Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mass Media and the Rhetoric of Technological Progress

Not that long ago Bill Gates said that “the internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.”  Although the internet has significantly impacted human communication, it is hardly the first form of mass media.  More than 150 years earlier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. mimicked the tone of Gates’s remark when he called the stereograph “the card of introduction to make all mankind acquaintances” (744).  Working with the Raymond Holstein Stereograph Collection at the Library Company this summer has made me think about the multiple moments throughout modern history in which new technologies have made communication more accessible to the general public.  More significantly, this experience has made me ask the question: what rhetorical strategies do societies use to emphasize the beneficial aspects of media and technological revolutions? 
Developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, the stereograph was the great-grandfather of today’s 3D media.  A stereograph card contains two nearly identical photographs which produce the illusion of depth when viewed through a stereoviewer.  In the subsequent decades, other inventors improved upon Wheatstone’s design resulting in the commercialization of stereo photography.

A hand-held stereograph viewer, after the design popularized by Oliver Wendell Holmes, with a stereograph inserted. Creator: Davepape, 2006.

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, the stereograph quickly became a form of easily accessible media in the United States.  While the daguerreotype, an early one-of-a-kind photographic process, used expensive silver plates, many early creators of stereograph views took advantage of  paper processes like the albumen print, which allowed for multiple copies of an image.  As a result, stereograph views had relatively low prices that increased both their production quantity and the size of their audience. Additionally, the mass-produced photographs facilitated a shift in subject matter.  While many daguerreotypes were portraits of the wealthy and their families, many stereo photographers captured the images of landscapes and cityscapes to sell to the general public.  The stereograph was one of the first technologies that allowed Americans to affordably glimpse the world around them from their home. 

Although changes in production helped the stereograph become a new mass media, it rested upon journalists, writers, and intellectuals to make it a symbol of positive societal advancement.  As Edward W. Earle argues, in 19th-century America the stereograph gained ideological prominence through its association with the already celebrated ideal of mass democracy.  Earle writes that “anything which allowed for the participation of more than one class came to be labeled democratic…A realistic social ramification of democratic tendencies was greater accessibility to information in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, and pictures” (9).  For writers like Holmes, the varied views of stereographs offered a new and affordable form of visual education.  With stereographs, more Americans could learn about the world through images and then make informed decisions that contributed to running the republic.

A stereograph showing an affluent middle-class woman using a stereograph viewer in her parlor.  Title: “The Stereograph as an Educator.” Creator: Underwood & Underwood, circa 1901.

In addition to signifying  mass democracy, the stereograph also became a symbol of America’s rising middle-class and consumer culture.  In the mid to late 19th-century, increased industrial output made the purchase of luxury items possible for those who were not part of the wealthy elite. Americans associated the ability to purchase consumer products with a new type of middle-class fashion and culture, or a “vernacular gentry” (Bushman xiii).  As Laura Schiavo maintains in her examination of stereographs and American social history, “the stereoscope belonged to an age in which the consumption of goods signified one’s taste,” and “consuming culture was represented as the road to social harmony” (235). Promoters of the stereograph portrayed the technology as a benign result of industrialization and mass consumption; an affordable form of cultural sophistication for many Americans.  As more families purchased the new form of mass media, many believed that their ability to do so signaled a higher standard of living for the American middle class.

One of the many stereographs produced of the  Centennial Exhibition of 1876 showing the grounds in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.  Massive temporary buildings were constructed for the exhibition, including the Main Exhibition Building, Machinery Hall, Horticultural Hall, and the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot.  The exhibition celebrated ideals of democratic equality, consumer culture, and technological progress. Title: Bird’s Eye View of Grounds from Reservoir. Creator: Centennial Photographic Co., circa 1876.
The Library Company’s Holstein Collection is filled with stereographs from the  Centennial Exhibition of 1876.  A 100th birthday party for the United States, the exhibition served as both a celebration of patriotism and showcase of new consumer products. Like the stereograph, the Centennial Exhibition was portrayed by its chroniclers as a symbol of the increased democratic equality and consumer power that came with technological progress. Today, we should continue to recognize the ways in which we idealize technological advancements and new forms of mass media.  Technological development alone did not give rise to the claim that the internet places us at the dawn of a global society or that social media gives new power to public opinion.  These claims reflect our crafting of the story of technological development in terms of ideals we associate with benefit and prosperity.

As my internship at the Library Company wraps up, I would like to thank the staff of the Library for being friendly and welcoming, especially those I worked closely with: Erika Piola, Sarah Weatherwax, and Nicole Joniec in the Print Department and Connie King in the Reading Room.  I would also like to thank the Haverford College Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities for funding my internship and its programs and administrative manager Emily Cronin for her support.

Bushman, Richard. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992.

Earle, Edward W. “The Stereograph in American: Pictorial Antecedents and Cultural Perspectives.” In Points of View: The Stereograph in America—A Cultural History. Rochester, N. Y.: Visual Studies Workshop, 1979.

Gates, Bill and Collins Hemmingway, Business @ the Speed of Thought. New York: Grand Central  Publishing, 1999.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell.  “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph.” In The Atlantic Monthly (June 1859).

Schiavo, Laura. "'A Collection of Endless Extent and Beauty': Stereographs, Vision, Taste and the American Middle Class, 1850-1880." Diss. George Washington University, 2003.

David Zabliski, Haverford College '17
LCP intern, Summer 2015

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