The Futures of Entertainment conference is one of those all-too-rare events at which almost everybody is out of their element. Launched through MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program by Convergence Culture author Henry Jenkins, the event brings together academics, marketers and media types to discuss the changing relationships between media, brands and audiences.

In a clash of civilizations, academics are forced to explain how their research applies to the real world, while industry folks have to elevate their jargon beyond 140-character sound bites. Last weekend this made for some fascinating, multichannel and at times contentious debate – a rarity at most industry events, where groupthink tends to prevail.

Here are some key takeaways from the event.

Semantics matter (can we move beyond semantics?)

Let’s start with the name of the event itself. The web is so overloaded with prognostications about “the future of” this or that (especially at the end of the year) that it’s refreshing to see the word “future” in its plural form, an acknowledgement that any  – and, more likely, every – outcome is possible.

The use of the word “entertainment” over, say, “content” or “media” probably has something to do with the fact that FoE is closely aligned with the University of Southern California (where Jenkins is now based) and that its sister event is called Transmedia Hollywood.

But emphasizing entertainment is also an important reminder for content folks that all media – from journalism, to sports, to film – is ultimately created for an audience and “is only as valuable as the people it touches,” as Frontline’s Andrew Golis put it during a panel on “the futures of public media.”

Members of the panel “From Participatory Culture to Political Participation” discuss how tools like social media are changing politics and activism.

Semantics ­came up over and over again at FoE, especially on the event’s exclusive “backchannel,” which was projected on a screen next to the panelists and on the public backchannel known as Twitter. A conversation about “the ethics and politics of curation” with Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova became a discussion about the difference between curation and aggregation.

A panel made up of three young creators of online video content about issues like economics, marriage equality and Islamophobia was bombarded with questions about why they refused to label their work “activism.” At one point, one apparently fed up audience member posted on the backchannel:

Everybody’s an expert

Speaking of the backchannel, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an event where the level of audience conversation consistently matched and often surpassed that of the “experts” at the front of the room. Maybe this just happened to be a particularly erudite Cambridge crowd, but I think it was more than that. I think that people are starting to question the nature of expertise itself.

This was addressed in a session called “Curing the Shiny New Object Syndrome,” which featured a particularly eclectic mix of academic theory and industry wisdom. At one point, Social Media Examiner’s Jason Falls suggested that one way for brands to avoid wasting time and resources on trendy but ineffective social networks is to rely on a network of influencers, or what Chris Brogan and Julien Smith call “trust agents.”

But Eden Medina, an Associate Professor at Indiana University, suggested that the “professionalization” of the expert as a way of “demarcating” a specific career path (which I presume involves some combination of consulting, speaking, book authorship, etc.) has a long and complex history.

Panelists discuss the the “shiny new object syndrome.”

In other words, there’s no guarantee that we can trust professional thought leaders any more than we can trust venture capitalists, whom AT&T AdWorks Lab’s David Polinchock and several backchannel commenters accused of self-servingly perpetuating much of the hype over the web’s doomed “shiny new objects” (Color, ChatRoulette and Augmented Reality apps were a few of the objects mentioned in the discussion).

Instead, Falls and others suggested companies invest in “labs teams” made up of people whose job it is to experiment with and assess new technologies. If I were to put on my expert cap I’d predict that we’re going to see more brands and agencies boasting their own internal incubators and think tanks with various degrees of independence.

During a networking break, I spoke to someone who works at Cambridge-based Microsoft Research (also the home of respected media pundit Danah Boyd) who is studying the arcane art of slapstick video game comedy (!). I suggested he is practicing “branded academia” and he enthusiastically agreed. Is this the a future of entertainment/content? Watch this space.

New media is old

The most heated session of the event ­­– by far – was a conversation with T Bone Burnett, the legendary music producer behind the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and albums by the likes of Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson.

Burnett flew in from Nashville with a clear mission: to convince this crowd of new media elites that the American music industry is under siege and to enlist them in the fight against online piracy.

“Recorded music,” argued Burnett, “is to the U.S. what wine is to France”: America’s greatest cultural ambassador. He called multimillionaire Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom, who was arrested in New Zealand for copyright infringement earlier this year but who remains a folk hero in some circles, an “organized criminal.”

He told the audience that “it’s stupid for the tech community” – which he perceives as sympathetic to copyright infringers ­– “to attack the arts.”

T Bone Burnett (left) discusses the merits of copyright in the digital age.

Predictably, the FoE audience pushed back against Burnett, accusing him of clinging to an outdated business model and urging him to focus on solutions instead of “whining” about the past, as one questioner put it.

But Burnett’s position was more nuanced than that. He acknowledged that record companies had been “idiots” to pursue individual downloaders with punishing lawsuits. He suggested the industry move away from “copyrights” and toward “transaction rights.”

Burnett said he doesn’t have a problem with individuals sharing music with their peers. His beef is with the likes of Kim Dotcom who are making their fortunes off musicians’ labour while “sucking billions out of our culture.”

I’ve long believed that the music industry bears much of the blame for its decline over the past decade, having failed to anticipate the digital disruption and to adapt its distribution model accordingly.

But I couldn’t help sympathizing with Burnett’s plea on behalf of the musicians and sound engineers who, as he put it, are seeing the door to a music career “closing behind them.”

In one particularly heated exchange with Mauricio Mota, one of the organizers of the conference, Burnett turned the tables on the tech crowd and accused them of living in the past.

The ethics of the internet, Burnett argued, didn’t develop with modern technologies like streaming music, bit torrent and high-speed bandwidth in mind. And though I’m a fan of Mota, I have to say that his equation of high-tech pirates like Kim Dotcom with “fat cat” record label executives did seem a bit dated.

Web pundits like to remind people that “it’s still early days” and, in the grand scheme of things, that’s certainly true. But it’s not that early.

The web was invented seven U.S. presidential terms and 16 Neil Young albums ago. If we’re going to find solutions to problems that, in the end, everyone agrees on (in this case, making sure artists are paid for their art), maybe it’s time to move beyond outdated narratives and caricatures.

If we’re going to build the future(s) of entertainment, we’re going to have to let go of the past.

Photos by Joey Tanny. For more photos, check out our album on Facebook.