The future-focussed Work in Progress conference took place in Wellington earlier this week, covering the impact new technological and societal changes have on the way we communicate, and how businesses can future-proof themselves for change.

The conference included some fascinating presentations relevant to people working with the media, including an insightful session on the changing media landscape from Newsroom Pro Managing Editor Bernard Hickey.

Mr Hickey said Facebook had become the primary source of news for many people and was preferred over traditional media outlets by up to 60 per cent of the population. He said many news items were shared on Facebook based on headline alone, creating a “massive confirmation bias machine” that helped to reinforce people’s existing views rather than encouraging them to understand issues fully or question their own beliefs.

He invoked New York Times Journalist Farhad Manjoo’s concept of 'The Frightful Five', describing Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple as global giants that hold significant sway over the way we live and work. Mr Hickey’s statistics on the impact of these services on people’s lives painted a picture of increasing control through automation of data, by those who can afford to analyse and manipulate these systems.

He explained how personal data from more than 5,000 sources is collected and used by companies like Cambridge Analytica to combine information on demographics and personal preferences with targeted communications strategies that are sometimes targeted on a personal basis. He also discussed how major events such as the outcome of the US election can be influenced by politically funded, automated and personally targeted Facebook advertising promoting smear campaigns and fake news.

In a more light-hearted session, software developer and futurist Sam Jarman touched on Star Trek-style technologies, joking about the coming prevalence of artificial intelligence and replicators – 3D printers that can use different printing materials to reproduce anything from scale models of the Eiffel Tower to edible cheeseburgers. And that future is coming sooner than many think possible. Devices of this type hold huge potential, but their benefits for the world need to be interpreted critically and responsibly, and the advantages explained in accessible terms to avoid their misuse.

Adapting the way we communicate in light of technological change, and indeed communicating new technologies in plain English will only become more important as the rate of change increases. Kaila Colbin of Silicon Valley think-tank Singularity University gave a presentation predicting the rate of change will continue increasing exponentially and the trend towards automation will have a significant impact on employment and how people work. 

Her point was that change is accelerating, it is inevitable, and we need to adapt.

This goes for people working in PR and marketing as well. Automation and artificial intelligence are demonstrably improving at a massive rate, to the extent where the Washington Post is now using Heliograf AI to write its stories. 

The media has been heavily disrupted by technological and societal change, and this trend will continue. But there’s still space for storytelling. The sheer amount of amazing technological change and the possibilities it offers is inspiring. These changes provide more reason than ever to be clear, to research, to analyse, to understand each other and to communicate. 

This harks back to Bernard Hickey’s presentation. In one sense, communication is easier than ever before using new electronic tools for information sharing. In another sense, it’s massively harder to get a message across because far more people are now able to create content and share it with the world, resulting in a vast, fragmented sea of information.

How can we ride the wave of exponential technological change? The big picture is daunting, and for many, the answer will be to find specific ways they can work with new technologies to be successful.

A New Zealander who has done just that is Wellington’s Lilia Alexander, who at age 20 has built up an audience of more than 120,000 social media followers in under two years on her Facebook page Wellington Live. The page launched in 2015 to give updates about serious flooding, but reinvented itself to report on all aspects of Wellington life and culture. Ms Alexander has been able to utilise social media to quickly create an engaged and passionate following that is growing exponentially.

Much as in the 19th Century, the businesses and industries that survive will be those that move with the times. Media and communications professionals need to do the same. Success will be found through a willingness to adapt, create truly engaging and well targeted content, and experiment from time to time.

Trends for the coming years:

  • New digital technology will continue to disrupt the media landscape
  • Artificial intelligence will reshape the way we see the world, with increasing ability to recognise patterns and mine data for companies to personally target messages
  • Businesses will need to adapt the way they communicate to stay relevant to their audiences
  • An increasing focus on skills-based work, with workers contracted for shorter term jobs
  • Increasing unemployment (and leisure time) is forecast by many as the result of automation of existing jobs