One reoccurring theoretical theme in many of the early 20th century writings on the advent and expansion of mass communication was the fear such approaches disseminated morally subversive and intellectually bereft material. Sherwood Anderson argued the ability to quickly circulate materials contributed to a social situation where “[b]ooks, badly imagined and written though they may be in the hurry of our times, are in every household” (Peters & Simonson 30). For Anderson, the collective emphasis on haste undermined the ability for individuals to participate in self-reflection and produce works of nuance and depth. Many of Anderson’s thoughts are paralleled in Jane Addams’ earlier 1909 text The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets where she asserts the rise of cinema was a corrupting influence for young Americans longing for the means to escape their social realities. According to Addams, “[i]s it not astounding that a city allows thousands of its youth to fill their impressionable minds with these absurdities which certainly will become the foundation for their working moral codes and the data from which they will judge the properties of life?” (Peters & Simonson 27). From this perspective, cinema’s potential to divert the attention of the audience from worldly interactions threatened the moral social fabric.
The writings of Anderson and Addams exemplify a prevalent argument made throughout the history of social criticism. From Plato to Kenneth Burke, theorists have repeatedly argued that new advances in technology (the printing press, industrialization, and the internet to name a few) threaten our ability to connect, to rationalize, and to grow. In short, our very humanness. It is somewhat comical today to read the level of concern in Addams’ piece over the growing popularity of movies, which certainly have not lead to the moral disintegration of civilization she had envisioned. However, it is important to ask if we are not also falling into similar traps when we frame the use of technological advances such as text-messaging, 24 hour news cycles, or social networking as substantial symbolic and material threats to our longevity. Instead of discussing the ways mass media potentially threatens civilization, I believe it is time we begin to theorize how such changes in communication lead to a more “flexible” human subject. An individual who is symbolically equipped to prosper in multiple diverse social environments with relative ease. Despite the fears of many conservatives, humanity has been able to survive even after the development of print, radio, television, and Twitter, because of our ability to adapt to evolving social and rhetorical contexts. By providing expansive access to knowledge and experience, it is quite likely mass media (and currently networks) have constituted a maturing social flexibility.