The Black Box Fallacy

Black_box there’s a very compelling theory that at some point all our media will be accessed through a single black box.  a box that will deliver our TV, gaming, email, movies and web surfing all to one (or multiple) screens through a single access point.

it’s very compelling because it sits so neatly with our concept of convergence; with the idea that technology will be developed (and indeed already exists) to deliver a range of content to our TV screen.  the much-anticipated PS3 not only does games, but does HD DVD and can wirelessly access the internet to boot.  Sony doing internet, Microsoft doing TV etc.  convergence right?


the more you think about it the more you realise that there probably isn’t going to be mainstream adoption of a little (or big) black box.  firstly, there’s no historic evidence for it; as Henry Jenkins notes in his book Convergence Culture;

"I am seeing more and more black boxes.  there are my VCR, my digital cable box, my DVD player, my digital recorder, my sound system, and my two games systems, not to mention a hug mound of videotapes, DVDs and CDs, game cartridges and controllers, sitting atop, laying alongside, toppling over the edge of my television system"

he’s not alone.  we have all experienced not the convergence but the proliferation of black boxes.  even when a device can do multiple tasks, it doesn’t necessarily replace a separate device dedicated solely to that task.

but the second reason why the black box theory is a fallacy is that context in which we consume stuff changes.  my wants and needs as I type this were very different from my wants and needs last night when I was watching a movie.  Jenkins quotes a Cheskin Research report * as pointing out that:

"The old idea of convergence was that all devices would converge into one central device that did everything for you … What we are now seeing is the hardware diverging while the content converges

… Your email needs and expectations are different whether you’re at home, work, school, commuting, the airport etc., and these different devices are designed to suit your needs for accessing content depending on where you are – your situated context"

"Designing Digital Experiences for Youth", Market Insights Series, Fall 2002 pp. 8-9

there’s a fundamental difference between access (hardware) and content, and where there is evidence for convergence is with the latter…

the above is from the Animatrix.  one imagined world; with a multitude of different content; but all designed to be accessed differently across different channels; movie’s at cinemas, DVDs at home, MMOG via PC.  its a big early commercial example of what Jenkins has termed Transmedia storytelling, Faris Yakob  wrote a great post about it here.

it is content that converging.  so that we can access it whenever we like on whatever terms we choose.  its for this reason – its worth noting – that we have seen technological convergence outside the home in the form of the mobile phone (which is also a camera and MP3 player and soon TV too)…  we have a luxury of choice inside our homes – PC for working, TV for movies – that we don’t have outside.  hardware convergence happened on phones because the contextual need for the convenience of one device, was more important that the contextual need for different devices to be designed for individual tasks.

of course there will be some hardware convergence, but there is unlikely to be a killer-ap black box adopted by the mainstream.  the fact that technology exists is no reason for it to be adopted.  we stubbornly continue to allow human context to determine how we adopt and use technology.  good job too.

whats going to be fun is to see to what extent commercial advertisers use transmedia storytelling.  at the moment a campaign idea tends to be executed across different channels.  there’s little consideration given to how what is produced can be contextualised from the off.  and there’s massive opportunity for the advertisers – and indeed the agencies – that learn how to do this best first.


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