Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media

Article excerpt

Wurtzler, Steven. Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media. New York: Columbia University Press. 416 pp. $26.50.

It is not impossible to imagine that every time the cell-phone commercial appears asking "Can you hear me now?" author Steven Wurtzler smiles a little. It seems to bolster his thesis that even in this digital age, much of the die was cast at the turn of the last century when inventors, engineers, and scientists developed ways to electronically record, amplify, transmit, and play back sound, and entrepreneurs founded the media empires still so much a part of our lives.

Wurtzler does not set out to inexorably tie the dawn of electronic sounds to our current digital milieu. He acknowledges but does not dwell on it, writing in conclusion: "That contemporary events resound with the past attests to continuities between the past and the present that shaped technological innovation then as well as now." Among those are the corporate power to shape technological change, the faith in media technology to unite us, and the belief that such unification is desirable.

Yet it is impossible to not draw parallels and experience the multiple moments of insight that a good historical treatment reveals. For instance, writing about the commercial vision for radio that ultimately prevailed, he notes that "'participation' was rhetorically redefined as listening in on distant events." In our age of citizengenerated media, the observation hangs there as a question: Are we reversing that and moving toward a stronger democracy or merely reinforcing it?

Wurtzler details how the concentration of patents related to the basic technology melded radio, sound in motion pictures, and the phonograph into a few vertically integrated corporate giants such as the newly formed RCA - and one's mind wanders to Google and its current oversized influence in people's digital lives. And when he reminds us that AT&T had two very different visions for radio, one of which was a string of low-power stations focused on and governed by their communities, one cannot help but think about Google's rise to dominance contrasted with its outwardly projected dogood ethic. …


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