SXSW 2006 Panel: Digital Convergence

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Digital Convergence

SXSW Page about this panel

Jon Lebkowsky (Polycot): … To explore what digital Convergence is and what it means because people’s eyes tend to glaze over…

Catherine Crago: [Introductions] We were talking with some of you about why you are here? [Various reasons. Want to keep up with new trends. Went to “get converged.”] So what is Convergence?

Pescovitz: I’m delighted to be on a panel with Jon L — he was an editor of BoingBoing back when it was a print pub. I was joking that I didn’t really know what Convergence means. But I realized I wasn’t really joking. People coming together, interacting with info in different ways. But there’s actually a divergence happening. Our interaction in increasingly being determined by the context of the interaction. More interested in a human Convergence. These tools are enabling us to do things originally promised with the net. It became this “information” revolution at some point. But we were able to create this communications revolution. So I like to think of it as a social Convergence tied to a digital divergence.

Tolva: They say, “You put your stuff on our box, and then you’ve converged.” Look back at the history of toolmaking: things don’t converge, they diverge. I think about biology. Life diverges. When things do converge, they’re infertile, like the mule. So how do we design for this idea of recombination. A recombinant design philosophy. The remixability of the web right now is the first sign of us designing things with recombination in mind.

Davies: Jon hosts one of my favorite places on the web: the Well. Separating converging tech and media. Tech: VOIP, TVOIP. Media: Seeing the internetization of traditional media. The inherent characteristic of the internet: people coming together and doing something, and some kind of a filter. So, Slashdot vs. New york Times. Or traditional movie making and what the Beastie Boys are doing this year letting the fans make the video. That’s interesting to me. But traditional media will begin to influence the way the internet works. So I like to think about convergent media and where that’s going, how that’s going to change, and be aware that we need to make the traditional media more like the internet and not the other way around.

Lebkowsky: I thought it was really about the data. We’re now capturing terabytes of data we were not capturing a few years ago. Convergence seems to me to be the multiplicity of ways we can stretch to accommodate that data. Start piling data in different places, think Google Maps, start mashing it up and it creates a whole new creative world. We haven’t begun to think about what that might mean.

Pescovitz: I really agree. People talk about info overload — you ain’t seen nothing yet. When the objects around you start to blog, embedded with location-aware computing, ubiquitous computing, being overwhelmed with info will take on a new form. One question I ask: How do we slow down? People say info is becoming too fast. But I think it’s not fast enough. And once we increase in speed, we can start to slow down. When things move fast, it’s easier to take along view and see how things are changing. And that’s one way to deal with this onslaught of data. Enable us to slice through, remix, and interact with this data.

Davies: There’s too much. And I think, well, deal with it. Get a spam filter. Do the thing. I don’t find it to be the most pressing party. I just tune out what I’m not interested in and into what I am interested in. But we’re at the beginning of something, some real change. People have to adjust, but we’ll all get there.

Pescovitz: One problem is that all of this info is in one place, cyberspace. It feels overwhelming. But it’s the end of cyberspace. The information becomes in the place where we want to access it.

Lebkowsky: Reading your e-mail today can be like mining for gold. You get excited when you find something you want to read.

Davies: E-mail. There’s this constant chance of something amazing happening to you. That’s why it’s exciting.

Lebkowsky: I’m interested in the number of ways people can spell “sexually explicit.” It creates a whole new kind of intelligence.

Pescovitz: But if it’s where we want to access it, it becomes less of a stressful experience. Switching tasks like that interrupts productivity and fun, enjoying the task you’re doing at that moment.

Lebkowsky: You and I are like elderly guys form a world when you do one thing at a time. My grandson has never lived in that world.

Pescovitz: It’s incredible. But the people in this room, we’re the ones who actually have to continue to make that shift.

Crago: But that shift is happening. Some people are saying they’re overwhelmed or they’re living in cultures where people don’t use voicemail. What about from the point of view of the designer? Are we pushing info around?

