i-6f808ba8ceb34d72360a8ba74f5a3793-Robert Logan.jpg
Robert Logan

Mark Glaser is on vacation for the beginning of this week. We’re pleased to have Robert K. Logan from the University of Toronto as our guest blogger here at MediaShift.

“The crossing or hybridization of the media release great new forces and energy by fission and fusion… The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born” — Marshall McLuhan

In the last blog post, I looked at the 14 messages of new media, one of which was convergence. In today’s blog post, I’d like to focus on convergence and hybrid technologies, which characterize today’s new media. Let’s begin by exploiting a McLuhan technique known as the laws of media, in which we identify what a new medium enhances, obsolesces, retrieves and reverses into:

Hybrid technologies enhance convenience, obsolesce many individual devices, retrieve the Swiss Army knife, and reverse into clutter.

Back in the good old days of mass media that McLuhan analyzed with startling alacrity, the user had to deal with one medium at a time. There were separate devices to tune into radio, television, the movies, or a telephone conversation. The closest one got to convergence in the pre-digital days of mass media was to catch a movie broadcast on television. That has all changed now as we have devices that literally combine these different media because of the ability we have to digitize information and process it on computers.

A prime example of a hybrid technology is a basic computer system (desktop or notebook) which consists of a power supply, microelectronic chips and circuits, software of various types, a video display, a printer, a scanner, a mouse, game peripherals, a CD/DVD player, speakers, access to the Internet, and possibly agents and bots. It is interesting to note that the majority of today’s computer chips do not even reside in computers but can be found in cell phones, PDAs (personal digital assistants) such as Blackberries and PalmPilots, iPods and other MP3 players, game modules ranging from big boxes to tiny handheld devices, cameras, photocopiers, automobiles, and kitchen appliances. The list goes on and on and reflects the hybridization of technologies that digitization has made possible.

Another enormous factor in the convergence and hybridization of technologies has been the emergence of the Internet and web, both of which are media of other media and themselves examples of hybridization. Hybrid or convergent technologies extend and amplify the technologies of which they are composed and hence each represents the end product of a cascading chain of technologies. All new media are hybrid technologies.

Are Mass Media Abating in Influence?

“At the start of the twenty-first century, it seems that mass communication is giving ground to a many-to-many model of communication, implemented via the Internet, which rolls together the point-to-point model of the telephone with the one-to-many model of print and broadcast,” wrote Diana Lewis in 2003.

This does not mean that mass media will disappear but rather that they no longer dominate or monopolize the way in which entertainment and information is disseminated and accessed. Just as the spoken word did not disappear with writing but rather its role changed, so it will be with mass media. They will still play a major role but they will command a smaller share of people’s attention. Another factor is that platforms for mass media are often new media like the web, cell phones, iPods, and PDAs.

Many of the new media that have emerged are due to tiny computer and memory chips, which provide the old media new functionality. The other factor that has led to so many new media is the fact that with computing one is able to digitize sounds and images both still and moving. This has allowed for an order of magnitude greater capability of processing, sampling, manipulating, storing and accessing these sounds and images. The other feature of new media is the ease with which one can combine text, sound, video and still images and the way that individual media can be combined to form hybrid or convergent media.

Hybrid Technologies Proliferate

Convergent media have had an enormous impact on the way new media have evolved. In my last blog post, I identified the 14 messages of new media, none of which would have been possible without convergence (#7 on the list). Let’s review the list and in each case one can see that convergence contributes to their emergence. The two-way communication (#1), ease of access to information (#2), continuous learning (#3), alignment (#4), portability (#6), interoperability (#8), aggregation of content (#9), variety and choice (#10), remix (#13) and the transition from products to services (#14) would not have been possible without the convergence that the digitization of information made possible.

Community (#5), the closing of the gap between users and producers (#11) and the social collectivity and cooperation (#12) are nothing more than the convergence of the users and producers of new media that the digital technology makes possible. Thus we see that convergence has had a profound effect on the way we interact with media.

Given the ubiquity of convergence, you might wonder if we’ll start using less devices that do more. In some cases this will be true, as is the case with the multifunction printer, which is also a fax machine, photocopier and scanner. But by and large because of our desire for portability and the need to have a connection to information wherever we arem we will probably have many different devices with overlapping functions.

A Blackberry is fine for accessing information and taking phone calls but it is not ideal for word processing. A cell phone is fine for playing games or watching a TV mobisode while waiting to board an airplane but it is not ideal for watching a first-run movie or our favorite television show. A cell phone with an embedded camera is fine for capturing a visual image while on the run but it is not the right tool for recording the sites one visits while traveling or recording a child’s first steps. Just as many of today’s homes have more than one television set or radio I believe information users will want to have a number of specialized technology devices.

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To learn more about convergence, I invite readers to look at my book in progress, “Understanding New Media: Extending Marshall McLuhan,” which is an update of McLuhan’s book “Understanding Media.” The section of my web page which contains the manuscript of this new book is a blook (book + blog) because any reader providing comments on the manuscript will receive a response from me. And if they contribute some new insight I will include their comment in my book.

Robert K. Logan is emeritus professor at the University of Toronto’s Physics Department and a senior fellow at the Institute of Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary and the Institute of Strategic Creativity at the Ontario College of Art and Design.