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.

Those ideas spread into other areas too, notably education. In some cases, that meant more manipulation disguised as liberation. (You may have heard the perhaps-apocryphal tale of the student in an "open classroom" who asked her teacher, "Do we have to do what we want to again today?") But it also meant genuine increases in children's ability to act freely, particularly when those changes took place outside the coercive environment of the school.

A new trend in playthings, Turner writes, included products like "Tinkertoys, sets of rods and wheels that let kids build in whatever way they saw fit." Something similar was at work in the sadly short trend toward adventure playgrounds and in the rise of a particularly fertile multimedia environment that Turner does not cover: the interactive, hands-on children's museum, an institution that has roots in the early 20th century but didn't really sweep the country until the 1970s. To get a sense of the thinking behind those places, watch Jon Boorstin's 1974 film Exploratorium, a documentary that doesn't just tour a San Francisco science museum but does it in a way that tries to be as open and decentered as the institution itself. (Boorstin eschews narration and simply presents pieces of the Exploratorium experience, inviting us to piece the picture together ourselves.)

At the movie's end, the audience eavesdrops on a conversation among some of the museum's employees. One man complains that kids aren't always absorbing the right lessons from the installations, telling the story of a boy who mistakenly concluded that events at one interactive exhibit were influencing the outcomes at another. "What's wrong with that?" replies museum founder Frank Oppenheimer. "That's science for them. They're figuring something out. They're not just getting somebody else dishing it out to them….Now, they don't go ahead and do a whole lot of other experiments to see if it's right, but that's hard to do. But at least they got something and figured it out…something that nobody had given to them, that was just their own."

In some ways this was a far cry from what those propagandists planned in the early 1940s: Oppenheimer was willing to let kids follow their thoughts to an unprescribed answer. In other ways it was a fulfillment of those '40s dreams. Here was an environment designed by experts to foster a certain sort of development within the audience.

The results may be unobjectionable in the case of a children's museum, but there are other environments where the implications might make people more nervous. Consider the 1959 exhibition erected by the U.S. Information Agency in Moscow as part of a cultural exchange with the U.S.S.R.

The Moscow setup embodied the core ideas of the multimedia theorists. There was a fair-like environment that visitors could explore along their own paths and at their own pace, a seven-screen documentary film that you couldn't absorb all at once, a closed-circuit TV that let visitors see themselves on television, a computer programmed with answers to more than 4,000 possible questions about the U.S., even a polling machine that let you vote for your favorite exhibit.

But unbeknownst to the Muscovites, this zone of choice and interactivity was also a total surveillance environment. The exhibition's machines recorded not just those votes but all the questions asked of the machine, paying special attention to which queries were most popular. The guides reported trends in their conversations with the natives. There was even a running tally of which texts were most frequently stolen from a book display. This wasn't the sort of spying the KGB engaged in, of course; the Americans weren't going to send any Russians to Siberia. It was a more modern sort of surveillance: psychological warriors doing market research.

That combination of free action with covert tracking presaged the social media we use today. On one level Facebook is a sandbox where we're free to create and communicate in ways the old one-to-many media never allowed. On another level, the architects of that environment are constantly jerking us around, watching what we do, trying to herd us in one direction or another.

On yet another level, we're still as autonomous as those listeners who resisted radio propaganda in the 1940s, able to adjust our use of social media in ever more careful ways. And when all else fails, we can always walk away en masse. It already happened to MySpace and Friendster, and there are signs that younger users may be starting to do it to Facebook too.

That might be the most important element of that puzzle about the video game. A designer may have the final say on what you can do when you play, but it's the player who has the final say on whether he'll keep playing this game, pop in a different one, or just turn off the console and take a walk instead. The gamer's greatest freedom may be the freedom to step outside the game.