Tolva: The subtitle of this panel was how do you design for that? Designing your product or service as if the goal is to make designers out of your customers. That’s the salvation, in a a way: allowing remixing and mash-up. And that is Convergence. Google Maps is a Convergence, in a way, of disparate kind of data. Designing in a way to encourage more data to be created. That allows us to filter down.

Pescovitz: What these mash-ups really are are filters. Ways to deal with massive amounts of data. A new kind of interface. I’m a part of Make, a magazine that advertises DIY. The smart companies encourage people to crack open their products. Not everyone wants to crack open the case, but some people are passionate about it and companies have a lot to learn by working with these people. “Consumer” is such a wrong word. “Collaborator” is better.

Davies: New media is about everybody participating. Old media is the people at the top making decisions.

Lebkowsky: And consumers are producers.

Pescovitz: “And that’s the way it is.” And we believed. But there was a period when we could change what was on the screen. And that guy became just another guy who could control what was on the screen.

Lebkowsky: We’re seeing communities form in all of these spaces. And that’s a key convergence.

Tolva: There’s a sense that something has converged. In a way, it’s a social phenomenon more than a tech one.

Pescovitz: It blows me away that 1,000,000 people read Boingboing daily. We should feel privileged. And now blogging is allowing us to do this and connect in ways.

Davies: But what’s worrisome is when the old ways begin to infiltrate the new ways. There is a little bit of centralization going on.

Pescovitz: That is happening, but do people not in that circle notice or care?

Davies: Traffic is influenced by that.

Lebkowsky: So much of action in blogging is in that long tail. Everyone’s famous to fifteen people.

Crago: Everyone’s trying to brand themselves on the internet. Is it better for people to try and brand themselves on the internet?

Pescovitz: What people need to do is follow the fun. Find what’s interesting and doing that thing. What are you into, what excites you. Continue to do that. If you press on that path, the money to earn a living will follow.

Crago: What point as a designer or creator do you decide to specialize?

Davies: Everyone has different techniques. Some people are naturally specialists, some generalists. I find it rewarding to know how mark-up works. It’s a great skill I use all of the time. That’s the specialist in me. But it depends on the person.

Crago: Let’s open up for questions. Other examples you can thing of where things are crossing over? Cyberspace and reality merging.

Pescovitz: There’s a lot of examples. My bio says I work for The Institute for the Future, a non-profit. We tell people we can’t and no one can predict the future. But what you can do is look at things that excite you and figure out how those things may play out and you can make smarter decisions about the present. that’s the key. As for bleed-over, there’s the example of kids in Korea playing MMORGs and text-messaging, “come save my ass.” And game good being sold for real money on e-mail. And I like to look to art to see things that are possible. Pac-Manhattan, for example.

Tolva: A project we recently completed in Egypt, a digitization of their culture that you can view on the web. We want to tie all of that together. A notebook. People would take physical tours which would become virtual tours to be sent to friends and experience that way. Then people were mixing and matching those. Continuing the virtual tour physically. And those are the baby steps. The reality will be when sensors and actuators are available.

Pescovitz: Everyone knows the friend-finder thing. The other example people always say is the virtual tool guide: walk around the city and look at your phone for historical information. Or virtual tags (digital graffiti) on restaurants and such. Using it as a tool for communication rather than a tool for consumption.

Lebkowsky: Nobody knew about until Yahoo! had a private party. Come to to sign up for it. Explosion of information on there about the nightlife of SXSW.

Davies: one thing I always don’t do enough of: mining the past. Really go back and look at what was done before and learn from that. David Bowie made Bowienet in 1998. He created songs online with these people. Skype came about in 1995. Product designers look back.

Pescovitz: They’re remixing the past. There is no present. Only past and future. Hype and spin.

Lebkowsky: Someone building a history of community in San Antonio, follow the family though, etc. It was really pretty ingenious. I don’t remember what it’s called.

