Convergence: Embrace it now, critique it later?

As the Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, Henry Jenkins seeks to define convergence and the new media culture it is creating in terms of expansion (gain), rather than displacement (loss). In both his MacArthur Foundation report, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” and “Worship at the Altar of Convergence,” the introduction to his book Convergence Culture, Jenkins explores notions of cultural appropriation and remediation, as well as the ways and means in and through which the function and status of various media continue to shift in response to the emergence of new ICT-enabled delivery systems. Seemingly concerned with assuaging the fears of those who might be inclined to resist such developments, Jenkins is quick to note that “history teaches us that old media never die—they don’t even necessarily fade away. What dies are simply the tools we use to access media content….Delivery technologies become obsolete and get replaced,” while “media, on the other hand, evolve[s]” (“Worship 12”).
In a certain sense, Jenkins’ position seems to implore us, as compositionists, to envision the exponentially increasing possibilities for conceiving of how we define and teach cultural, as well as critical, forms of literacy within the expanded contexts of participatory culture. Interested in exploring how our institutional practices must in turn evolve in order to remain responsive to the ways in which convergence is both reshaping “American popular culture…and the relationship between media audiences, producers, and content” (“Worship” 12) and engendering a “participatory culture [where the] focus of literacy [shifts] from one of individual expression to community involvement” (“Confronting ” 4), Jenkins’ work seems to provide a rationale for viewing ourselves as teachers of composition—a multifaceted communicative medium—rather than as teachers specifically of writing—a specific delivery system destined to change. For a “medium’s content may shift,…it’s audience may change,…and its social status may rise or fall,” [but] once established as something capable of “satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communication options….Old media are not being displaced. Rather, their functions and status are shifted…[as] each old medium [is] forced to coexist with the emerging media” (“Worship” 14). Thus, the central question for educators is not whether or not traditional forms of reading and writing will become obsolete, but in what ways will new ICTs further necessitate and expand reading and writing’s value and use?

Convergence is a complex issue precisely because it necessitates that we devise new, or revise older, legal and cultural frameworks to guide our collective socialization into expanded areas of media engagement and practice. In many ways, the erosion of the “one-to-one relationship that used to exist between a medium and its use” (think training writers in writing, filmmakers in film, etc.) is largely what’s responsible for the ongoing institutional battles over whose territory the teaching of expanded and/or new (media) literacies should fall within (“Worship” 10). For Jenkins, the goal seems to be for various disciplines to learn to collaborate so as to conceive of ways to systematically provide students with opportunities to gain the skills and experiences needed to become full participants, “articulate their understanding of how media shapes [their] perceptions, and [become] socialized into the emerging ethical standards that should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities” (“Confronting” 4). While Jenkins’ arguments certainly make a strong case for how to harness the many possibilities inherent in media convergence, I (perhaps more like Ithiel de Sola Pool), also feel compelled to analyze the assumptions and values underlying what are often presented as naturalized or inevitable cycles of change for which “digitization [may have] set the conditions” but for which corporate conglomerates created its imperative” (“Worship” 11). Thus, it becomes important to seek to understand and indeed critically monitor the extent to which new media culture does actually “open new opportunities for expression” rather than simply “expand the power of big media” in new, novel, and increasingly less readily discernible ways (“Worship” 11).


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