Readings 1 through 11 in “Mass Communication and American Social Thought” by Peters & Simonsen present varying opinions on forms of new communication from 1897 to 1931. As Cooley’s “The Process of Social Change” suggests, social, cultural and political life all change when new media of communication are introduced. In these readings, themes emerge of freedom, adventure and a better world – as well as the negative side of being presented with these new adventures and how they change people and the world adversely.
Cooley, Park & Burgess, Dewey, DuBois, Lasswell, Bernays and Sapir discuss the positive elements to the new forms of communication. Cooley, Park & Burgess, Dewey, DuBois and Lasswell touch on the themes of freedom and “a better world” communication creates. The move from word of mouth to written records was “revolutionary” said Park & Burgess, and “news has freed mankind from the control of political parties and social institutions.” Communication allows everyone to share in a common life, proposes Dewey. With communication, “learning and teaching come into being and there is no event which may not yield information” (Dewey). When combined with education, communication “forms the principal free institution, without which no other sort of freedom could long endure, and by the aid of which we may hope to gain more freedom than we have … freer development of individual involves, of course, a freer development of the social order” (Cooley).
DuBois relates art and beauty to communication, discussing “all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom.” DuBois hopes for a day where art will be reviewed and acclaimed by “free and unfettered judgment.” Through the art of the written word in the propaganda of World War I, Lasswell explores how President Woodrow Wilson “embodied the faith of the idealists in a better world.” In his propaganda, Wilson speaks of a “better world, when wars should be no more and a brotherhood of democratic peoples should bury their heritage of ancestral rancor, and march toward a world of fellowship and reconciliation” (Lasswell). The success of this positive communication showed that “propaganda is one of the most powerful instrumentalities in the modern world” (Lasswell). These far-reaching techniques of communication not only increase the sheer radius of communication but also “lessen the importance of mere geographical contiguity” and will cause us to “remap the world both sociologically and psychologically” said Sapir. Bernays added that while public opinion can be easily manipulated, at the core of communication techniques for the mass distribution of ideas “is a tenacious will to live, to progress, to move in the direction of ultimate social and individual benefit.”
Addams, Anderson, Lippmann and Lynd & Lynd express their views of the negative side of new forms of communication such as movies, books and magazines. Lippmann also warns that the ideal of a well-informed public through the news is unrealistic. A person will experience a “romantic age in politics and is no longer moved” and the “man does not live who can read all the reports that drift across his doorstep or all the dispatches in his newspaper” (Lippmann). New media disengage people from reality and threaten morality. Movies “satisfy the insatiable desire to know of the great adventures of the wide world” said Addams, but these movies are becoming people’s moral guides and will therefore subject some of them to the “overwhelming temptation of illicit and soul-destroying pleasures.” Anderson said books and magazines take away individuality, as men’s minds are “filled to overflowing with the words of other men” and men are found talking “glibly and senselessly.” In their field study in Muncie, Ind., Lynd & Lynd found “Middletown appears to read magazines primarily for the vicarious things in fictional form they contain. … Since 1890, there has been a trend toward franker ‘sex adventure’ fiction.” Movie ads in Muncie also promised adventure: “go to a motion picture … and let yourself go! … All the adventure, all the romance, all the excitement you lack in your daily life are in – pictures! They take you completely out of yourself into a wonderful new world” (Lynd & Lynd). Activities such as reading are being chosen less often than going to movies and utilizing new media.
As these authors discuss regarding communication, the sheer number of new media that confronts society in this progressive era can be enlightening or overwhelming, leading people down higher roads to education and better judgment or instead making poor moral choices and losing their identities in the face of public opinion.