New World

Converge on This
JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


ast week AT&T became by far the largest cable company in the United States. Within 24 hours Microsoft announced its US$5 billion investment in the communications giant.

The deal between Microsoft and AT&T will make Microsoft's Windows CE the operating system of choice for set-top boxes for the digital computer/TVs of the future. Pundits and business analysts across the Internet are heralding this as the harbinger of great change, a fundamental re-ordering of the entire computing/telecommunication/networking world.

I just want to know one thing: what kinds of drugs are they on?

The fusion of television and telephone and computer into one über-system is usually referred to in the high-tech industry as "Convergence", and it has been just around the corner since the early 1990's. In the world of Convergence, a consumer would use his or her television as a home information system, able to do everything from shopping to e-mail to watching movies to shopping (especially shopping). Rather than having to buy a separate computer or game machine, all of the digital intelligence would be built right into the TV or -- as the sales pitch goes these days -- into a so-called "set-top box". The set-top concept is showing up across the globe, from Asia to Europe, but it is being pushed the hardest in the US.

At first blush, the synergy between computers and television is obvious. First of all, they both use screens. Secondly, um... uh... you plug them both in.

The superficial similarities between a television and a computer mask much greater divergences, a fact that eludes many proponents of Convergence. The uses of the two devices are markedly different, both in concept and in execution.

Computers are increasingly designed specifically for communication. Text is crisp and easily legible (particularly in comparison to a television screen), and it is generally quite simple to add in additional communication tools -- from audio to video to real-time chat. Television, conversely, is built as a consumption medium. The screen looks best from across the room, with the lights down low.

More importantly, computer users develop a sort of intimacy with the machines that does not happen with televisions. From customized desktops to naming the hard drive, computers inspire personalization. This is due in no small measure to the physical nature of the interaction between computer and user. When we work with our computers we are in close physical proximity. The screen takes up a large portion of our field of vision; our actions are reflected immediately in sometimes subtle changes to the image. We learn a pattern language of keystrokes and interface that allows us to effect change to the world captured within the screen. By comparison, television is simply background noise.

I like to call this dissimilarity the difference between lean-forward and lean-back media. In a lean-forward medium, one's attention is completely captured. Any computer game player can regale you with examples of starting to play a game and suddenly realizing that hours have passed. Lean-forward is immersive. Lean-back is more transient, and one can be more readily distracted from it. You can half-pay attention to a lean-back medium; it doesn't need to be the object of your focus to be effective.

Given this, it's not hard to understand why computer/TV combinations have been so unsuccessful. In some cases, television manufacturers and cable companies have, with great fanfare, rolled out tests of Interactive Television (only to end the tests some months later, much more quietly); in other cases, computer manufacturers have added television equipment to computer designs, only to pull the systems from the market after their utter failure.

The use of WindowsCE as the interface of choice for set-top boxes will only make matters worse. Cascading sub-menus, indecipherable icons, and going to the Start button to shut down may not be worth the effort for people simply wishing to sit back to watch the latest Oprah or evening news.

With this relentlessly poor track record, why are major communication and computing firms convinced about convergence? Imagine: a device that knew exactly what you were watching and when, which commercials you switched away from, which banner ads you clicked, which products you bought from Amazon.com... Convergence is a target-marketers dream.

In the end, the push for Convergence is a push for control. Not consumer control -- not the control you exert whenever you pick up the remote -- but the very opposite; set-top boxes are wonderful for advertisers, but a dubious value for television audiences. For computer users, set-top boxes are even less compelling. They may make it possible to read e-mail on your TV, but you can be sure that there will be an advertising banner flashing balefully at you right below the message, and the box itself will be watching your every click.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - May 12, 1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Gavin Dudley: Dr Byte
* Rupert Neethling: Toolbox
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley