Czitrom 4-6: New Communities, Social Science and Metahistory

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Advances in technology often transform the ways humans experience communication, competition, decision-making and understanding of the self. Before paper and scissors, games and competition were limited in function.

 

In one way or another, each of the communication theorists who Czitrom includes in his history of media communication studies was concerned with what Dewey called “organized intelligence.” Early North American communications scholars wanted to bring rational, scientific information to the national newspapers to create a more well-informed citizenry. Charles Horton Cooley and John Dewey proposed reforms to journalistic practices, suggesting reporters include more philosophic, purely factual, idea-driven news stories. These early social reformers believed this “referential,” rather than sentimental, sensational or “expressive,” approach to news reporting would improve both citizens’ public and private lives.

Dewey (and Ford) also wondered how new media technology turned intangibles like news and intelligence into commodities to be sold and owned. This group was looking forward to a time when newspapers would report news with “philosophic insight and scientific accuracy, the trends of current events… with the same accuracy that it was then reporting the stock market and ball games” (105). They believed that this kind of high quality, truthful, well thought-out writing would create a “unity of intelligence” that, as Czitrom points out, is rather utopic.

The early theorists believed advancements in technology begot advances in general public knowledge and also allowed for a wider dispersal of this knowledge. But Cooley and others also viewed rapid improvements in technology as potential restorers of morality and civic-mindedness in a society that was being uprooted by industrialization, urbanization and immigration (91). A renewed sense of being a part of the larger living organism of existence would contribute to a sense of unity, realized in the forms of collective goals, activities and cosmic purpose.

The early social reformers were so focused on journalism because they were writing at a time in the print age when newspapers were transitioning from cesspools of opinion, speculation, sensationalism and other “yellow” journalism practices to objective, referential media. New journalism was finding its feet in the late-1800s and early 1900s. It was only beginning to develop an industry code that valued transparency, truth and the public’s right to accurate information. The concept of objective, rational journalism was a romantic dream of social reformers. The reality of objectivity’s emergence was commercial. It was prompted by advertisers’ sensibilities and sensitivities, which led to additional changes in how advertising space was rationed and sold. Dewey and Ford may have lived to see journalism become more objective and rational in principle (though maybe not as committed to philosophic or idea-driven analysis) but it was for mostly commercial, not moral, reasons that objectivity became a standard of the industry.

Midcentury social scientists were also concerned with the organization and dissemination of intelligence to the masses but instead of proposing reforms, they studied the effects of mass media. It’s imprint to note that midcentury social scientists were working at a time when television and cinema were becoming commonplace in American life, as opposed to Cooley and Dewey’s times, in which newspapers were the dominant medium for disseminating information. As the concentration of communications theorists shifted from philosophic to empiric, Paul Lazersfeld and his contemporaries measured the actual impact of media on society, adopting the now-paradigmatic phrase “who says what to whom and with what effect?” as a formula for mass communication research. The rise of social science in the mid-twentieth century was concomitant with the rise of public opinion and political propaganda research in the postwar period. Czitrom also cites social psychology and the increasing popularity of market research as influences on modern communication research.

Theorists such as Lazarsfeld and Walter Lippmann called for a more systematic approach to studying media messages that could document idiosyncratic media effects through interviews, surveys, panels, controlled experiments, changes in media use/users over time and the uses and gratifications model. Where Cooley and co. operated in the speculative, theoretical effects of mass communication, social science pioneers sought to measure and quantify real world effects to propose ways media might more responsibly create and distribute information or messages to the public.

Despite the shift to more scientific, experiment-driven research, Czitrom notes that 1940s film scholars, though still in the business of trends, patterns and quantifiable evidence, viewed film as an organized and reliable site of a society’s collective visions, dreams, struggles and fantasies. Postwar film studies “sought to explain how movies revealed deep and persistent patterns in the collective unconscious of a society or historical era” (139). Film scholars studied the impulsive but highly fabricated realm of cinema as an outlet for representations of the human experience and culture. The concept of the self as part of and contributing to a larger cultural experience is reminiscent of Cooley or Spencer, who viewed “society as an organism.” The reformers believed thoughtful journalism (their mass medium of choice) could make human experience more cooperative, empathetic and meaningful. Film scholars felt explicating movies for patterns in the way human experience or culture is represented in the collaborative, dream-like medium of cinema could yield similarly utopic results.

Czitrom also traces the persistent concern of organizing intelligence to the radical media philosophers of the 1960s. Theorists like Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan (as well as organizations like the Chicago and Frankfurt schools) were taking more radical approaches to communication theory, eschewing both moral philosophy and social science. Innis and McLuhan in particular were concerned with the nature of communication, including the long term consequences of epochal media like the alphabet, printing press and television on human consciousness and cultural experience (recall Ong’s “Writing Restructures Consciousness” or McLuhan’s “The Gutenberg Galaxy”). McLuhan’s criticism focused on literature, popular culture and the metaphysical. He examined these as sites where the effects of organized intelligence (communications / media content) had been detrimental or provoked mass, fundamental changes in the way a society studies and understands itself.  Innis’s work on how price systems fluctuate when new technologies emerge and take hold of a culture is a prime example of the interdisciplinary implications of advances in technology.

For Innis, media communication’s influence on the economy and other market forces was the focus. He argued that “the character of competition varies with the communicability of knowledge” and that “the possibilities of disturbance to the equilibrium are dependant to an important extent on the press” (153). This means that how competitive a market is (prices, demand, distribution) depends a great deal on how fast the dominant communication medium can send a message (trains condense distance, telegraphs condense time, Internet delivers instantaneously). If the price of a commodity can change only as fast as the next day’s newspaper arrives, commerce is at the mercy of the dominant communication medium’s time and space constraints. For example, as we read in James Carey’s article “Technology as Ideology,” arbitrage and the price of commodities are determined by local supply and demand. The telegraph’s domination of time affected the prices of crops because the going rate of, say corn, can be equal across the nation thanks to the simultaneous communication capability of the medium.

What’s interesting about each of the time periods Czitrom examines is that they almost all seem to believe that media could have been or should have been a highly positive social force. The social reformers were, though down on their contemporary state of communication affairs, quite excited about what journalism could be with expansive structural and philosophic reform. The social scientists of the postwar era measured media effects and found them to be a contributing force to overall societal changes and therefore worthy of conscious improvement, such as more widespread access to accurate information. Reconciling citizens’ expectations of the political and social worlds with scientific, empirical realities would, in Lazersfeld’s and Lippmann’s view, create a freer, better informed citizenry.

 

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