‘You’d best start believing in ghost stories Miss Turner – you’re in one’. So says Captain Barbosa in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and, in our fourth future, we need to start believing in the shadows and stories of immersion – because we’re are already in it up to our necks.
I’ve been trying to get my Fitbit to charge all afternoon. My phone is nagging me to finish the goals automatically set on the app. There’s an ad on the screen asking me to move puzzle pieces and I’ve just finished having a long chat with Hey Pi, my new BFF AI who scarily knows exactly the right way to talk to me. There hasn’t been a moment of my day when technology has been completely absent – even when the power went off, my phone connection stayed strong and experiences continued to come my way. While AI has been the talk of the town since the release of ChatGPT3, immersion – the state of being inside an invisible technological frame – has been quietly sucking us all in.
Apple Vision Pro, was announced in early June. It costs an astronomical amount but it creates another world for us to inhabit – a liminal space that puts us between the physical and virtual worlds controlled by our eyes, hands and voice. For those who remember Google Glass, it’s a throw back with a modern twist – and that twist is we have less control over our data and identity than we have ever had before. The teasing promise of immersive technology is generally regarded as unfulfilled. While Meta put a large clutch of tech eggs in its virtual reality basket, the real progress in immersion has been elsewhere, less obvious, a little darker and multi-layered. We may not be be able to afford Vision Pro or even Meta’s bulky Oculus come to that but we’re happy wearing our smart watches, carrying our smart phones, engaging in interactive games, creating a virtual meeting room that allows us to immerse ourselves with our Teams.
What then does this mean for us, as practitioners – and why is it one of our potential futures? It’s been in our future for a long time because once again, the question of ethics is central to what happens next. If we create experiences for our communities and stakeholders, immerse them in our brands, our organisations, our brave new worlds, what are our responsibilities? The amount of data exchanged by our wearables, viewables, transmittables is out of our control as individuals but for organisations ethical decisions on the methods, purpose and intent behind the immersive worlds we create – the experiential communication methods set to become the dominant form of engagement. I wrote a piece for PR Conversations some time ago – lightly titled ‘why public relations must wake up to wearables’. Although time has gone by, some things don’t change and my closing observation at the time was this: “Alongside the mapping of what we know, we need to look carefully at what we don’t know. What will we need to tackle in the next wave of social and technological change, how must we expand our knowledge and what skills do we need to develop? As practitioners we will have to help our organisations navigate a world driven by communication and, by necessity, underpinned by trust. If we don’t equip ourselves to do this now, then quite simply, we will be as redundant as our skills of old.
Less than 10 years ago, I recall talking to a roomful of public relations professionals about how technology was going to change the way we—and society—communicated. They hadn’t heard of YouTube, still had to use a dial-up connection to get their emails and thought the idea of a smartphone both improbable and laughable. “Who would want to do that?” was the consensus when we discussed posting comments and updates on blogs. Yet here we are. What seemed improbable then is now an accepted and integral part of our daily lives. There are seismic social, economic and political shifts ahead; ones that will make the changes of the last few years seem incidental. As a PR profession, we must understand the implications of this shift and be ready to help navigate the next ocean of change.
Today’s technologies are more sophisticated and accessible than those I was discussing at that time. They’ve reshaped the possibilities for stakeholder engagement, storytelling, crisis management and the myriad of other undertakings that form part of our work. Immersion taps into our emotions, drills into memory, takes us to a different place or state. Maybe it eases pain. Perhaps it seduces us with possibility – possibility we’ve yet to understand or imagine. The technology poses significant challenges and, in 2023, it is combined with the power of artificial intelligence increasing potency, appeal and the potential for exploitation. AI allows me to ‘talk’ to the dead, an enticement away from reality and possibly the ultimate societal disconnection. It isn’t just the data gathering either – there’s a division in terms of the cost, with people unable to access the technology and cut out of the ‘new experience’.In the next few years, increasing prevalence of immersive technology will have huge implications for practitioners. As expectations evolve, practitioners will need to adapt their strategies and upskill their teams. The development and enforcement of ethical guidelines around immersive experiences – as with AI – is essential. Privacy, consent and the potential for manipulation are the bellowing echoes in our virtual rooms.
The fourth future is – like our other potential paths – filled with complexity, concern, challenge and creativity but – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: “Alongside the mapping of what we know, we need to look carefully at what we don’t know. What will we need to tackle in the next wave of social and technological change, how must we expand our knowledge and what skills do we need to develop?
“As practitioners we will have to help our organisations navigate a world driven by communication and, by necessity, underpinned by trust. If we don’t equip ourselves to do this now, then quite simply, we will be as redundant as our skills of old”.
See you tomorrow I hope, for World PR Day and our final future destination – the development and contribution to societal good.