Humpty Dumpty Had a Great Fall . . .
The burning questions du jour: Where is convergence taking us? How can we milk it for monster profits? The short answer: Nobody knows. Most of the "experts" participating in forums at the Hilton offered conflicting futuristic scenarios that, predictably, favor their particular industries. Will infotainment be delivered over cable modems or DSL lines? Via satellite transmission or miles of copper wires? Who will provide the "content," that all-inclusive rocket packed with a payload of advertising? Will it be traditional television programmers and film studios? Online service providers like America Online and CompuServe? Software giants like Microsoft? What will the content look like? Will it be games and sitcoms or news and information? Will it be a passive experience, like television is now, or will it be interactive, like computer games and online communication? The short answer: All of the above.
The consensus among participants in several panel discussions---on topics such as "The World View," "Business Models that Work," "What do the Buyers Want?," and "The Living Room War: PC/TV or TV/PC?"---was that the world tomorrow will resemble the world today, only more so. In other words, despite the needs of marketing executives and Wall Street analysts to identify clear leaders in an emerging business and to condense trends into easily digested sound bites, the only accurate description for the current state of the art is not convergence but fragmentation.
For the increasingly interconnected-but-disconnected media, there might never be another "Golden Age of Television," a phrase used by several panelists and members of the audience. This longing for a simple, high-profit business built on a base of hundreds of millions of passive, easily pleased consumers was a nostalgic echo heard not only from producers and advertisers, but from online providers who sincerely wish for a secure, comfortable grip on an extremely slippery subject. The fact is that Joe and Jane Sixpack, the mythical, uncomprehending couch potatoes of the 1950s and '60s who watched all the shows and bought all the products, might have been nothing more than a contrivance of the advertising industry. Attempts to accurately identify their modern counterparts have had spotty success.
Confusion reigns in the convergent universe. This was abundantly apparent not only in the panel discussions, but also in demonstrations by hardware makers like Compaq Computer, whose high-resolution computer screens displayed mockups of the near future as envisioned by software designers. Static displays---electronic signage on unattended monitors---were characterized by a mélange of every imaginable digital icon, type font, and graphic, as if to prove that computers can be all things to all users. Dynamic displays were intended to demonstrate the easy-to-use benefits of interactive television: a quarter-screen of full-motion, real-time video (a football game, for example) surrounded by rows and columns of function buttons, windows of text (game, team, and player statistics), an interactive window to chat with other viewers, and hot-button access to manufacturers of products advertised in online banners and as part of the game's broadcast. The effect was unintentionally comical, as if Alice in Wonderland's Lewis Carroll had teamed up with Rube Goldberg to take the concept of picture-in-picture to its ultimate, absurd extreme.
So, all bets must still be hedged in the convergence game, with one exception: Every single speaker uttered some variant of the phrase "Compelling content is the killer app." Tired, but true: At the moment, all this astounding technology exists to serve up unnourishing, insubstantial fluff. There is an enormous vacuum of talent in the world, and it's not in engineering or product development. Those fields are suffering a glut of cleverness.
The real vacuum is in creativity, in the ability to create engrossing stories, music, dramas, films---yes, even games. Substance, and only substance, is the killer application. Writers and musicians, the world needs you now. More than ever.