CONVERGENCE CULTURE, BY HENRY JENKINS
FOREWORD TO THE ITALIAN EDITION
(Cultura convergente, Apogeo, Milan, 2007)
by Wu Ming (*)
[Henry Jenkins is the director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, as well as the author of some very important books on today's popular culture, which he explores in its community-making and participatory aspects. Down home, we've been citing Jenkins' work so often that, during the Manituana book tour, some people asked questions about his books instead of ours. Unfortunately, up until the fall of 2007 none of his works was available in Italian. Things changed when Convergence Culture, the work that turned us into fiery evangelists, was published in Dante's language (er, sort of). The publisher contacted us to write the foreword, which we did.]
In the best of possible Italies, the publication of this book would be a telluric event, one that would shake the debate on the Internet and the new technologies of communication. If nothing happens, not even a twitch, it will mean that there's no actual debate, no semblance of life, only a deserted house with loose shutters in the wind. In comparison, poltergeist activity in a graveyard will sound like Rio de Janeiro's carnival.
Convergence Culture is a revolutionary work in many ways. It remains a fascinating and comprehensible reading all the way through, and it's crammed with examples and evidence. The works of European theorists are often cited, explained in a vivid language, and used to analyze concrete behaviors and practices, with none of the original intricacies. It works like magic: in the pages of this book any obscure convolution turns to crystal-clear, no-nonsense talk. Professor Jenkins plunges into the culture of our time and gives an accurate picture of how the new technologies are changing it, then he re-emerges and gives us a report not so much on the media, but on the people who are using them to communicate. The picture shows us, all of us.
A propos of this, it is necessary to make a distinction clear.
In Italian, by "cultura popolare" we usually mean folk culture, a pre-industrial heritage whose manifestations have managed to survive until today. Sardinian cantores and tarantella dances are cultura popolare. Those who use the phrase in other contexts do it with reference to the English homologue "popular culture", which is more commonly translated as "cultura di massa". Although the latter expression also exists in English ("mass culture"), it may cause equivocation and - as Jenkins observes - there are different shades of meaning between "popular culture" and "mass culture".
Equivocation: la cultura di massa is transmitted through the [mass] media (cinema, tv, print etc.), but it isn't necessarily aimed at the big masses. It may also include music addressed to a niche of listeners, or cinematic sub-genres appealing to specific subcultures. In fact, the majority of today's cultural products are not di massa. We live in a world of countless niches and subgenres. The mainstream, what we call "il nazional-popolare", is far less important than it once used to be, and it keeps getting smaller.
Shades of meaning: the expression "mass culture" stresses the way this culture is transmitted, i.e. through the media. On the contrary, "popular culture" emphasizes the role of the people who receive it and then reappropriate it. Usually, when we talk about what a song or a film means in someone's life ("Listen, it's our song!"), or how a crime novel or a comic book influenced its era, we call it "popular culture".
The problem is that, ninety times out of a hundred, the Italian debate on pop culture focuses on junk TV, as if that were the only way to be "popular", as though there were no quality distinctions and historical evolutions, as though Sandokan , Star Trek, Lost, TG4  and Beauty and the Geek were all of the same mould. It's like saying that there are no differences between Bruce Springsteen, REM, Frank Zappa and Shakira, and no possible distinctions between Stephen King books and Totti-joke collections , since both categories of books hit the top charts.
There are two armies fighting each other, and we should stay away from both of them. On one side are those who shield behind the "popular" to produce and peddle crap. On the other side, those who despise anything not aimed at an elite audience or readership.
These positions are perfectly symmetrical, they feed each other and share common views. One is that pop culture only addresses mute audiences probed by people meters, masses that express themselves only as percentages in opinion polls or figures at the box office.
And here's another merit Convergence Culture has: it gets to the roots of equivocation and puts them out. The focus shifts from an inextricable tangle of banalities to a new perspective, a way of tackling all issues by redrawing known boundaries and barricade lines.
At the end of 2006, Jenkins posted on his blog a list of eight traits of the new media landscape. Not an inventory of devices and applications, but a set of practices and cultural behaviors that tell us how individuals and societies relate to the media.
It is interesting to note that those eight traits are all acknowledged and discussed in the Italian debate, but most of the times in a trivial, dispiriting and stereotypal manner. This provides us with a frame to analyze in details the very equivocations the book helps to dispel.
According to Jenkins, today's media landscape is:
Nobody denies that. The rapidity with which communication technologies appear, change and converge is under everyone's eyes. Unfortunately, this matter of fact is taken as a pretext to bemoan that we're losing something in the process - good books, relationships, real life. The youth spend time on the net, sit with the PlayStation, and download music instead of having real cultural interests. Technological innovation enriches us materially but makes us poorer with regard to our souls, because speed doesn't allow us to assimilate things, reflect upon them, and make choices. Such lamentations are based on prejudices and are rarely appended with concrete examples. On the contrary, this book describes hundreds of real situations where innovations trigger creativity, open up unexplored territory, increase opportunities for expression, and diversify aesthetical production. Maybe this has happened in any epoch since the invention of writing, but even more so in the times we're living in, in a culture that's getting more participatory day after day, with ever more access points, a great urge to create and share, and the common feeling that one's contribution is worth something.
