The Future of Media: What Does it Look Like?

“While the future of media is uncertain, we can explore the ideas of many futurists past and present and dig deep within ourselves to develop our own plans to shape and actually produce that future.” – Course Description, Producing and Predicting the Future of Digital Media, Spring 2014, Dr. Lance Porter

Nested Sustainability. Created in Photoshop, based on "Sustainable development" diagram at Cornell Sustainability Campus. by Iacchus, Sunray, Wiki.

This is not your typical course. After a bit of introduction on the first day of class, all students were prompted to journal their personal reactions these questions:

  • Where do you experience a world that is dying?
  • Where do you experience a world that is beginning / wanting to be born?

Without much of an idea as to what these questions meant, I wrote the following:

“I experience a world that is dying in an egoistic, ‘take as much as you can’ society. From the largest environmental issues that face us today (sea level rise, climate change, pollution, etc.) to issues associated with over-personalization of mass media, and knowledge constructed according to individual ‘versions’ of truth… it’s simply the case that our society is no longer sustainable on egoistic motives alone. Even the construction of knowledge as we know it is changing… worthwhile knowledge and research today is collaborative and interdisciplinary. Copyrighted content is slowly giving way to open source content. Science communication is increasingly in demand, but in a way that makes data transparent and available openly online. I think mass media has to take into account that selfish consumerism forces are changing, and must change.”

Without having read or even heard of our first required textbook of this course (Scharmer & Kaufer’s Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies), I here tapped into several of the book’s essential points. I think this gives credence to Scharmer & Kaufer’s proposition that eco-system economies are the future that many leaders today subconsciously have at their fingertips, but can’t yet grasp.

What is the eco-system economy? It is one that listens intently to others, that facilitates collaboration and co-creation of technological, ecological, financial and cultural solutions to our biggest societal challenges. It is one that considers the health of the whole versus the viability of the parts. It is one that walks in other people’s shoes, and protects valuable natural resources. It is not bounded by egoistic goals, but is open-minded. It is less focused on material consumption than sustainability and closed-loop design.

“The emerging 4.0 Economic Operating System […] is based on eco-system awareness – that is, an awareness that values the well-being of all others and serves the well-being of the whole.” - Scharmer & Kaufer

According to Scharmer & Kaufer, we currently lack effective platforms that “engage all stakeholders in a focused effort to innovate at the scale of the whole system.” Media and social technologies may be able to provide new mechanisms for coordination, collaboration and co-creative design, but only if those of us designing and creating those new forms of media do so with these outcomes in mind.

“In order to step into this emerging 4.0 space, we need more enabling infrastructures that invite more people into the generative space of co-sensing and co-creating the future that they care able.” - Scharmer & Kaufer

Which brings me back to my original journal answer to the question “Where do you experience a world that is beginning / wanting to be born?”

“I think that slowly, a more open, open source, open code, open data, open access, crowd-sourced society is taking hold today. The idea of keeping knowledge to oneself for personal gain should die. Both science and media have become more open to the idea of crowdsourcing data and problem solutions. Valuable scientific research is no longer a one-person, or one-lab, job. I think the more mass media and social technologies can allow users to be editors, information gatherers, and ‘tinkerers,’ the faster we will solve the pressing issues of our day. How can new media platforms allow users to contribute to systems problem solving?”

I don’t know the answer to that final question, but it seems to me that more creativity-enabling media platforms are the wave of the future.

Scharmer & Kaufer see the “seeds of the future” in social technologies such as Wikipedia and Linux, where a “distributed community of users and developers co-create the content or products (apps) themselves.” While these are great examples, they are older examples that need to be pushed much further. For example, while Linux theoretically does allow all users to be co-creators and co-authors of the technology, there are certainly barriers to entry. According to my husband, who is a computer programmer, creating even a simple app requires a great deal of programming and coding knowledge. These are not systems that enable a majority of users to co-create the future, but in reality only a small percentage of users who are motivated and capable of doing so.

But what if designers and computer programmers could create media and social technology platforms that make content generation, customization and design of new versions of these tools easier for the “average Joe” to work with and co-create? Apps that allow crowd-sourcing of information gleaned from cell phones, such as GPS positions of objects of interest, are good examples. Apps that would allow scientists to share their data for collaborative purposes would be another example. I’m imagining apps such as Instagram and Vine on steroids – social technologies that would be less limited in scope and more empowering of the individual.

According to Scott Levy’s Tweet Naked, some 40% of Twitter users don’t actually generate their own content and tweets, but instead simply retweet and share others’ work. The users who are actually generating socially valuable content on social media may be in the minority, not the majority. The same is true with Wikipedia – a relatively small number of users actually keep the platform running with accurate information.

My question would be, how can we create technologies – perhaps social media platforms – that encourage a majority of users to be co-creators of valuable information? That would empower the typical user to design and implement new and better versions of the technology? That would allow experts to open source their knowledge and scientific data? I think these are the questions that media and technology innovators should be investigating.