Choose Your Own Adventure

Propaganda, games, and the quest for a more 'democratic' media environment.

The Democratic Surround: Multimedia & American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties, by Fred Turner, University of Chicago Press, 365 pages, $32.50

How much autonomy does a video game player have? Unlike a viewer watching a movie or TV show, the gamer makes decisions with consequences for the unfolding story. He controls a character, and he determines how that figure moves through a virtual space. And yet he does this all within the parameters set out by the game's designers, which constrain his choices and often guide him, with a heavy or a light hand, to predetermined outcomes. There are new freedoms here, but there are new forms of manipulation too, and they interact in complicated, ever-shifting ways.

Seven decades ago, as the U.S. fought World War II, a group of social scientists pondered similar questions about earlier forms of media. The Democratic Surround, a smart and fascinating new history by the Stanford historian Fred Turner, excavates their efforts and traces their influence through the next several decades. In the process, Turner finds unexpected links between undertakings as different as Cold War propaganda campaigns and the Human Be-In, one of the most famous hippie festivals of the '60s.

Turner's narrative actually begins before the war, as intellectuals tried to make sense of the rise of fascism. One popular explanation for Hitler's ascent held that the key factor was propaganda—and, beyond that, the Nazi propagandists' ability to bombard Germans via the media. This in turn opened up a wider set of fears, as those theorists fretted that mass media were producing a mass man. With their "top-down, one-to-many" structure, Turner explains, the broadcasting, publishing, and filmmaking industries seemed to be asking audiences "to practice the sort of unreasoning fealty to a single source of illumination demanded of citizens in totalitarian states."

In some ways this represented a fear of centralized elite control. But it also reflected an elitist fear of ordinary people, who were imagined as an easily mesmerized mob: feral robots ready to drop their individuality and submit to an alien force. In one infamous essay, the German-born Marxist Theodor Adorno identified popular music as a part of the problem. "Rhythmically obedient" jazz fans—the "radio generation"—were "susceptible to a process of masochistic adjustment to authoritarian collectivism," he wrote. Pop culture was perceived as an enemy.

The event that "brought Adorno's point home" for many Americans, Turner writes, was Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds, a radio play that allegedly set off a nationwide panic as listeners mistook it for a real Martian invasion. By showing "how easy it is to start a mass delusion," the columnist Dorothy Thompson claimed afterward, "Mr. Orson Welles and his theater have made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism and all the other terrorisms of our times than all the words about them that have been written by reasonable men."

Unfortunately, Turner takes the legend of Welles' broadcast at face value, neglecting the scholarship that has shown that the mass panic didn't actually happen. While some people did believe the invasion was real, the nationwide hysteria was a myth. (The panic narrative was pushed by newspapers, who saw radio as competition-one mass medium fanning fears of another.) It turns out that even in a relatively centralized media environment, individual listeners can think for themselves; it takes more than a semi-realistic science-fiction story to make us a mindless mob.

But that independence was invisible to intellectuals worried about the rise of mass man. After the war began, some of those thinkers assembled in the Committee for National Morale, a group of journalists and social scientists eager to create a new sort of propaganda that didn't treat Americans like an obedient mass. Influenced by new currents in psychology and anthropology, they pondered ways to foster a flexible, tolerant, "democratic" citizen who could stand on his own, think for himself, and reason rather than stampede. At the same time, like a video game designer subtly pushing players to the next stage of the story, they wanted those independent thinkers to arrive at a particular point of view.

Turner presents the group's arguments fairly, allowing us to see the world from its members' perspective. For all their flaws, there was a genuinely humanistic and individualistic current to their thought. All the same, it's hard not to regard them as a particularly sad sort of wishy-washy liberal, muttering platitudes about fostering free choice while looking for ways to steer those choices in the right direction. The scene seems even sadder when you recall that as they were deliberating, Washington went ahead and carried out a centralized propaganda effort anyway, with crude racist caricatures of the Japanese and with a crusade against right-wing subversives that helped set the stage for the anti-left campaigns of the Cold War.

The feds also created a National Allocation Plan for inserting propaganda messages into American radio shows, a story outlined in Gerd Horten's excellent 2002 book Radio Goes to War. One interesting byproduct of that process was the audience research that the government conducted to see how well its efforts were working. The resulting data wound up demonstrating the very audience independence that the War of the Worlds legend denied.

"Before the war," Horten writes, "most researchers had firmly upheld the [theory] that media messages directly and instantaneously produced a predictable change in personal opinion and behavior among the recipients." The pollsters' research debunked that, revealing that listeners "constantly negotiated, reread, or actively resisted their messages." So even as the Committee for National Morale was speculating about subtler sorts of manipulation, the radio researchers were learning that the audience wasn't as malleable as everyone assumed.

The committee's ideas about encouraging an independent, democratic personality had influence outside the world of propaganda. Two members of the group, the anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, proposed what Turner calls a "'cafeteria' style" of communication. If "mass media delivered messages on a single theme and tended to turn their audiences into automata," Turner explained, "Mead and Bateson argued that multi-image, multi-text environments...gave the viewer a chance to exercise free choice." Turner makes a strong case that this was a key moment in the emergence of what we now call multimedia.

As Bateson and Mead were theorizing, various creators were either inventing similar ideas on their own or picking up the ball and running with it. The tension between encouraging independence and directing an audience did not disappear. At the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, for example, some advocates of intervention against the Axis proposed a multimedia exhibition called For Us the Living. Curator Leslie Cheek insisted the show would be a place where "the visitor is not a passive spectator but an actor," but the deeper purpose, all the same, would be to steer those actors away from isolationism.

Yet once the idea of an active audience in a flexible media environment was out there, it was only a matter of time before it was taken up by people who were more serious about empowering the viewer/reader/listener and not so interested in manipulating him. The avant-garde composer John Cage, a major figure in Turner's book, tried harder and harder as his career progressed to make himself less of a dictator over his own art, increasingly inserting chance and audience participation into his music. He also grew more anti-authoritarian in his politics, eventually identifying himself as an anarchist. The committee types believed, in Turner's words, that the state should "facilitate individual self-realization." Cage preferred to do away with the state altogether.

He wasn't the only figure severing multimedia from its old propaganda context. In the 1960s, counterculture figures ranging from Allan Kaprow to Andy Warhol took the aesthetic in radical new directions, stripping it of its previous political content and injecting it into popular culture. The Human Be-In was among the results.

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  • Will4Freedom||

    My 7 year old grandson is a video game adict. I try to get him away, but it's hard. I've got to double my efforts and find other things we can do.

  • Gene||

    This past weekend we had my girlfriend's granddaughters out to the farm.
    Despite their surroundings the main source of interest and conflict among them was who could use the tablet (some game called subway skipper ). In the end we had to impose a 45 minute rotation between the three girls (aged 4,6 and 8).

  • UnCivilServant||

    What? You didn't make them earn time though farm labor?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Hay ain't baling itself.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    That's incredible. Nothing beats a game of hide and seek in a barn.

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