SAN JOSE, CALIF. (March 11, 2009)—What are the emerging technologies that promise to change our world two, five, 10, 20 years from now? And what technologies need to be developed to solve the world’s great problems? More than a thousand self-described hackers and geeks have flocked to the eTech conference here to brainstorm them, and energy is a key theme.

Alex Steffen, the executive editor of Worldchanging, kicked off yesterday's agenda with a stark warning: “If poor people become rich like we have become rich,” warned Steffen, “we will destroy ourselves.”

The Western world became rich largely through unsustainable means—denuding forests, burning carbon stored under the Earth, extracting minerals to put into our electronics—and if the developing world does the same, argued Steffen, worldwide environmental catastrophe will ensue. He talked about “vertical emulation,” in which the poorest people in the world can see the conspicuous consumption of the richest people of the world (think Slumdog Millionaire), and how because of that the rich world needs to lead the change.

And so what change is needed? Nothing less than “every aspect of our society,” he said. We need to change how we build things, how we move things and how we feed people, just for starters. First up: “We need to get off coal and cows.” In addition he laid out a few more steps: Increased political transparency; revealed usage, in which people can monitor their energy use and environmental impact; true cost taxation, which is essentially a financial tax on carbon tied to the price of its true social and environmental costs; a smart infrastructure (for example, the smart grid); and most important, he claimed, the construction of more dense communities.

It’s not far-fetched, he thinks, to totally redesign much of the U.S. for urban living, which uses resources far more efficiently than do car-centric communities. Because of population shifts (for example, down to the Sun Belt), immigration, and the natural churn of cities, 50 percent of the buildings that exist in 2030 will be newly built or will have been replaced since 2010. Moreover, a majority of Americans want to live in a compact community, all things being equal. What dissuades them, he said, was the perceived expense of living close to a city center. Yet if you factor in the increased costs of living in the suburbs or exurbs, it’s no more expensive than living out by the outer edges of a city, he said.

Later in the day, Gavin Starks CEO of AMEE—which declares its aim to be “to map, measure and track all the energy data on Earth”—spoke in more depth about energy usage. It takes 460kg of CO2 equivalent to make a 2.5kg laptop, and it’s that sort of information that should be labeled and made available to every consumer, Starks said. After all, it’s well known that the more people know about how much energy they use, the less they use. “We are moving to an economic age where we need to start obeying the first law of thermodynamics,” he said. “Energy can be transformed, but it can’t be created or destroyed.”

Not all the talks were about energy and the environment. Many were about the future of technology and the media. When Mary Lou Jepsen was working on One Laptop Per Child project, she realized that “more important than lowering cost is lowering power [consumption].” With that insight as her guide, her new company, Pixel Qi, designed a display that can operate in three modes. One is like a standard high-color HDTV (much like currently laptop screens). The innovative mode is a low-power black and white version that emulates e-paper displays (like on the Kindle). It has an ultra-high resolution for reading text, and high reflectivity for use in daylight. The third mode is a combination of these two.

She announced that it will be available later this year as a 10-inch screen for netbooks. “The CPU wars are over,” she declared. “Now is the time for the display wars.”

These days it seems that everyone is consumed with the future of newspapers. Nick Bilton thinks about it like it’s his job. As a member of the New York Times’s R&D group, he figures out new ways to create and deliver news content around the world on every sort of device. He calculated that the average net-connected citizen is exposed to about 100,000 links per day—such a staggering torrent of data that we have become “online nomads trying to find shelter from the blizzard of information.” 

Much of what he does is an attempt to simplify the web experience. The group is working on a project with Adobe to automatically reformat a newspaper page to fit the device you’re on—whether it’s your iPhone or your 42” HDTV. It’s not simply a resizing of photos. It’s adding and subtracting content  (and ads), and altering the design of the page to make the user experience more intuitive. Further down the line he imagines a system of smart content, where your iPhone knows that you’ve already clicked on a particular story on your laptop, and therefore knows to hide that story from you.

He doesn’t lament the death of newsprint: “Paper is just another device,” he says, and the next generation of readers will be “immediate and opportunistic” consumers of information. Judging by the number of laptops and mobile devices being used by the audience during his talk, that future is already here.

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Photo of Mary Lou Jepsen speaking at eTech by eschipul via Flickr