This was the question that Jenn Mathews, President of EmMeCon Inc invited all presenters to address at the first Emerging Media Conference held in Seattle on June 19-20. The intimacy engendered by the size of this event encourages discussion during and between presentations. Thought leaders and entrepreneurs mixed it up with attendees while conversing about the many themes that materialized during the question-and-answer segments.

So, where are we going? The answer, in as much as there was one, was telegraphed in that simple query.

From Telegraphs to The Jetsons

Speaking of telegraphs, emcee Laura Lippay kicked off the event with a look back at how bad we’ve been at predicting technological advances, which turned out to be a recurring theme touched on by a number of presenters on both days. Her reflections included a walk through early 20th century illustrations credited to Villemard and a number of now infamous quotes about the prospective failure of such ubiquitous technologies as the telegraph and telephone services.

She was the first but by no means the last to make reference to The Jetsons, the 1960s era cartoon that opens with images of a stereotypical white American family in 2062. Gillian Muessig, the founding president of SEOmoz, challenged us to imagine much further into the future than that. She posed questions about what might life be like when we are no longer so divided by where we live, how much we earn, and what language we speak. Her talk segued into a discussion about homogeneity and diversity, community and collaboration, and how emerging technologies will continue to facilitate disruption of bureaucracies in government and business.

Public education and disaster response are two systems ripe for the creative destruction that increased connectedness makes possible. Another is mass media and communications. Though it’s been predicted for over a decade, the demise of the daily newspaper and weekly magazine as we once knew it is finally happening. Meanwhile, access to cheaper and easy-to-use content production tools make anyone with a smartphone, digital camera, or tablet computer into content creators. Making, sharing, and interacting with a proliferation of information are already shifting how innovation happens.

Crowdsourcing Innovation

Scott Porad, CTO of Pet Holdings (the parent company of such popular sites as I Can Has Cheezburger? and Fail Blog), posited that the internet hasn’t really changed what we communicate but rather how. User-generated content has been around since the printing press made daily publication of news possible. Citizen-journalists could write in to the editor to be published in the paper. The amateur cinematographer submitted video clips, first on tape and later in digital form, to news and entertainment distribution channels as fast as they could get hands on enabling tools. Now, recording a video or podcast is as simple as tapping a “record it” button on a free app. And such recordings can be shared mere moments later to hundreds or thousands of others online. The new challenge for most is finding what’s relevant in news or entertainment quickly and easily. Scott opined that though some companies do a decent job of programmatically filtering digital content, new roles are emerging for humans to act as expert curators as the onslaught of content creation continues.

Another speaker looking at this problem from a different angle showed us how volunteers facilitated from afar the work of those on the ground responding to disastrous events. Pascal Schuback, the Seattle City Lead for CrisisCommons, did this while weaving references to both zombies and Mr. Rogers into the same presentation. He spoke of the challenges in convincing governments to invest in using new technologies to monitor for and react to crises. In spite of budgetary and governance concerns, first responders and operational support teams are already adapting practices to leverage real-time citizen reporting. CrisisCamp, first held in Washington DC in 2009, has led to numerous successes including creation of a hack to expand long distance Wi-Fi connectivity in Haiti; coordination of volunteer support in response to crises in Pakistan, Thailand, and the Gulf Coast; and a growing list of CrisisCamp communities around the world.

Curating Education

A crisis of another sort has been brewing for a few decades and promises to continue grabbing headlines as the political season really heats up in the United States: public education. From concerns about the rising costs of post-high-school degrees to the effectiveness of having a core curriculum, few would argue that some change is not needed. Two thought leaders at EmMeCon, James Portnow and Greg Bamford, tackled the topic of learning, each touching on the dangers of relying on current or past educational standards for designing tomorrow’s classroom experience. Using a goals-based history of the public education system in the United States, James identified the skills that 21st century students need most: teamwork, lateral thinking, and creativity. Greg expanded on these ideas by drawing on his experience as both an English teacher and an executive for a digital agency. His talk examined the potential to revolutionize learning from within the context of two competing ideas of how students gain knowledge.

Both James and Greg considered how having easy and immediate access to information could change the way that students learn. Already some educational games require players to use the internet to find facts and to work with others to solve riddles. Learning environments will shift to emphasizing knowledge or solution creation instead of being so heavily lecture-based. In effect, classrooms will become more like labs or design camps. The role of teachers must evolve as well. Instead of focusing on coaching students to pass tests, they will become the curators of experience-based learning. More and more they will be tasked with creating structured group projects intended to allow students to encourage creativity, practice lateral thinking, and gain experience working with different teams.

Augmenting Reality

A social scientist and specialist in usability David Evans, CEO of Psychster, predicts that the next big shift in adoption of emerging media will be not what it is but where it is. In-car, in-home, in-store, and in-accessory computing being the next wave is an idea repeated by Lynne D Johnson, Director of Digital + Social at Waggener Edstrom. Imagine having your car dashboard be a display. Or what if your smartphone would chirp to prompt you to read reviews from those in your social networks about a product you are holding while shopping in a big box store. These types of augmented reality (AR) scenarios are not that far off. Goggles designed to help skiers or swimmers perform better have already caused some controversy in the Olympics. Yet, multiple smart refrigerators have been introduced and later been deemed to be commercial failures since 1998. Though many advances, culturally and in the marketplace, have occurred in the ensuing 10-15 years, success for AR products still depends on market readiness and demand.

Lynne and David also challenged us to consider the downsides of AR in everyday life. Virtual “airspace” is currently unregulated and AR devices could become littered with advertisements. Designs of user interfaces continue to evolve and we will no doubt encounter new dangers as augmented products begin to be accepted on a mass market level. Those risks may come from the interfaces directly, from our distraction while using them, or from how such products are manufactured and disposed of. Novel uses for geolocation caused some attendees to ask about the potential for abuse and a further erosion of privacy in a more connected world. Despite health and humanitarian concerns, however, both speakers predicted we will see more products and services combining AR-enhanced devices with social networking and internet communication capabilities in a not-so-distant future.

Destination “We”?

Gamification. Collaboration. Augmented Reality. Even some very speculative discussions about technologies currently being researched and developed couldn’t fully address the question at the center of this conference. Inventors and entrepreneurs still must first figure out that thing we didn’t know we needed and create it. Politicians, legislators, and civic leaders still grapple with privacy and safety concerns as technological advancement marches forward.

Generations from now will humanity look like the “one big brain” or more like that iconic 2062 family, The Jetsons? We can’t possibly predict with any more certainty than Villemard did.

What is clear is that today’s emerging media makes possible new ways to put our curiosity, collaboration, and community to work.