8
Unseen Engineers:
Biography of an Idea

BY THE EARLY 1920s, the pragmatic lessons of the war, coupled with the prevailing wisdom of social psychology, had moved a growing sector of the American intelligentsia to two conclusions. First was the belief that a modern, large-scale society, such as the United States, required the services of a corps of experts, people who specialized in the analysis and management of public opinion. Second was the conviction that these "unseen engineers"--as Harold Lass- well called them--were dealing with a fundamentally illogical public and therefore must learn to identify and master those techniques of communication that would have the most compelling effect on public attitudes and thinking.

Nowhere did these concerns merge more eloquently than in the thinking of two men whom we have already encountered. One was Walter Lippmann who was, by the 1920s, America's most esteemed theorist and advocate of public-opinion management. The other was Edward L. Bernays, a former theatrical press agent and evangelist for the Committee on Public Information (CPI), who--from the twenties onward--built upon many of Lippmann's insights and applied them in general practice. Together, the impact of these men on the shape of twentieth-century American society would be colossal.

Though only in his early thirties, Lippmann had been influencing American social and political thought for more than a decade. Over those years he had gravitated from an earlier commitment to the ideal of popular sovereignty toward a more cynical and utilitarian outlook,

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