How Steve Jobs Solved The Black Box Fallacy

— Written by Vitus Bachhausen —

Back in 2006, in his eye-opening book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Henry Jenkins explained the mechanism of convergence as the shaping factor of our post-modern media culture. And he has at least one complaint about that: Old forms of media content, that have been satisfying consumers’ needs for years, are now being digitally squeezed to fit into a new dress (Jenkins, 2008). And apparently, in Jenkins’ eyes, it is not always an appealing one:

“Call me old-fashioned. The other week I wanted to buy a cell phone—you know, to make phone calls. I didn’t want a video camera, a still camera, a Web access device, an mp3 player, or a game system. I also wasn’t interested in something that could show me movie previews, would have customizable ring tones, or would allow me to read novels. I didn’t want the electronic equivalent of a Swiss army knife. When the phone rings, I don’t want to have to figure out which button to push. I just wanted a phone.”

Well, ironically, only one year after the first publication of Convergence Culture, on a stage in San Francisco, a man wearing a turtle neck, makes a joke about Jenkins’ despised Black Box — and the punch line of this joke would change the world forever:

The iPhone was born and instantly revolutionised the world it was born into. Admittedly, there have already been so called “smart phones” out there, but, as Steve Jobs joyfully stressed, “the problem is that they’re not so smart and they’re not so easy to use”.

smartphones.jpeg

Steve Jobs reinventing the smart phone.

That is why, in the aftermath of the iPhone introduction in 2007, many were critical of the self-proclaimed messiah of convergence. Matt Rosoff of CNET, for instance, asked (Rosoff, 2007):

“The real question: can the iPhone break the convergence rule? That rule, proven time and time again, is that consumers (not necessarily businesses) prefer products with one primary function over products with multiple equally weighted functions. It’s OK to add a secondary function that doesn’t get in the way–adding an inexpensive camera to a cell phone, for instance. But as soon as you try to combine two previously separate devices, consumers react with indifference at best.”

Obviously, time has proven him wrong. Ever since, people like to describe the iPhone as the first real smartphone. But why? What change has it brought about? The iPhone is called the first real smartphone exactly because it solved Jenkins’ Black Box Fallacy. Finally, distinct media were converged within one device that actually functioned as a Black Box. “It works like magic”, claims Apple’s magician-in-chief Steve Jobs, hitting the nail right on the head. In order to provide a product that convincingly converges distinct media within one, you need to act like a magician with a black box: Make believe! The success of the iPhone ever since is due to the brilliant witchcraft of its interface. We ooh and ahh at the magic trick performed in front of us exactly because we just can’t make out how it can possibly work so easily. If you want to satisfy consumers’ needs, you must protect the secret of the Platonic cave. And I’m sure that, by now, Henry Jenkins won’t “have to figure out which button to push” if he receives the next call on his Black Box.

References

Arthur, C. (2012). The history of smartphones: timeline. The Guardian. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/jan/24/smartphones-timeline [Accessed 06 February 2017].

Jenkins, H. (2008). Convergence Culture: Where Old Media and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 1-24.

N2TechGeeks (2013). [HD] Steve Jobs – iPhone Introduction in 2007 (Complete). YouTube. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hUIxyE2Ns8 [Accessed 06 February 2017].

Rosoff, M. (2007). Will iPhone break the convergence rule? CNET. Available from https://www.cnet.com/news/will-iphone-break-the-convergence-rule/ [Accessed 06 February 2017].

Further Reading

Meyer, R. (2016). How Smartphones Will Become Unboring. The Atlantic. Available from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/03/how-smartphones-will-become-unboring/475503/ [Accessed 06 February 2017].

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