Essay: Susan Douglas – popular culture and populist technology

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published on: December 22, 2019
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  • Susan Douglas - popular culture and populist technology
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In Susan Douglas’ book on popular culture and populist technology, she follows radio broadcasting of wireless in its newest form and its immediate rise in admiration and success. This book captures the fabrication of radio in society– how one person’s triumph became the leading example for societal upbringing and credibility in America. In addition, Douglas claims that radio went from coded, directional methods to a more popular, global phenomenon as business, technology, and printed press pulled it from individual to systematic control. She sees the history and pre-history of radio through a dominant viewpoint where broadcasting showcases the hierarchy of enterprise culture while disregarding other viewpoints.

I believe that primary sources refer to original documents that have not been used or published by anyone else. For example, a speech, a letter, a journal, etc. As for secondary sources I believe those would be summaries, analyses, or interpretations of another’s work. According to Indiana University’s library resources, a primary source “ provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person or work of art. Characteristically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and people described and show minimal or no mediation between the document/artifact and its creator ( “Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources.” Human Resources, 6 July 2007, libraries.indiana.edu/identifying-primary-and-secondary-sources. ) .A secondary source “lacks the immediacy of a primary record. As materials produced sometime after an event happened, they contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original ( “Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources.” Human Resources , 6 July 2007, libraries.indiana.edu/identifying-primary-and-secondary-sources. ).” For example, Guglielmo Marconi was the primary scientist who bridged science with his long-distance radio transmission across the Atlantic starting in 1901. Marconi is the daring example of his generation; a self-made inventor and entrepreneur who paved the way for many innovations to come. Walker J. Willenborg, who made his own interpretation of long-distance radio transmission by making a home-built wireless station is a secondary example. As Douglas states, “Willenborg was the latest incarceration of the boy-hero, a central figure in popular literature for decades. In the early 1900s the boy-hero remained a stock character[…]” (192).

Because of Marconi’s invention, others like Willenborg followed in his footsteps. All of these boy-heroes want to create work like the ones that came before them because “what landed a young man a good job, what gave him an edge in the race for success, was intelligence, education, and certain skills” (190).
Rather than appealing to the hobbyists, Marconi was more interested in creating ‘corporate control.’ Marconi sold to bigger customers, those with business-like ideals, and developed this control on the supply and demand of wireless transmission. Douglas contrasts Marconi’s charitable, public view with his own passions and desires. Then came the fight for what listeners want to hear as well as organized, or institutional concerns. Douglas uses Marconi’s need for curating this corporate monopoly to praise Lee DeForest for wanting an entertainment-like broadcasting service. DeForest wanted to bring music to those who did not have the opportunity to see it live. The mass media played a big role in how wireless has progressed over time. Douglas continuously holds broadcasting successes responsible for press response. These amateur male operators, or “boys,” as Douglas refers to them as, were glorified for their willingness and inventiveness. Their sudden technical familiarity replaced physical activity, or manliness as the test of maturity in young boys. With the Radio Act of 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic, hobbyists were discouraged to broadcast as corporate and military personnel took over and controlled more frequencies.

Douglas is convincing when she illustrates how scientists and inventors, organizations, the press, and the public all worked hand in hand to create an array of meanings around the medium. The media reviewed technological change as it does today in reports of tech savvy teenagers.

For Susan Douglas, the prehistory and history of radio transmission represented corporate leadership and the misconception of a buyer’s choice. It also resulted in corporate governing of mass communication. The information that Douglas gives her audience in this book have suggestions that are relevant to today; relevant to communications. Her use of research and resources help build a convincing argument of how the media, along with corporate and military interests, discourage diversity in American society.

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