One of the theses of this book is that collisions between old and new media are more cultural needs than technological choices. Computers and cell phones have become multi-function; the TV set, the radio, the camera and the game station all have converged into single devices. And yet none of these agglomerate contraptions has done away with its competitors. Quite differently, it is the content of communication that's adapted in order to move across platforms and get a widespread, pervasive distribution. One song may be broadcast on the radio, become a jingle in a TV commercial, be shared on the net in mp3 format, be included in a movie OST, accompany a DIY video on YouTube, be downloaded as a ringtone for your cell, and the lyrics be printed as a slogan on a T-shirt. There is no unique attractor - be it computer or phone - that can turn all ideas into just one product incorporating image, sound, text and human relations, whereas any idea has many facets and can adapt to many platforms.
The Italian debate is more focused on technological convergence (the newer-than-latest monstrously gimmicky multi-function cell phone) than on transmedia culture. In the rare cases when this aspect is taken into account, the focus is always on corporate strategies, on how the potentates of entertainment are trying to move their content to new platforms, like candies from an old dispenser to the new one. No pundit says a word about this very same interest being shared, practiced and (often "illegally") subverted by the public. People move stories, sounds and images across territories all the time, but nobody seems to acknowledge that this "smuggling" responds to a new aesthetical model, a new way to tell stories, inform, sabotage, and have fun. It's just marketing. And if you're a writer you've got to write a real book, one that's made of paper. Everything else - websites, booktrailers, blogs, extra features and outtakes etc. - is promotional material, a spurious appendix that smells like money.
Again, to say that the media and the new technologies are part of everyday life is commonplace talk. Usually, fear merges with excitement to concoct images of Egyptian slavery and promised lands.
A much talked about by-product of everydayness is multitasking, that state of "continuous partial attention" which is the bugbear of teachers, parents and old-fashioned intellectuals. Few are willing to admit that this ability is necessary to face up the new environment. People pay unfocused, "low-intensity" attention on a multiplicity of stimula, and then they switch to high intensity as soon as one of the stimula changes in some significant way, i.e. there's a warning for them to pay "more attention". Multitasking skills should be taught to those who don't have them, not dealt with by exorcism. Unfortunately, in these parts it's always witch-hunting season, and what a lucrative sport it is.
Thanks to the new media, we are able to interact more deeply with sounds, images and information. We can determine their flow, choose what to watch or listen to at any given moment, archive any content and use it in new contexts. Too often the debate on such opportunities gets stuck between those who lament that "everything's been reduced to a cut-and-paste job" and those who retort that recombination is the foundation of creativity. Jenkins bypasses this musty dilemma and shows how the habit of re-appropriating content is reviving a magma of amateur productions and diffused creativity, forms that were typical of old folk culture but were shrunk with the advent of modern mass media.
Up until twenty years ago, the vast majority of the public were only audience [from the latin verb audire: literally, they listened] and the only message they could transmit in turn was limited to a binary choice: to listen / not to listen, to consume / not to consume. Nowadays we have multiple channels through which to make ourselves heard. Of course it isn't enough to just open a blog or a MySpace page: there are competences that must be acquired and refined. These competences are undoubdtedly making the difference in many work contexts, and they'll be ever more valued, and yet pundits - instead of reflecting upon how to educate kids in that respect - are evoking scary ghosts. The latest example is the "new" wave of youth violence at school. It was [rather incorrectly] labeled "cyber-bullismo" and described as originating in the Internet, because the possibility to film your own hooligan act and post the video on YouTube is considered incitement. Same thing for child porn and other monstrosities: morbid reports blend facts and myths, charlatans are interviewed as experts, and the bottom line is always: it's too easy to open a website and form a network of contacts. Which is like saying that in Italy there are too many neo-nazi groups because it's too easy to meet with people and form associations. That is how any free, transversal distribution of content is identified as a problem in and of itself. Later on, the same pundits will complain that teenagers are too passive and prone to consumerism.
The new technologies allow us to interact with people and situations, no matter their geographical location. In Italy, most of the times, this truism serves to wave the threat of cultural homologation. There's little doubt that such a risk exists, but why not cast glances at other vistas, e.g. the not-so-unlikely chance that cultural diversity will increase as people will wish to leave parochialism behind and enjoy fresher, richer identities?
"Natives" of and "immigrants" to the digital participatory age have very different approaches and attitudes towards the same media. This doesn't mean that they can't get in touch and learn from one another. It is noxious to keep building fences, laying the stress on such clichés as "all kids are geeky", "kids spend all their time messaging each other" and so on. In some ways it's true that the passage of baton from one generation to the next has been interrupted, but this doesn't entitle us to resign ourselves and say that "there's nothing left to do about it".
