Blog Post

Interface Seminar: Jenkins and Convergence Culture

Henry Jenkins, the renown cultural theorist from MIT, is visiting Duke for a few days currently and we are inviting him to our Interface Seminar. We?ve just read a few chapters from his ?Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide,? and I have to admit it?s a fascinating reading.

However, there are some caveats. First, the main thrust of this work seems to be to, from various new and old media sources, to provide a series of extended examples for Pierre Levy?s book ?Collective Intelligence.? For those unfamiliar with the general thrust of Pierre Levy?s rather prophetic (it was written in 1994) book, Jenkins might be more difficult to understand. However, due to the general preponderance of Levy?s ideas on collective intelligence in our culture, the material is accessible. The second problem, and the part I found most difficult, was simply coping with Henry Jenkins two examples: the popular TV show ?Survivor? and the media enterprise of the ?Matrix.? As someone who hasn?t of their own free will watched television is years, and one who has watched Matrix movies, I admit that I found the examples did not resonate with me at all, as while I fit the target audience of these conglomerates, I steadfastedly refuse to participate in what Jenkins entitles their ?co-creation.?

Back to Jenkins? Quoting Levy, Jenkin?s slogan is ?No one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity,? and Jenkins is interested in how plays out in new and old media. While trying to spoil ?Survivor? by releasing its victor?s information on the Web ahead of its official release may seem like a ridiculous waste of time, Jenkins points out: ?Play is one of the ways we learn, and during a period of reskilling and reorientation, such play may be much more important than it seems at first glance.? Indeed, he contrasts this collective intelligence used to gather and share information about who is going to win a game show contrasts widely with the ?expert paradigm, which ?requires a bounded body of knowledge, which an individual can master.

The types of questions that thrive in a collective intelligence, however, are open ended and profoundly interdisciplinary, they slide and slide across borders and draw on the combined knowledge of a more diverse community. This ?popular epistemology? becomes incredibly interesting, as from now on it?s not just what you know but how you got to the information (the very research questions Deborah McGuiness of Stanford, who recently visited Duke, is trying to create the technical infrastructure to solve). Also, new moral questions are being risen by this era of information, such as the right of people to not know information. And let us not forget: Obviously traditional disciplinary academia is the very definition of the expert paradigm, which does leave us with the unsettling question: ?Is traditional academia on the way out?to be replaced with web-based bulletin boards?? Perhaps that is just the wrong constitutive question.

Jenkins then moves on to understand post-Benjamin art in the age of collective intelligence. He defines the new type of story-telling exemplified by the Matrix as a transmedia story, which ?unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole.? In particular, Jenkins notes that ?More and more, storytelling has become the art of world-building,? The ?Matrix? transmedia story is an ideal example, because the entire story unfolds not only in the movies, but in video-games, anime short films, web games, comics, and so on; thus the key to understanding the entire trilogy is to actually consume all this media and discover their interlinking connections. This in turn produces a rabid ?fan? base who thrive off finding these connections, and become the transmedia brand?s most loyal consumers. Jenkins claimed that part of the reason why the second and third ?Matrix? movie got such uniformly bad reviews is that ?dew of them [the movie reviewers] consumed the games or comics of animated shorts, and as a consequence, few absorbed the essential information they contained." So the Matrix requires collective intelligence to even understand.

However, is there a fan base outside college students with time on their hands and new media theorists for the ?Matrix?? As Jenkins puts it, does transmedia ?demand way too much effort for ?Joe Popcorn,? for the harried mom or the working stiff who has just snuggled onto the couch after a hard day at the office.? Critics like Richard Corliss ?asked his readers, ?Is Joe Popcorn supposed to carry a Matrix concordance in his head?? The answer is no, but "Joe Popcorn" can pool his knowledge with some other fans and build a collective concordance on the Internet.? In this brilliant response, Jenkins shows precisely how collective intelligences moves from the aether world of ideas of Levy to the concrete material reality, and in particular, to that of money-making enterprise.

As Fred Jameson once put it, cultural studies ? such studying the ?Matrix? ? are both profoundly irrelevant and relevant at the same time. They are irrelevant because they are after all, nothing more than movies (or more) out to make a quick buck off our leisure time, and not nearly as pressing as a concern as say, the current dire situation in Iraq or climate change. Yet they are relevant because these movies and forms are often thinking in pictures of what may ? and to some extent already is ? our very real future of collective intelligence. I do remember Cathy Davidson saying something about putting the Iraq War Study Group?s report online somewhere for collective exegesis?


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