Audience member: There are new features about showing relationships […].

Lebkowsky: Not just creating a photo album, but one that’s integrated with the community.

Crago: Open it up for questions.

?: How is this convergence affecting indie culture?

Pescovitz: My roots are zine-scene, counter-culture. I hope people who are doing these indie things ignore… That people continue to do what it is they’re doing. What happened?

Lebkowsky: Yeah, the money came. We were building this community with interesting features and not much though of compensation. But when the money came in, then among other things, a bunch of us got hired for money to do things that were less creative but more commercial. Then the bust. We were all out of the streets again. And thus, the explosion. And now the money’s appearing again.

Pescovitz: Put extra money in houses and not the market and realize the pendulum will swing again.

Davies: When I saw the Mosaic browser in college. I was trying to see a foot-bagging web page. When the web came, there were hundreds and the skill level of foot-bagging went way up.

Tolva: The danger is the exposure of it without every being independent. What the convergence does is show you how many other people are doing it, then it doesn’t seem so unique, etc. So it’s a double-edged sword. They break up a small community, but give you access.

Pescovitz: The key is to not worry about it. Do you find it interesting? When I decide to post something on BB, the only filter is whether I find it interesting. A Time Leary saying: “Find the others.” And that’s what all of these tools allow us to do.

Lebkowsky: And it goes way back. The Well had its origins in Whole Earth. Origins in the Farm, communal thinking. And it worked. And there was more and more of that stuff going on back then. Once we started publishing Fringeware, we began finding all of those people that were interested. Sense of community thing.

?: If we define Convergence as more social, isn’t the focus on making the tech transparent and designing the content?

Pescovitz: Experience.

Tolva: I work with museums a lot. What are people feeling in the space. A function of many things. Same with designing a retail experience. And that’s what we’re talking about. There is no Convergence tech. Things specialize. So designing that experience is what we’re throwing out in this session.

Crago: Can you really design an experience that’s universal.

Davies: Absolutely not. It won’t be the same to all of them.

Lebkowsky: It makes me laugh. We built some e-commerce sites at Whole Foods. Inevitable some people wanted a visual representation of the physical store with shelves, etc. Ha-ha.

Davies: People are still doing that all of the time. It’s kind of remarkable.

?: I just read that Staples is using the web to design their new in-store experience.

Pescovitz: That’s amazing. Remember when CNN did the dense frame? All that crap everywhere? “Oh my god, we’re losing people to the web.” It took them this long to realize that it sucks. The crawl. A classic example of how the Convergence of tech is not always the best idea.

?: So taking that a bit further. There seems to be a move towards individualization and amateurization of experience. Agile. Quick. And on the other side globalization and brands, etc. So how could this trend be carried further into the future when you look at small federal states and corporate culture.

Pescovitz: Deep question. What do you think?

?: I live in Amsterdam and the culture there is changing, becoming more American every day. but there is a push towards giving people their individuality. […] So the question is how to get back to the roots, to free individuality.

?: Talking about Convergence. But we’re talking more about divergence. Convergence to me means standards. Create standards, then we loose the ability to create.

Pescovitz: I disagree. Standards allow you you to make other things that connect together. But I’m not an engineer.

Tolva: You can’t say that post-literate humanity is less creative than pre-literate. An absence of standards, there’s no potential for interbreeding.

Davies: Also. We have to stop thinking about whether something’s better or worse. Sometimes standards are great, sometimes they can be preventative. But that’s not really the way to look at it.

?: The challenge is to the sense of identity. When you see kids multitasking, that doesn’t freak them out. But … [What?] Are there ways we can assist that ability to dissolve that? “Increasing the functional surface area.” [Etc.]

[No more notes from me.]

[ITP references: 3. Douglas Rushkoff, Dodgeball, Pac-Manhattan.]

Thanks for the instant transcript, Josh

Posted Thu, March 16, 2006, 7:18am EST by John Tolva

I make a lot more sense through you filter!