Media Changed Lives Even 30 Years Ago

newtechnologyPeople are constantly bemoaning the way that social media is changing our lives constantly.  But did you know that this fear has long been around, even 30 years ago?  At that time, TV use was on the rise in quite a big way, leaving people trying to figure out how it was affecting our lives.

BUT NOW, Meyrowitz points out repeatedly, the electronic media have blasted away all those ancient obstructions. Because radio, TV, the telephone, and the computer can transmit their signals into any sanctum, you can now participate in a common life without ever leaving home, or bed, or jail. Conversely, it’s now all but impossible to keep the whole wired world from breaking in. and as the electronic media have undermined the old privileges of physical place, so have they freed us from the bondage of print: Unlike books, TV can be deciphered with equal ease by babies, teens, and old folks of every race, class, and I.Q. Because TV thus reveals everything to everyone at once, the print-induced hierarchies can no longer be sustained, nor can the authorities of yesteryear preserve themselves in mystery.

Meyrowitz, then, sees “a new social order” taking vague shape around TV. Now that the electronic media have shown us all the same real world without its erstwhile verbal disguise, we are all becoming blissfully alike. “Male and female roles are merging,” racism is in decline, children and adults are indistinguishable, and our political leaders now behave as informally before the cameras as they do while washing up. Thus “the widespread social upheavals of the 1960’s,” generated mainly by TV, have actually continued, bringing us ever closer to a wholly mediated utopia where there can be no more bigotry or war.

WHAT’S wrong with this picture? While it is true that TV has pulled us all into its orbit, and also true that it helped to make the sixties what they were, TV did not reverse the direction of modern culture. It only fulfilled a process that had begun long before the medium’s triumph. Advancing a theory kof technological determinism, Meyrowitz argues that it is the electronic media that “turn once private spaces into more public ones,” an opening-up that he believes is something new. And yet the impulse to make all places permeable and homogeneous antedated by many years the advent of TV or radio. On his return visit to this country in 1904, for instance, Henry James was struck “at every turn” by what he called the “inveterate suppression of almost every outward exclusory arrangement.” American architecture appeared to James as the result of “a conspiracy for nipping the interior in the bud, for denying its right to exist, for ignoring and defeating it in every possible way.”

Similarly, the eponymous hero of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, published in 1922, is alread celebrating what Meyrowitz calls the “decline in the difference between here and there,” although that fictitious booster was conceived decades before the rise of video. Quoting the versifier Chum Frink, Babbitt extols the vast sameness of America’s hotels:

But when I get that longing spell, I simply seek the best hotel, no matter in what town I be–St. Paul, Toledo, or K.C., in Washington, Schenectady, in Louisville or Albany. And at that inn it hits my dome that I again am right at home. . . . So when Sam Satan makes you blue, good friend, that’s what I’d up and do, for in these States where’er you roam, you never leave your home sweet home.

As such evidence makes clear, the American impulse toward universal standardization was already manifest early in this century. It was this impulse, and not TV, that began to erode the “sense of place” in America, where, over 80 years ago, James could perceive little difference between “the Pullmans that are like rushing hotels and the hotels that are like stationary Pullmans.” Moreover, this impulse was realized openly and eagerly by the spokesmen for American business, who did all they could to standardize the elements of public life, and to invade the sphere of the private, for the sake of ever-growing profits. Indeed, TV itself was foreseen by those businessmen as a great money-making instrument. “Then will come television,” wrote one typically fervent adman in 1929, “creating a new advertising medium, fast, graphic, and universal in its language, a new competition for the publisher and the lithographer.”



Miller, Mark Crispin. “No sense of place: the impact of electronic media on social behavior.” The New Republic 22 Apr. 1985: 30+

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