Future Media Fest: Recap – Public, Private, or Corporate?

The Future Media Fest emphasized, for me, the increasing tension between the public sphere and private enterprise or, in other words, the struggle between corporate profit and public good over the move to more collective forms of identity. In my first post, on the Startup Technology Showcase, I looked at several new applications and suggested possible uses for them in the digital classroom. However, I also noted the willingness of several of the vendors to use private information to help fund private enterprise. Most distressing was the example of Cardlytics which accesses personal bank information to deliver purchasing information to businesses and coupons to consumers. While the delivery of personalized coupons to one’s credit card might seem to be a useful consumer service, the fact that a company like Cardlytics can get access to bank information without the “opt-in” approval of individual consumers is disturbing. It also signals to me the degree to which public consciousness is not yet operating at the level of the ambition of corporate entrepreneurs.

I became even more firmly convinced of the future political struggle over collective identity when I wrote about the Social Media panel in Who’s Afraid of Collective Intelligence?. Several of the panelists had it completely right: it is important to know how intelligent or wise the crowds can be. As Howard Rheingold says about smart mobs, for example, “[s]udden epidemics of cooperation aren’t necessarily pleasant experiences. Lynch mobs and entire nations cooperate to perpetuate atrocities” (175). Smart mobs and collective intelligence can be unbelievably dumb. Yet they can also be powerful. Unfortunately, the panelists had very little to say about the opportunities of audiences to take more control over the products and services being delivered by businesses and media corporations. Collective intelligence, in the hands of a capable and media-literate public, can fundamentally challenge the mass culture model of funding that ensures the perpetuation of large media conglomerates. As I mentioned in a Tweet during the “Future of Advertising and Marketing Panel,” “let’s talk about education and empowerment.” I would have liked an emphasis on both topics in most of the panels I went to during the week.

Finally, the “Digital Media Skills” had a refreshing emphasis on communication, but lacked a connection between communication and the public as I stressed in “Digital Media Skills for Citizens? Workers?.” Despite the attempt by Rebecca Burnett to discuss public funding, public communication, and the need for a public debate over the future of copyright, most of the panelists were more interested in emphasizing the importance of communication for students looking for jobs in the private sector. Such a discussion is undeniably important, especially during this time of economic uncertainty. However, also important is the centrality of rhetoric and communication to the future of our democracy. In other words, what is the role of public education in teaching communication skills? Do educators like myself merely act as a vessel for career training or is there something more vital to our work that has a direct impact upon the public good?

As this year’s Future Media Fest demonstrated, we are only beginning to sort out all of the legal, philosophical and political implications of the shift from private, individual forms of identity to more public and collective ones. Two questions emerge from my thoughts about collective intelligence at the Future Media Fest. 1) Are corporations playing a more central role in defining future forms of collective identity? and if so 2) Do they have a responsibility to invest in, and help cultivate, our public democracy? Such questions, I feel, would fit into a great panel topic for next year’s conference.


Rheingold, Howard. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Basic Books, 2002.

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