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The Editor's Spin: The Dangling Conversation
Posted Oct 1, 2002 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Back in college I took a survey course called "Introduction to Afro-American History." From all reports it was a great class, and came with only one caveat: watch out for the professor's notoriously "lacerating wit." I first felt the sting of that lash roughly five minutes into the first session via a succinct, sardonic sales pitch called "Five Reasons to Take This Class." I remember only the kicker:
"Reason Number 5: Cocktail party conversation. Let's say years from now you encounter a black person at a social gathering and need a conversation starter. With this class under your belt, you can say, ‘So, did you hear about slavery?'"

Right about then I looked around the room and realized I'd be learning black history in a lecture hall full of white people. I'd estimate the white/black ratio at roughly 120:5. Six, if you count the professor.

At the time I probably squirmed a bit, forced a laugh, and shook it off. Years later, I began to understand the irony he was underscoring—a black man in America teaching black history to 120 white kids at a school that trumpeted its "diversity." Effectively, he was saying, "You've got a whole semester to learn the history of what it is that makes our situation here so strange—don't spend that time forgetting what that means to you and me, here and now. Don't be afraid to ask the question: ‘What am I doing here? Do I belong here? And if I stay, what am I going to do with what I learn? Pass an exam? Raise my GPA? Pad my liberal credential file? Make absurd small talk that only accentuates the gulf between worlds that stand apart? Or pursue something as yet undefinable—or perhaps more concrete?' "

Fourteen years later I don't have the answers, but I'm mighty glad I've got the questions. Sometimes I find myself asking similar questions about the glut of information I encounter as editor of EMedia, the so-called revolutions and evolutions that fill the pages of this magazine. Distilling all that information, categorizing it, and presenting it with some measure of perspective and coherence, is most of what we do here. Though much of our task is to spread the word about DVD, digital video, and all the technologies of the digital studio, we also do a great deal of preaching to the choir. It's not that I imagine our readership as a monolithic bloc that would characterize the industry exactly as we do, or agree with everything we write (as if all our writers agree with each other). But we're all part of the same world. We've all cast our lot with digital video, DVD, CD-R, or streaming media, or engaged with it in some way that precipitates our engagement with EMedia.

That doesn't mean we all bring the same preconceptions to it, or use the technology in the same way, but—like 120 white college students gathered to study black history—we've all chosen to be here for fairly similar reasons.

And if I were absorbing all this information just to fill magazine pages, my intentions would rank even lower than "Assuaging Liberal Guilt" on the "Five Reasons to Study Black History" list. It's closest to "Pass an exam and tick off another credit," if only because it ignores the most important implications of all those "What Will I Do with What I Learn?" questions.

Which is to say I find it quite informative and even jarring when my job finds its way into cocktail party conversation with the uninitiated. And when I say "uninitiated," I don't mean unsophisticated or technophobic—simply not part of this ongoing EMedia dialogue, outside of the professional digital studio whirl. I found myself in such a situation at the closing reception of a friend's art show, in a conversation with the father of the artist. Our discussion bounced from topic to topic—textile art to Wisconsin geography to Bruce Springsteen to what North Carolinians put on their hot dogs—before landing on EMedia. I described the subject matter, our professional audience, and—with more than a touch of hollow truism—our mission to stay a step or two ahead of the digital studio pros who are a step or two ahead of everyone else.

He followed up with the logical question: "So what do you see from up there, four steps ahead?"

Twelve years out of academia, I knew he didn't want an answer awash in the argot of my field. Still, I found myself painstakingly and sincerely articulating a DVD-heavy version of consumer electronic convergence. I predicted that all the forms of entertainment and communication that have migrated independently to our homes—movies (Hollywood and home-made), digital photos, pay and time-shifted broadcast, and the Internet—will increasingly converge around high-definition TV, powered by broadband access, video-on-demand services, DVD-like discs, and PVRs like Tivo.

And in particular, that one can increasingly see how even something as controversial as Tivo—which threatens to erode TV's advertising-based profit model—will fit, as the popular and critical success of pay-TV shows like The Sopranos demonstrate where the production side of television is headed.

I'm not saying I like talking shop at cocktail parties, but sometimes it's worthwhile to translate the shop talk into something that plays outside the shop. And where else am I going to argue passionately for sofa-side electronic convergence? Certainly not in circles where such talk was played out years ago, or in the show-me state of a hardlining technology magazine.

But you never know when that played-out shop talk will come in handy, any more than you know what—or who—you might someday find in your living room.

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