A century of technology

The rise of mass media

a man in a suit solemnly shakes the hand of a housewife in the woman's living room, in front of their TV

The evolution of mass media in the 20th century reflects the continuous advancements made in technology, while also revealing a lot about consumers as well. People’s aspirations, wishes and lifestyles were increasingly influenced by what they saw on television or heard on the radio. While actively shaping consumers’ thoughts and actions, media in turn started responding to people’s evolving social stratospheres and beliefs, in an attempt to cater ever better to their needs.

A man in a black suit looks sternly at a large recording camera on a tripod, while a crowd of onlookers stands in the background

Cinema was at the roots of the stellar rise of mass media early in the century, followed by radio in the 1920s and the arrival of regular television broadcasts in the late 1930s. Within just a few decades, technology made cultural experiences more accessible and information more readily available to all.

a woman looks over her shoulder and smiles for the camera while purchasing a movie ticket from another woman behind the counter at the entrance of a movie theatre.

While cinema catered to those preferring to step out for entertainment, radio, television as well as music and video devices, moved the media experience into the home. The proliferation of such new outlets lowered the costs of cultural participation, as enjoying cable TV, playing CDsor renting a movie soon became possible at a much lower cost than a night out.

Celebrating the 500.000th viewer in the Netherlands, reporting straight from the living room of the Oomen family, 1959. Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. In copyright

As mass media became more ubiquitous and impactful throughout the century, the emphasis on tuning content to the demands and likes of consumers grew stronger. An example is the introduction of the remote control: not just a practical gimmick, but a symbol of handing over the decision-making power to the consumer.

A black and white photograph of a hand holding a black rectangular chunky remote control with shiny chrome buttons.

Cable TV managed to conquer a vast place in the market not only because of the diversity of its offering, but also by introducing a very 20th-century ritual: flipping through channels looking for something (or nothing). While multi-channel access empowered viewers to select the content of their choice, video players enabled them to control time.

Recording TV programmes allowed consumers to not only watch at any given moment, but also to manipulate content by rewinding or fast-forwarding, choosing whether or not to watch commercials and clustering programmes or episodes to reconfigure the media experience to their personal preference.

Two girls are dancing and clapping in a living room. Four more people sit around in sofas and armchairs, watching the dance.

As the idea of home cinema and audio entertainment gained traction, collections of videotapes, DVDs, cassettes, vinyl records and CDs became an expression of identity and personality. They also saw the emergence of communities of like-minded fans.

Media devices and gadgets started to reflect status. In Eastern Europe during the Cold War, possessing a record of a Western band was guaranteed to improve the owner’s social standing. But as financial shortcomings and limited access prevented people in Soviet countries from fully partaking in the Western media experience, videotapes and cassettes started to be copied en masse with no regard for copyright. Legislation, large-scale investigations, targeted police actions and heightened security measures haven’t been able to stop the phenomenon of ‘piracy’ continuing to infest the market.

Chasing video pirates in Poland, 1991. Deutsche Welle. In copyright

The preponderance of piracy is closely linked to the gratification consumers find in all matters media. Being up-to-date with new devices, shows or personalities has come to symbolise economic prosperity and signifies that one is modern, aware, enlightened even. In that sense, history definitely repeats itself: the pride of owning a radio receiver in the 1920s is socially comparable to that of having internet access in the 1990s.

An advertisement poster where q woman alluringly poses behind a black CRT television, with flowers shown on the television and the rest of the set.

The aspirational nature of media consumerism has furthered the evolution of the technologies it depends upon. With promises of faster, better quality and portable devices, customers are constantly enticed to return-shopping. Over the decades the effect of this vicious cycle has not waned. If anything, the pace of the back-and-forth between eager consumer and innovative industry has dramatically increased.

A smiling man in a suit carries two suitcase-sized televisions under one arm, standing in an electronics store with more televisions lining the walls.
A man in a futuristic suit and wearing long black latex gloves pulls a glass globe from a container. In the glass globe, a still from a cartoon television series is visible, frozen in time.

The process of revolutionary technologies growing more affordable and moving from well-established insiders to mainstream consumers, has fed into a never-ending rivalry between new and traditional media. It was said that television would kill cinema, home audio would terminate the music industry and the internet - well, the internet would disrupt everything.

a group of youngsters face the left and cheer and laugh, raising their arms.

The first music video ever shown on MTV in the US - The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star - was visionary but its prediction didn’t fully materialise: new media have changed rather than eliminated their predecessors. They also created new cross-media connections and entertainment blends: from radio shows broadcasting movie reviews, to TV channels showing radio studios, movie trailers promoting new technologies and websites offering complementary broadcast services.

RTÉ News goes online and becomes available anywhere in the world, 1999. RTÉ. In copyright

As a result, the media is more present in our lives than ever. Portable, online, convergent: with new technologies, devices and gadgets have become a crucial part of our personalities and societies. But with customised and specialised applications, new challenges have also emerged: filter bubbles, fake news, algorithms operating on user preferences to name but a few.

The future of media predicting the omnipresence of screens and mobile internet, 1947. ORTF, Institut national de l'audiovisuel. In copyright

Furthermore, the preponderance of cutting-edge media has caused some consumers to return to traditional formats and old school devices. ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘retromania’ have been trending in recent years. So on which side of the spectre do you find yourself? Missing your VHS or curious about ‘the next big thing’?