaries. (Harvard University Press, 1990).
 Walter W. Rostow, Economic Growth; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History
 Sometimes called “from atoms to bits,” e.g., Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital (1995); better grounded in the economic sociologist Saskia Sassen’s The Global City (199x).
 This is what registers to observers inside and outside the region as a sort of ‘we [the people] will show you [the state]” quality.
 Arab Advisors Group, above.
 A central theme of now annual conferences on convergence in telecoms and media industries since 2004 by the region’s first market research firm focusing exclusively on these sectors, the Arab Advisors Group based in Amman, Jordan.
 Jon W. Anderson. “New Media, New Publics: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere of Islam” Social Research 70(3): 887-906, 2003.
 Hudson & Anderson, Internet Pioneers (forthcoming).
 Or maybe not. David Knoke and Mark Granovetter (Political Networks: The Structural Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1990), specify influence as information that passes through networks and domination as constraints they impose on decisions.
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