Convergence: Opportunities, Challenges and Threats

The final assessment for BCM112 required students to research and develop an argument addressing a complex socio-technological dynamic, that being:

How does convergence affect the relationship between media technologies and audiences?

Through conducting extensive online research, using my subject notes, as well as the information on 3D printing that I have tweeted over the past semester, I developed the following argument: 

The complex cultural process of convergence is transforming the way audiences respond to, and interact with, media technologies through the rise of produsage and the emergence of a participatory culture, both of which have profound implications for consumers. Within the contemporary media landscape, the desire of media conglomerates to broaden their markets and expand their revenues, and the desire of consumers to have their media needs, wants and interests satisfied has led to a cultural shift in the way media content is produced and consumed – referred to as convergence. As a result, audiences have become newly empowered productive users who are utilising a variety of different technologies to engage in produsage-based content creation environments, as well as in the emerging participatory culture. At the same time, however, convergence presents risks to audiences, with the potential for more restrictive copyright protection laws impeding on consumer’s innovation and creativity. The nature of online communities also leaves audiences vulnerable to cyber attacks as well as excluding those who do not possess the skills necessary for participation. As both a disruptive and valuable technology, 3D printing provides a compelling insight into the way convergence is driving the more rewarding, albeit, complex relationships between audiences and technologies in the current media environment.

Convergence has transformed the positioning of audiences as passive consumers at the end point of a linear production chain through the rise of produsage, the new hybrid form of simultaneous production and usage (Bruns, 2007). The emergence of active produsage communities offers audiences fluid movement between different roles as leaders, participants and users (Bruns, 2007), with media technologies reuniting the traditionally fixed roles of the producer and the consumer divorced by the Industrial Revolution (Bruns, 2007). This is evident in the way the design-build-deliver model of the traditional supply chain is being disrupted by 3D printing (Petrick & Simpson, 2013), which offers an opportunity for audiences to become producers in their own right. For example, people are using 3D printing to create personalised prosthetics (Harris, 2014). Consumers are no longer constricted to simplified designs due to manufacturing constraints, acting as product designers through experimenting with complex and unique materials conceptualised according to personal tastes (Petrick & Simpson, 2013). The ability to engage in this highly iterative design process also enables consumers to improve functionality and develop bespoke solutions at a much lower cost and at greater speeds than traditional methods of mass production (Harris, 2014). This transgresses the boundaries of the strict producer-consumer dichotomy of the industrial age (Bruns, 2007) and blurs the distinction between the amateur and the professional (Jenkins, 2008). In this way, convergence has contributed to the emergence of a user-led content production environment in which media technologies engage and harness the input and participation of active produsers in the production process.

While convergence has enabled audiences to play a more active role in cultural production and circulation through the produsage environment (Jenkins, 2014), it also threatens such opportunities by increasing copyright-related issues. The transition to online distribution of creative content across multiple delivery channels, coupled with the new population of active produsers engaging in user-led content creation, has facilitated the rise of a significant threat in the form of illegal downloading and other types of online copyright infringement (Reid, 2011). To combat this issue, the Australian government is considering tightening laws and developing stricter regulations (Heffernan, 2014) which will potentially constrain cultural expression (Jenkins, 2012). For example, there is fear amongst intellectual property owners that 3D printing will facilitate the widespread unauthorised reproduction of copyrighted objects, independent of established markets, in ways that cannot be detected, prevented or controlled (Lentejas, 2014). This will result in the impacted industries demanding radical reformation of intellectual property law (Gross, 2010) and a form of Digital Millennium Copyright Act for 3D printing (Rimmer, 2012), which enables a copyright owner to have any infringing material taken down by sending notice to a content host (Peros, 2014). This would, however, restrict innovation, competition and trade in the digital economy and raise fundamental questions regarding audience’s economic rights – such as the right of reproduction (Rimmer, n.d.). In this way, while it is important to recognise and reward authorship, it is also significant to prevent stifling innovative activity under a cloud of legal uncertainty (Ahrens, 2013). This highlights the implications of convergence on audiences’ capacities for creativity and innovation, as the rise of new collaborative content creation practices based on the notion of re-use has raised complex economic, ethical and legal questions which have a flow-on effect to consumers.