When discussion about the digital divide occurs in the Italian media, it is always focused on technology. We need more computers in the classrooms, more broadband coverage in the country, more WiFi hotspots in the cities, and so on. Once all done, there will be no more digital divide. Which is like saying that illiteracy is caused by eyesight problems. Some people can't read because they can't see very well. Let's start a "Glasses for Everyone" program, and the problem will be solved. Unfortunately, not even teaching the alphabet is enough to uproot illiteracy. Computers and broadband connections don't suffice to close the digital divide. Not even teaching HTML programming is enough to do that.
Of course, if I'm visually impaired you'll have to give me glasses before teaching me to read. If I can't read you'll have to teach me the alphabet. However, as reading and writing imply more refined competences, so taking part in a participatory culture implies more than a 10mbps connection.
The problem has not to do with cognitive abilities. A teenager can start a program, try it out without any instructions and master it thoroughly within a few days. Her grandfather wouldn't be able to use a different stereo from the one he's got at home, and will learn to use e-mail after a week of strenuous effort.
No, the problem is that, technological conditions being equal, different teenagers have very different approaches to the net, and position themselves on different sides of the divide.
Given the proverbial easiness with which kids use the new media, most adults believe that providing the youth with the right technologies is enough to make them citizens of the new digital society.
In a white paper published on the MacArthur Foundation's website, Jenkins criticized this laissez faire approach because it fosters further inequality.
The myth of the teen living in symbiosis with technology hides a more complex and diversified reality, where many kids use computers, instant message each other and download music but aren't skilled to properly use a search engine in order to find information and data. Others can do the search but aren't able to recognize reliable, useful information and give up before they find what they're looking for. Still others don't really know what they've found: they may copy text from a Wikipedia entry, but it doesn't mean they understand the nature of that source.
Jenkins finds three faults in the idea that kids, simply by using the Internet, can develop by themselves the competences they need, in the same way that they become ace gamers or YouTube contributors.
First, there is a participation gap: opening a door doesn't guarantee that people will enter. For some, the Internet is an important space, a rich experience, a set of tools to use actively. For others, though, it is a secondary ambit, they are not very acquainted with it and consume it in a passive way, with no significant interactions.
* Wu Ming 2 and Wu Ming 1, July 2007
Secondly, there is a transparency problem, which exists already in the realm of traditional media. A piece of news is usually opaque in several crucial ways: who is transmitting it, and on behalf of whom? For what purposes? On what ideological backdrop? And whom precisely is it meant at? In the same way, reading a Wikipedia entry is not enough to grasp the workings of diffused knowledge and collective intelligence, just as the mere download of a song doesn't tell us anything about authors' rights, the role of the artist, and the circulation of culture.
Thirdly, there is an ethics challenge, as shown by the abovementioned cyber-bullismo phenomenon. We heard too few voices saying that the problem doesn't lie with YouTube and the Internet, but with the fact that we haven't yet made a clear assessment of the ethical difference between playing a cruel practical joke on a classmate, playing the same cruel joke while filming it, and playing the same cruel joke while filming it and then putting it online for the cruel pleasure of other people.
Strictly speaking, Convergence Culture is not a book on education, but there's a clear call to action regarding a new model of media literacy. And this is the last but not least reason that makes the appearance of this work in Italian an important event.
It should go without saying that in our country the very few programs dealing with how the youth use the Internet are all focused on security issues. Kids are taught how to protect their privacy, avoid phishing scams, filter junk-mail and spam, and react in case of bullying or attempts of enticement. Moreover, kids are provided information on the consequences of violations such as illegal sharing, download and/or publication of copyrighted content.
Nobody seems to be able to start a serious discourse on the digital competences that form the social, cultural and professional education of inviduals nowadays. The Participation Age opened up by the Net is full of promises (active citizenship, critical consumption, widespread creativity, collective intelligence, shared knowledge), but if we take it for granted and expect to see it rising like the sun of dawn, the dream will become its opposite and generate a new, vast mass of excluded people.
1. Sandokan, an unbelievably popular 1970's TV movie, based on the ultra-famous pirate novels by Emilio Salgari. An Italian production with an international cast, it was filmed mainly in Indonesia.
2. TG4 is the evening news program of Rete 4, a TV channel owned by media mogul and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. It may be compared to Fox News programs, although it's more trashy than its American counterparts.
3. Francesco Totti is the most popular Italian soccer player, with a reputation of being ill-educated and inarticulate, to the extent that funny jokes about him have sprung up like mushrooms since the late 1990's. He showed considerable self-irony when he sponsored and prefaced a book collection of said jokes which became a huge success.
Henry Jenkins, Cultura convergente, Apogeo, Milan, translated by Vincenzo Susca and Maddalena Papacchioli, ISBN 978-88-503-2629-7, € 22