John McCann

Mass culture

In Culture & society on February 27, 2006 at 5:29 pm

In my lectures about the Participation Age, I include a segment on mass culture and then contrast it with the emerging culture of participation. The following is a summary.

We can trace mass culture to the industrial revolution and World War II, as depicted in this graph:


The industrial revolution brought us interchangeable parts that were produced by machines. Once an investment was made in a machine, the cost of producing one part or product with that machine declined as the number of parts increased because the fixed cost of the machine was spread over more and more items. This gave us the declining cost curve which dictated that mass production would be the most efficient form of production. Thus we entered a period in which larger and larger factories produced larger and larger quantities of goods.

When World War II was over, the United States entered a new period characterized by pent-up demand, the building of massive roads, and the invention of new products and services based upon the vacuum tube. Soldiers returned from the war with money in their pockets while people not in the war had been earning high wages producing war products. They could not spend their money during the war because the supply of consumer products was limited due to rationing of goods so they could be used in the war effort. Thus we had mass demand for cars, appliances, houses, etc.

After the war, General Eisenhower returned to the U.S. from Europe where he had led the Allied forces against Germany. He had been very impressed with the German highways and the ability of the Germans to move their tanks, trucks and missiles all over the country. He wanted the U.S. to build similar highways so that we would be better prepared in the case of another war. When he became president, he got his wish with the creation of the Interstate Highway system. The result was a modern road system that tied the cities together as well as connected inner cities to suburbs. As a result, companies could build massive stores and massive collections of stores in malls.

Vacuum tubes had been perfected during the war and firms such as RCA saw that they could create new products with them. Thus we had the arrival of television, which so captured our interest that before too long almost all households had a television set. This led to an era of mass communication in which advertisers could place one ad in a popular television show and reach 30-40% of the population. Mass communication flourished.

Mass production, mass demand, massive stores and mass communication created the mass culture that dominated our society for many decades of the 20th century.

The mass culture depicted so far is only part of the total. The following are some other mass elements of our society and the technologies or developments that enabled them: One aspect of a mass culture is large entities. Another aspect is the same product or service for everyone.

Elevator and massive cities: The development of the elevator allowed builders to construct very tall buildings that had a small footprint. Once they could place many buildings in a small space, they could grow a city to a very large size without much additional land. The resulting skyscrapers enabled the creation of cities that could house millions of people in offices, apartments and condominiums.

Transportation and mass distribution:Interstate highway system, and the associated feeder roads, enabled the movement of goods and products all over the country.

Malls and mass retailing: The advent of the mall allowed retailers to build versions of their stores in all parts of the country. As a result, people shopping in a mall in Seattle are likely to see the same stores as a shopper in Atlanta, or Miami, or Boston, or Chicago, etc.

Public schools and mass education: Back in the day, schools were run by churches as a means of insuring that people could read the Bible.. Then towns and states took over the task of educating the population so that democracy would flourish. Today, we have a mass education system that strives to give the same education to all the children in the U.S. That is the very definition of mass education … the same education for the all of the masses.

Automation and mass leisure: During the early decades of the 20th century, products such as refrigerators, washing machines, electric ranges, and vacuum cleaners made it much easier for families to meet their daily living requirements. As a result, people, particularly women, had much more free time. In the work place, factory automation led to the concept of the 40 hour work week and the two week vacation. Both of these developments yielded the opportunity for people to engage in leisure activities such as radio listening, TV watching, travel, attending sports events, playing games, etc. Mass leisure thus joined the mass culture.

Electronics and mass computing: Our early computers were built with vacuum tubes, a technology that dictated that the most efficient form of computing would be the large centralized computer. The period from 1950 to 1980 or so has been termed the era of mass computing.

Older adults today witnessed parts of the formation of this mass culture. Thus their views of the world are likely to be strongly influenced by their acceptance of the mass culture as normal. This means that most of them tend to view themselves as members of the masses. In terms of passive versus participation, they tend to be passive.
Baby boomers grew up when this culture was well established and are likely to have similar acceptance. But the following generations, sometimes called the Gen X and Gen Y generations, appear to see the world through a different lens and are thus more eager to participate in it in different ways.

Today’s youth, high school and college students, are the ones who seem to be turning away from the products and services of the mass culture and paying far more attention to those offerings that allow them to participate in some form or other. For instance, they tend not to read newspapers and their TV viewing is lower then previous generations.
But they seem very eager to share their own experiences in blogs and social network software, and to read the stories of their friends and peers. Thus the extreme popularity of services such as MySpace among this group. The culture that surrounds MySpace, Facebook and Friendster is definitely very different from the mass culture of the 20th century.

  1. The internet provides seemingly instant information and is an unprecedented tool of mass communication. Today’s youth, myself include, have grown accustom to immediate self gratification. MSN Messenger, Blogger, Google, and Wikipedia are in essence the ultimate internet tools. A person can research, publish and communicate ideas within seconds. The speed in which this is available is of utmost appeal.

  2. i dont like this website your ugly

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