In despite of this somewhat undesirable implication, the new form of participation that convergence culture invokes offers empowering possibilities for consumers. Fuelled by the growth of a new participatory culture and the adoption of produsage-based models which have lowered the barriers of entry into the cultural marketplace (Jenkins, 2006), consumers are asserting greater control over the flow of content (Jenkins, 2004), harnessing the power of different media technologies to actively participate, engage and contribute more meaningfully in their culture (Jenkins, 2013). 3D printing underscores the new potential of this participatory culture, particularly given the greater levels of autonomy, freedom and efficiency that this technology affords the typical consumer. Using a 3D printer, consumers are able to print unique items inaccessible on the mass market and customise them at affordable prices (Majewski, 2014). The result of this is the diversification of cultural production, as each consumer uses the technology for different purposes and as a mechanism for self expression (Jenkins, 2006). This is particularly evident in the use of 3D printers by school children, with each student able to express their individualised visions through creating physical models of abstract concepts (Lipson & Kurman, 2013). This is argued to broaden their understanding and interest of problem-solving subjects (Lipson & Kurman, 2013). Similarly, the Mink 3D makeup printer enables consumers to transform any colour viewed on a smartphone, tablet or PC into a wearable cosmetic product, thus satisfying their desire for instant gratification and DIY solutions (Cook, 2014). This reflects the way convergence has empowered audiences to more fully participate within cultural and civic life as the evolving participatory culture encourages them to seek out new rewarding, emotionally satisfying experiences.

Participatory cultures in which audiences are empowered to create, share and contribute content are not always safe, accessible and supportive environments. Convergence has increased the attractiveness of generative media technologies, which enable unfiltered contributions from diverse people and groups (Zittrain, 2008), as targets for malicious attacks by cyber criminals and “hacktivist” groups who aim to manipulate and break certain technologies (Burgess, 2013). This, in turn, puts the average Internet user at constant risk (Burgess, 2013). This is evident in the way individuals can deliberately modify source code for 3D printer designs, leading to the production of faulty and potentially dangerous objects (Gilpin, 2014). Similarly, the accessibility of 3D printer designs provides individuals access to contraband design files, such as guns (Royce, 2014). Recently, 3D printing company MakerBot addressed these issues by deviating from its initial mission of maintaining a repository of open source hardware and software (Biggs, 2014). This highlights a potential future in which the providers of 3D printers will attempt to control the technology and its use (Jenkins, 2013). It is important to recognise, however, that the growth of such closed ecosystems restrict the growth of the participatory culture and, therefore, the opportunities for flexibility, freedom and empowerment (Moore, 2014). There is also concern that convergence is fuelling a “participation gap” as these new patterns of production and consumption excludes particular audience members who do not possess the skill, knowledge and opportunities required to meaningfully participate in this new media environment (Jenkins et al., 2009). For example, average users may experience difficulties in using 3D printing software without an understanding of mechanical engineering or graphic design, thus limiting participation in this production culture (Gilpin, 2014). In this way, there are a number of new challenges audiences will face as convergence exposes audiences to both the risks and inequalities inherent in online networked communities.

Convergence represents a shift in cultural practices which is profoundly changing the dynamics of the relationship between media technologies and audiences. Produsage has transformed the content production value chain model in collaborative, user-led online environments, with new contributions by participants acting as produsers. The emerging participatory culture has increased audience’s ability to remain in control of the content they contribute, while empowering consumers with a dimension of individual freedom, autonomy and creative expression. The path towards the full realisation of these exciting opportunities will not, however, be straightforward. As established institutions lose authority and power in the move to produsage, there will be greater demand for the amendment of existing copyright laws in ways that may stifle and restrict innovation and creativity. The increased availability of access to the new participatory culture will also drive the growth of a community of hackers who threaten the safety of online audiences, while the notion of democratic participation will be undermined by the inequalities in skills required for meaningful participation. In this way, convergence presents a number of opportunities, challenges and threats for audiences in their interactions with media technologies, particularly as technologies such as 3D printing will continue to challenge traditional boundaries and disrupt the status quo in the future.

Reference List

Ahrens, J., 2013, ‘3D printing and copyright’, Copyright & New Media Law Newsletter, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 3-4,11.

Biggs, J., 2014, ‘MakerBot Responds to Critics Who Claim It Is Stealing Community IP’, TechCrunch, May 28, accessed 3 June 2014, < http://techcrunch.com/2014/05/28/makerbot-responds-to-critics-who-claim-it-is-stealing-community-ip/>

Bruns, A., 2007, ‘Produsage: Towards a Broader Framework for User-Led Content Creation’, in Proceedings Creativity & Cognition 6, Washington, DC, accessed 28 May 2014, <http://eprints.qut.edu.au/6623/1/6623.pdf>.

Bruns, A., 2007, ‘Produsage, Generation C, and Their Effects on the Democratic Process’, in Media in Transition 5, MIT, Boston, accessed 28 May 2014, < http://eprints.qut.edu.au/7521/1/7521.pdf>.

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