To write about the future of public relations is nothing but an explanation of present challenges with some respect to different ethics that define human civilization (s). The future as vision. The vision as nothing but the will of this moment to reorganize something. What tools does such a will have at hand to actualize the vision?
Such tools can be easily found in small companies, much more complicated in larger companies, and in larger and more complex systems like a city or state, it seems almost impossible to detect them. Public relations is such an incredibly complex system as a relatively young practice with poorly developed governance systems, with a relatively shallow conceptual base and extremely rapid growth. A multitude of apparently non-coordinated spontaneous processes makes PR as a practice alive seem unmanageable. The link between vision and reality seems like an illusion.
However, is this not an evolutionary principle valid for every complex living organism?
If we know (?) that language is not a communication tool but a tool for mastering the environment, people, yourself, …, then public relations practitioners should understand that the power to master the environment does not rest in the written word. From 100.000 years, if not some more years of human civilization, the Guttenberg period represents less than 1 %. We strive to “freeze” and operationalize oral words through writing in only reasonably recent history.
Writing created an opportunity to execute a power transfer more accessible, faster, and broader. Guttenberg’s invention allowed industrializing stories as transfers of power. Guttenberg’s efficiency thus killed the storytelling industry, representing the most common socialization technique in the pre-Guttenberg period. Storytelling is now a dull solid object in libraries. Where did then socialization vanish?
In contrast to the old Greek peripatetic teacher walking in a garden, we find a contemporary teacher facing a sweating parent who believes that books replaced his role as a socializer and has wholly forgotten silent winter nights telling stories to his family by the fire. The inability of contemporary schools to master their pupils and shape them as masters beautifully prove that mastering does not rest in the written word but in oral stories (words). Where there is no story, we find a school as a battlefield without rules, where the book becomes a biological weapon.
Since language is a tool for mastering, and mastering the environment is one of the conditions for life, the disintegration of Guttenberg’s values comes as no surprise. With the proliferation of the printed word, with the fact that Guttenberg printing machinery enacted massive duplications, and with the even more extensive proliferation that came with the internet, we now have each word easily copied unlimited times. With this ease came a necessary thorough proliferation of the written word. The written word lost its power.
Since Humanity did not lose a need to master it/s environment, where is then to find a mastering agent, socializing agent?
Don’t we have the technology, the perfect suspect, to replace words as a mastering tool? Do not iPad apps represent such a mastering tool? However, then, what is the difference between a hammer and a particular iPad app? True, we master the environment with the hammer and iPad apps, but what do we master with such objective tools? In the presence of the accurate word, the hammer keeps quiet. Words are fueling tools and nothing else.
Returning to the word: are not precisely public relations practitioners gardeners of the word and thus gardeners of power? Is not public relations a practice that manages tools that enable interaction between the publics and is, therefore, nothing but a way to master the environment to acquire better fitness?
Gospel of John starts with: “In the beginning, there was a word.” This introduction puts in function everything that is on earth and in heaven. It tells that everything has a role concerning the word regardless of it/s sacral or profane origin. It tells us that we can believe that we can turn something, that technology can turn something, that institution can turn something – but that the final turn belongs to the word. It tells us the same story that Charles Darwin explained 150 years ago when he moved a creation as a function from an individual, species, or higher social structure on the level of blind replication and mutation.
Back to power
Every myth about a search for a “lost word” and thus “lost power” should be understood as a memetic explanation of the source of power that is embedded in a word, but also as a romantic illusion that this power, this word can be “privatized,” can be possessed, can be written. We can trace this illusion in contemporary journalism striving to find “dark forces behind” certain events. We can find this illusion in naïve branding that aims to find one USP, sentence, and characteristic that would give a brand it/s power. This naiveté lies in the illusion that power lies outside the word, in an individual, company, state…
Contemporary western companies have disarmed themselves in overdeveloping Guttenberg’s invention. They disarmed themselves from where human society found a comparative advantage to another species ten thousand years ago. We forgot how to transmit stories. Stories in books create illusions that they can be kept in books, that the power of stories lies in books, and that we are powerless without books and words. We have created tools and forgot on the way that they are tools only. We have forgotten that the power of the word does not lie in the book but in the word. Humanity was “created” by the word as a memetic world.
Here we find a foundation of Robert Aunger/s (Aunger 2002) deviation from Susan Blackmore (Blackmore 2000). Aunger is locating memes in brains only (while Susan is conceptualizing them in all artifacts). In this respect, Aunger comes closer to a concise explanation: a meme is only a potential that can be actualized in interaction. Frozen in a book or some other artifact is only a tool that can wake brain waves – but those waves will be enacted only when they interact with their environment. Likewise, we can say that electron exists only when it is measured. The word, the meaning of the word can only be apprehended in an interaction of two. The power of the word lies in the story, in an exchange in oscillation, and not in a frozen artifact. Word is intersubjective.
Not to mention that David Haig (Haig 2020) unintentionally offered a solution to an apparent discrepancy between Aunger and Blackmore by the differentiation between strategic and material genes and memes. David did not go further to link material memes to artifacts and strategic memes to intersubjectivity. He thus offered a space for a profound development of memetics that is developing at this very moment at this very desk.
As if a conclusion
If, on the one hand, it is true that technologies enable faster replication of memes, it is true even more that the power stays there where it was from the very beginning in the word as an intersubjective, oral entity.
I can not cease to hope that we, as public relations theoreticians and practitioners, will be credited in 2050 for wasting less energy in searching for gods and devils and more in mature participation in the word.
Aunger, Robert. 2002. The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think. New York: Free Press.
Blackmore, Susan. 2000. The Meme Machine. 1., Issued as an Oxford Univ. Press paperback. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Haig, David. 2020. From Darwin to Derrida: Selfish Genes, Social Selves, and the Meanings of Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
First published in July 2010, the fourth revision.