Put the Masses Back Into Mass Communications

The prime irony of the "digital revolution" is that the new technologies breed disconnects and silences. These social consequences are explored in David S. Reynolds's nourishing "cultural biography" of poet Walt Whitman, the 19th-century bard of America.

Reynolds's point of reference is the intense participation between public figures and the public that marked American popular communications of the 1840s and 1850s, a precommercialized "mass media culture in which Americans often entertained themselves and each other," a time when the endgame of human contact was the direct experience of the contact itself.

Then, "entertainment" was not a synonym for shallow amusement, aimless diversion, or manipulation. The word entertainment described the intense bond between performer and audience - politicians and partisans, orators and auditors, actors and patrons, pastors and congregants. The barriers were down. The charismatic Rev. Henry Ward Beecher filled his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn with thousands for his Spirit-driven sermons. He told his architect to extend the pulpit to move him closer to his listeners: "I want the audience to surround me, have the people surge all about me."

Futurists who extol the promise and profitability of interactive new media will find in Professor Reynolds' pages a cultural baseline for the democratic nature of interactivity in Whitman's time. Contact between politician and voter was a brisk confrontation, in an "agonistic arena," in which candidates were measured by their ability to engage in "animated conversation" with challengers and to lay hecklers low with bolts of reasoned argument or a verbal coup de grce.

Voter turnout in those interactive days ran as high as 80 percent. Contact was direct. Passion was embraced as part of a game "of perfect furor" in which "listeners and viewers expressed their praise and displeasure with the greatest possible noise" - at concerts, lyceums, theatre, the opera. High culture flourished alongside low, and interpenetrated all classes and forums. Whitman is portrayed "spouting Shakespeare atop omnibuses, declaiming Homer and Ossian at the seashore, and humming arias on the street."

One-way political 'debate'

Today, profound feeling has been muted by the scientific requirement of "objectivity and balance." Interactive political discourse is muffled by electronic separation. Millions sit in passive silence before a flickering, one-way barrage of political ads, electronic monologues mounted not by the principals themselves, but by their seconds - faceless advertisers and invisible narrators who lob negative ads, heedless of the loathing they've bred among citizens. The electronic "debate" is restricted to what Democratic and Republican media consultants and spokesmen have to say, but the only real discussion of how to reconnect the voter with the process comes from side-eddies of political concern, voices such as that of Ross Perot, whom mainstream writers brush aside as "crazy."

Political scientists and pollsters try to unravel with statistics the "mystery" of why citizens, who have been bypassed by the media revolution, continue to opt out of the process. But a reading of "Walt Whitman's America" quickly dispels the mystery. "I pass so poorly with paper and types ..." the poet wrote, "I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls."

Whitman, a journalist as well as a poet, understood the force of the mass-media revolution exploding in his day into myriad newspapers fed by new technologies and an ideologically diverse array of publishers, editors, and writers: "Everywhere their influence is felt," he said. "No man can measure it, for it is immeasurable."

Media's influence remains "immeasurable," but we can intuitively sense the effect on "bodies and souls" of the one-way mass communications of our own time. A viewer in a sea of millions talks back to her television set. But no one listens. One-way mass media has for a century and a half conditioned us to be still and just listen, and we have increasingly held our tongues. Ratings services measure the popularity of offerings, but the choice is limited. Viewers and, increasingly, readers of journals that mimic television are given not what they want, but what they have been trained to expect.

As participation in a vibrant cultural dialogue has been stilled, so has participatory association in the democratic process. In critical instances, technology and policy have been used to thwart democracy, not to advance it. Telephone answering machines are used by many businesses and government offices to erect fire walls between the principals and the public. Telephone operators have been replaced by unwanted Muzak tunes, played over the phones into unwilling ears, to tell us we're still on hold. Music performers amplify their sound in public space by all but swallowing the microphones; huge loudspeakers snuff out intimacy and interactivity.

Telemarketers invade our homes at dinner time, hardly affirming "family values." Public access to public airwaves and cable is denied to all but those who can pay for it. Telecommunications companies actively oppose efforts to ensure universal access and service to the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Let's get truly interactive

How can we exploit new technologies to preserve and broaden rather than stifle democratic interactivity? Are there imaginative ways for machines to revive a semblance of the participatory culture that flourished in Whitman's America?

Digitized America must somehow start talking publicly about putting people back in the communications process. Mass media, the telecommunications establishment, and our political leadership must bring their immense power to arousing interest in vibrant public communication, a role that goes beyond mere public relations and consumer ads to the informing of mass consciousness about the vital ties between participatory culture and democracy, and how technology can strengthen them.

* Jerry M. Landay, a former journalist, is an honors professor at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

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