Media, the Mass Society and Industrial Production

Media institutions and technologies, as we know them today, emerge as part of the formation of mass societies. Mass societies were born with the industrial revolution, when large factories and machinery dramatically increased the production of material goods.

The industrial revolution, which took place from the late 1700s onwards, is the historical process through which agrarian societies became predominantly industrial and urban. The industrial revolution drew an enormous workforce into cities for the first time. These cities were enormous, filthy, disorganised and dangerous. Never before had the institutions and infrastructure been built before for so many people to live in such close proximity to each other. Institutions had to be developed for managing these densely packed populations: schools, hospitals, sanitation, postal systems, welfare, and media.

The Factory and Frederick Taylor

A key figure in the development of the industrial factory was Frederick Taylor.

Taylor was by all accounts a strange man.

In his book Rebirth of a Nation, the historian Jackson Lears describes him as a

a neurotic obsessed with control… he relentlessly organised and measured the particulars of his life, down to and including the length of his stride when walking and the exact dimension of the fields where he and his friends played rounders.

Taylor did an apprenticeship as a machinist and decided that his fellow workers were slacking off.

Lears describes how Taylor responded.

Like many other skilled workers, machinists were caught in the contradictions of the piece rate. The more they produced, the more money they made – but only up to appoint. Then the boss cut the rate per piece to save labour costs. To the workers the solution was obvious: cool down the pace, have a smoke, shoot the breeze. Restrict output to maintain the going rate, and in the process maintain a companionable atmosphere in the workplace. Taylor was infuriated by these tactics. He cursed, he bulled, he ran the lathe himself to show how productively it could be done. Nothing worked.
Gradually be began to formulate a more effective strategy, Part of it was technological: new grinding machines, thicker belts, high speed steel that could withstand the temperatures produced by continuous use. Part of was motivational: a differential piece rate, which paid more to workers who produced more. But the core of the new strategy was the method Taylor devised for fixing the higher rate: disassembling each job into segments, timing the swiftest possible performance of each, and reassembling them to demonstrate ‘the one best way’ to machine a locomotive wheel or overhaul a boiler. Taylor wrote up each task as a series of steps on an instruction card, which he mounted at the job site. Worker were rewarded with the highest rate if they followed instructions.

But, bosses are always trying to find ways to monitor and proceduralise what you do so they can control how much you produce.

In the factories Taylor worked in and observed, the workers had a certain amount of power. They held the knowledge about how the object was made. They knew how to make the wheel, the boss didn’t. That meant they could effectively deceive the boss about how long it took to produce something.

Taylor wanted to change that. He wanted to create a factory where the knowledge was held in the institution and its processes and that knowledge could be used to direct the workers. This would shift the power to the owners of the factory. He devised a way of breaking the power of workers and dramatically increasing the efficiency of factories.

Taylor conducted a series of experiments. He observed and filmed workers say producing a car, or turning a wheel, or typing a document. He then broke down every single step of the process into a single part. Media technologies are an important part of this story. Taylor was an early pioneer in using film for surveillance purposes, filming workers and then slowing down the film to observe very carefully every action they took.

If a wheel was made by one worker, Taylor would break the process down into several steps, with the object being passed from worker to worker who each had responsibility for one step. A worker might be responsible for simple attaching one spoke to the hub before passing it to the next worker. Put one bolt in, turn one piece, and pass it on. All the worker knew was the one step they had responsibility for. From here, the factory could control the overall process by monitoring the productiveness of each worker at each step. The institution exerts power by ensuring no worker understands the whole process.

Taylor’s next step was to automate the process with the assembly line. Placing the workers in a line with the objects moving past them at a specified speed. Workers who couldn’t keep up would simply be sacked.

Fordism and Post-Fordism

A key character who employs and develops the ideas Taylor developed – which became known as Scientific Management – was Henry Ford, who is credited with creating the assembly line for producing cars. These assembly line factories became the backbone of industry in the twentieth century. This era or mode of production is often called Fordism after Henry Ford, and Taylor’s style of ‘scientific management’ gets called Taylorism after him.

The important point here is the power dynamics. It changes the relationship between craftsmen and the factory owner. Where once craftsmen exerted a kind of control over their job. Now they had little.

Factories would turn workers over, physically break them or burn them out, because they were more or less disposable. We arguably see the same dynamics in the enormous factories today in Southern China where most of the goods we purchase and use are produced. If you want to explore this some more check out some of the investigative journalism undertaken about Apple’s factories in China, such as the BBC Panorama investigation from 2014.

Organised unionism was in part a response to the power factory owners acquired in this era. Workers attempted to stick together to exert some kind of control over their working conditions. Ford was one of many factory owners who realised that the friction caused by mistreating workers could be counter-productive. He was one of the first factory owners to respond, not with better conditions as such, but with rewards for working harder.

Many jobs these days involve a system of monitoring, judgment and rewards. Employee of the Month schemes, annual bonuses for meeting targets, points for good conduct that can be spent on goods in store. The worker in the factory has little control over how the institution works. The institutions sets rules and then monitors how you fellow them and then rewards those who follow them well. This is a way of exercising power. The people who thrive in institutions are those who are rewarded for following the rules. The more you fit with the rules, the happier you are!

In institutions like industrial factories control – or power – is exercised by a combination of machines that do tasks humans once did, instructional rules and routines, and rewards. This combination of machines, rules and rewards is familiar in most of the institutions of the mass society.

So, why does this story about material goods, production lines and factories at the beginning of a study of media?

Well, there are at least three reasons.

Firstly, media technologies were used to make factories efficient by observing workers. Taylor filmed and photographed workers to devise ways of getting them to work more efficiently. And so, from the early days of the mass society media technologies have played a role in exerting power by monitoring and collecting information about us.

Secondly, media institutions came to resemble these factories. The newsrooms of major newspapers that emerged in the twentieth century operated like the assembly lines of factories

Journalists, editors, and sub-editors followed standardised routines for producing news to strict deadlines.

Furthermore, these organisations have rules and procedures. If you are a journalist at a newspaper you cannot rock up to work and write about whatever you like. You must adhere to the news values and style guide that your editor sets.

You must follow the rules and procedures of your newspaper. The commercial and political interests of the newspaper set those rules.

Media institutions are factories that make meaning. By the mid-twentieth century, these institutions were called ‘culture industries’. Professional communicators in these organisations are bit players in a larger production process.

Thirdly, the media played an important role in promoting the goods produced in factories – factory owners became the first serious investors in media businesses by purchasing content or advertising space.

Factory owners producing products needed to tell people about their products. They needed to advertise. This need to advertise created the streams of money that stimulated the development of commercial media businesses like mass circulation daily newspapers.

Newspapers became commercially viable because advertisers wanted to pay to put advertisements in them alongside the news. The same goes for commercial radio and television, except here advertisers could for a long time purchase or ‘sponsor’ the whole show. The genre of ‘soap operas’ is named because initially they were a genre funded entirely funded by soap companies.

The mass circulation of media goes hand in hand with industrial forms of production. Without factories to produce goods that needed to be bought and to pay wages to workers who would buy those goods, there would be nothing to advertise and nothing to fund the emergence of commercial media. Media technologies and institutions are critical to the organisation of day to day life, markets and political institutions in the mass society.