The Limits of Convergence

Mule. Public domain.
Yesterday, August 21, 2013, marked the failure of the most successful crowdfunding
campaign in US history.

How can that be? The campaign raised more than $12 million in pledges, easily topping the previous leader by nearly $2 million. So how did it fail? Its goal was $32 million.

It didn't just fail. It failed big.

You can read about the particulars here.

So why did it fail? The linked article from ZDNet names a fundamental issue: an untenable reliance on the principle of convergence.

The device seeking the funding was to be a smartphone that contained both a smartphone and a full computer operating system on board. Held in your hand, it was a smartphone. But plugged into a keyboard, mouse and screen, or even just a screen (the phone itself could still be used as a keyboard and touch device for navigation) it became a PC running a fully featured open source operating system.

The whole idea was convergence. Why carry around a laptop, a phone, and a tablet when you could carry just one phone-sized device that could effectively do what all three do. Such convergence has already happened to some degree between laptops and phones in the form of tablets and "phablets," but only by compromising the PC experience considerably. With few exceptions, you can't do everything on a tablet you can on a PC. (Microsoft's Surface Pro comes the closest to blurring this line completely). So you still kind of need all three devices, or at least two of them (Surface Pro and a phone).

But this device would be different. It would be fully a smartphone with a reasonably sized screen you could still carry in your pocket, and fully a PC, doing everything a PC could do. It promised full convergence on a single device, eliminating the need for tablets and PCs entirely.

Well, yes. But also no.

Here's the deal.

As soon as you plugged in the peripherals, the phone became a PC, and no longer a phone. And as soon as you unplugged them, it became a phone, and not a PC. It was both devices in the same device, but it was not possible to multi-task between the devices simultaneously, as you could if you had both a phone and a PC. You would have to stop it being a PC to get information from the phone, or use it as a phone, and you would have to stop it being a phone to get information from the PC, or use it as a PC.

Okay, so let's say you actually could use it as a phone and as a PC at once. Let's say you didn't have to unplug it to access the phone OS and the PC OS were still running at the same time, maybe in a separate window. You've still got a mobile phone that's hard to use as a mobile phone because if it's in PC mode, it's, well, plugged in!

In other words, the problem isn't just technical.

It's fundamental.

As fundamental as the genetics that almost always prevent mules (hybrids of donkeys and horses) from reproducing.

Convergence done this way just doesn't work.

That's because it fails to take into account how people actually use the various devices in relationship to each other-- what each device is actually for. We use both phones and PCs (and sometimes tablets) all at once to do different things also all at once. If we're working on significant documents, the PC is our primary device, and we might use the phone or tablet as an ancillary device to handle other tasks (talking to people, checking email or Facebook, replying to a text, or doing a quick search, for example). Despite all we've been told about the dangers of media multi-tasking (which are considerable), we still expect to be able to multi-task, and such multi-tasking is far more efficient when we're doing sufficiently different tasks on separate devices specialized for those tasks.

It's kind of like trying to converge congregations and discipling groups into an "all in one" package.

Congregations are typically best at things like public worship, teaching basic doctrine, creating systems of care for each other, and being a trusted institutional partner and player in the community. They can do all of these things and fulfill their public role of welcoming and including all who wish to participate.

Discipling groups (or here) are specialized in highly accountable relationships that lead, encourage, and even challenge people to grow in discipleship and holiness of heart and life in ways congregations can't do while also being "public." 

As the Wesleys knew and practiced, we actually need both to be running concurrently. That's why they hadn't allowed societies to celebrate sacraments (the work of congregations), nor did they expect congregations to focus much on intensive formation for holy living (what the societies did through society meetings, class meetings and bands). Trying to converge these two different, yet related, kinds of Christian communities with two different, yet related, aims and capacities, ultimately turns out not to work all that well for either, nor especially for the "end user"-- the disciple of Jesus Christ who seeks to grow in holiness of heart and life by attending upon all the ordinances of God. 

We need them both-- each doing its particular thing well, with some overlap here and there perhaps, but no attempt by either to confuse its mission for the mission of the other.

We did get a lot of people by trying convergence as Methodists for maybe a century in the US, from roughly 1840-1940. In fact, we were the largest Protestant denomination(s) in the land, often by far, for quite a few of those years. Though we lost that place during and after WW II, we regained it in the union that created The United Methodist Church in 1968.

Yes, we had more people than anyone. In fact, more people than any American Protestant denomination in history.

But was it any more of an actual success, if the goal of missional Methodism was missed?