Box 1.1 Meaning of Convergence

We have been applying the term "convergence" to the major information, electronics, and communications industries with increasing fervor for over three decades, going back to the work and ideas coming out of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other places in the 1960s. It is time to deal more gingerly with the term. What do we really mean by convergence? What is it shorthand for? A flurry of mergers and alliances? The common use of bits? Or is there something more fundamental to it than that? Jacob Bronowski warned of the classical error of regarding a scientific law as only shorthand for its instances. His caveat may apply here.

In mathematics, convergence is the property or process of approaching a limiting value. That meaning of the term appears the exact opposite of the wildfire of innovation expected from the convergence of industries dealt with in this report.

In physiology, convergence refers to a coordinated turning of the eyes inward to focus on an object at close range. Once again, we are confronted with a meaning that is antithetic to the far-reaching and long-range changes in thinking and behavior that we all expect.

In biology, convergence refers to the adaptive evolution of superficially similar structures in unrelated species exposed to similar environments. This meaning may be closer to what digital convergence may entail.

More superficially, convergence may simply mean a meeting ground, or a process of coming together, for example, a place where two rivers join.

SOURCE: Adapted from Martin Greenberger, University of California at Los Angeles, personal communication, July 30, 1994.

Underlying digital convergence are advances in computer hardware, telecommunications systems, and software. The unifying element is digital technology, which reduces all information to a binary code of 1s and 0s. Whereas computers and software have been digital for decades, audio and video technologies have only recently begun to go digital. Once information has a digital representation, different forms can be blended together (although digitization is not sufficient for such integration, which depends on the structures imposed on the bits) and, eventually, transmitted by wire, fiber, or wireless means. Thus, digitized material can be defined by what it does rather than the medium on which it is transported, stored, or used. Moreover, digital devices can be programmed, something that allows them to be more than passive receivers of information. A current realization of digital convergence is associated with "interactive multimedia" products; see Box 1.2.

Digital convergence could build on, blend, and redirect the functions, products, and cultures of many existing industries. Although sales figures for existing industries are neither directly comparable nor additive, they give an indication of the potential economic impact: catalogue shopping ($70 billion in current annual U.S. revenues; WWD, 1994),1 broadcast advertising (currently $27 billion; Turner,

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