La La Land –the new musical by Damien Chazelle that has got audiences feather stepping out of cinemas- opens with a traffic jam on a freeway ramp. For a glorious moment the honking drone of commuters is suspended for a sequence to rival great dance numbers from Top Hat to Thriller. What makes Chazelle’s film different is that its flights of fancy exist side-by-side with the mundane reality of the daily commute, of folk scraping by and making ends meet. Its appeal isn’t that is it pure escapism but rather than it presents an augmented reality (AR). This goes well beyond Pokemon Go – the game that popularised AR last year. In 2017 AR is a much closer reflection of how people view their lives than the world of straight realism.
Today a man whose only significant experience of international relations is managing the Miss Universe beauty contest formally becomes leader of the free world. This isn’t so much an inauguration as an augmentation of democracy itself. The dangers of fake news have been discussed to death but consideration of where it has come from has been in short supply. A good story has always taken precedence over a solid fact. Facts are too often inconvenient; they tell you that you aren’t beautiful, that can’t afford that new car, that your lifestyle has to change. Fake news is an augmented reality- it allows the things that your instinct tells you are right to be given credibility.
This is hardly a new condition. What 2016 showed us, however, is that the systematic and long-running devaluation of newsdesks has forced traditional media into a position of chasing anything that will garner clicks. In some quarters there is a professional obligation not to fact check if the story works –as this week’s gaff by Infowars showed, when an anonymous text claiming to have further embarrassing footage of Trump was published at face value (it was a hoax). Social media feeds into this by providing the perfect platform for constructing an alternative –or curated- reality.
PR is left in a curious position. The augmentation of our reality has weakened our collective ability to imagine. Audiences now expect their wildest fantasies to be simulated on demand. As communicators we can longer simply appeal to the imagination, we actually have to build it. Whether you are selling a film or a watch the message has to speak directly to your customers and offer them a new experience.
Take another film, one that has come and gone from the screen in less than 24 hours: Woody Harrelson’s Lost in London. In the wee hours of this morning (starting at 2am) three screens at London’s Picturehouse Central were packed out to witness the actor’s single-shot live streamed misadventure through the streets of the capital. Lost in London claims to be the first ever live film –giving audiences in 500 cinema across the US and in London the chance to watch Harrelson re-stage a night of drunken madness from 15 years ago. Whether or not the film is a success is not the point. The thrill is to take part in the production of a world first –with the risk of cockups and the unforeseen attached. It is theatre brought into contact with real streets in real time, and an actor who is playing a version of himself from over a decade ago. It is hard to get any more augmented than that.