Technology and the Age of Anxiety

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of our Insights, formerly PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Image from Pixabay
Image from Pixabay

Looking back over the past decade, one narrative comes clear.

A decade ago, there was an optimistic tone to discussions around media, technology and communication. This reached its high point with Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody (2008). Social media could be used to track down who had stolen a smartphone; collective efforts and low risk explained how amateur open source software was the greatest threat to well-funded commercial players like Microsoft.

A year later, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto produced their tenth anniversary edition. In one chapter, David Weinberger questioned whether optimism was appropriate. Neither realism or pessimism, he argued, were sufficient to explain Wikipedia, so on balance we had to be optimistic about the potential of the web.

Wikipedia. It’s easily overlooked or even grumbled about today, but it’s a notable achievement of the crowd over experts. It’s a tribute to the power of unpaid amateurs over commerce. It’s one example that comes close to living up to Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the web as a place of shared learning and enlightenment.

What became of this vision? What happened to all that optimism?

This past decade has seen a reassertion of corporate monopoly (not from Microsoft this time, but from Amazon, Google and Facebook).

Noted scholar Manuel Castells was writing last decade of the potential for social media to facilitate social and political change. Yet what happened to the Arab Spring? Instead, we’ve seen a reassertion of censorship and state control. In the West, we fear how our data will be used by commercial companies. In many other countries, citizens fear how their data will be used by agents of the state.

These fears are contributing to our age of anxiety. They are the reason why propaganda is once again such a present concern.

The populist playbook is now clear. You prey on people’s uncertainties and anxieties, and offer simple solutions in response. Fear of unchecked immigration? Build a wall!

There’s nothing new to this, but what’s new is the coupling of age old emotional appeals to the power of data and algorithms to mount targeted and effective campaigns of persuasion.

That was the Cambridge Analytica proposition: old-school propaganda allied to new-style data science.

Look away if you like: too boring; predictable liberal soul-searching. Or we can recognise that this is our industry (or at least its shadow side). These are our social networks. This is our society.

Certainly, it’s less easy to feel optimistic now than a decade ago. But might we be overlooking some incremental changes that are easily taken for granted just as we now overlook Wikipedia as one of the wonders of our age.

Do you remember taking time off work to queue in a post office, having found your insurance and MOT certificates, just to renew your annual car insurance? Now the system already knows of these documents and renewal is automatic.

Look at the populist playbook another way and we call it ‘nudge’ and talk admiringly of behavioural economics. It’s simply another application for science and recognition that emotional appeals are more powerful than rational. Again, it’s our industry.

Young people are inherently optimistic: they have more to look forward to than to look back on. I’ve not noticed much change here among my students and recent graduates despite the financial crisis of 2008 and the increased tuition fees. Yet there is a widespread recognition of generational unfairness (OK boomer!). There’s also greater discussion of mental (ill) health and anxiety.

Nor is the talk of catastrophic climate change entirely new to those of us who grew up in the Cold War. We lived with the underlying fear of imminent extinction through nuclear war, whereas the worst predictions for climate change point to gradually increased risks of those biblical threats of floods, fire and famine.

Paranoid Android

How can we as individuals adjust to this age of anxiety?

One lesson I’ve applied is to be less trusting about data security. I’ve installed a VPN (virtual private network) to protect my online identity and activity, following advice given by Andrew Grill in a Digital Download podcast.

Up to now, I’d thought VPNs were for those who needed to circumvent state restrictions on certain banned websites, or for those looking to get around the BBC iPlayer or Netflix login restrictions. But for me, it’s because I rely on wi-fi wherever I am – and should be much less trusting of the security of public wi-fi. I may work in the cloud, but shouldn’t have my head in it.

There are several useful pointers to this age of anxiety that should help inform better public relations strategies.

  • Every organisation, and every individual, is at risk from breaches of data security. For organisations, it’s a reputational time bomb.
  • While we may welcome the opportunity to work remotely and more flexibly – no one should ignore the always-on pressures of social media and 24/7 communication technology. Individuals and organisations need to rediscover and negotiate their off buttons. 
  • If we only seek to appeal to reason in our communications, we’re missing the biggest lesson of this age (and every age): emotion trumps reason. Business lost the argument over Brexit because a rational appeal over jobs and frictionless trade lost out to an emotional appeal to ‘take back control.’
  • Appeals to naked greed and consumerism will look especially crass in this age of anxiety.
  • How do we respond to misinformation and fake news? We may cling on to our belief in properly-funded news reporting and the pursuit of objective truth, but a generation is already getting its news through social media and smartphone apps and may never acquire the habit of watching the BBC or reading The Guardian.

One final thought. If you find this talk of anxiety and uncertainty concerning, take a moment to imagine its opposite. Why would anyone need public relations advice and support in a static, undynamic world that never changed and never threw up new challenges? It’s because of all this risk and uncertainty that our skills and advice are in demand now and will be in the coming years.

We’re not expected unerringly to predict the future, but we are required to perceive the complexities of any given situation and to point to the best way forward.

How can we do this? Through the application of knowledge (data), through our experience, and through having regard for the ethical principles that require us to look beyond short-term self-interest.

It’s about survival. But that’s what the whole of human history has been about. Perhaps the mistake was to briefly imagine that technology had suspended the rules of evolution and human psychology.