The Tenth Great Power
This was first written in 2002
“My fellow citizens”…
“Napoleon spoke of the press as the ‘seventh great power.’ Its significance became politically visible with the beginning of the French Revolution,…” begins Joseph Goebbels in a 1933 speech opening the tenth German radio exhibition. He goes on to name radio the eighth great power. “The November regime…” he continues, “…was almost blind to the possibilities of this modern method of influencing the masses.”
Jump ahead five years to 1938 and the New York worlds Fair for a preview of the ninth great power. “People stood in awe in front of a little screen…,” my father reminisced as we visited the 1964 New York World’s Fair together. An 83 year old gentleman I met recently reinforced Dad’s telling, having been there and seen it himself as well. Reminding the gentleman that he had also seen a “Picture telephone” at the 1938 fair, he wondered if it would ever come to pass. He probably has not seen a “Web Cam.”
After several years, the ninth great power, visual media in the form television, took over from radio and the press, and has been the dominant political and cultural influence in Western civilization for the last half century. We don’t just hear or read that the famous Lindenbergh baby has taken out of the bedroom window. Nowadays, via television, we get to personally know Elizabeth Smart, Al Gore, the mother who beat her child in the SUV, and every suspected kidnapper, or killer. They all become famous, or infamous to us. And we are told, time and again, that our world is getting worse. It’s not getting worse, it’s getting different-- In fact, our world is far better than Napoleon’s or Goebbels’ for that matter.
We can still, however, make our own information and entertainment choices. We have freedom, if you will, regarding what we read, hear, see, and believe. We can sit at home on a Sunday morning and read the Bible, the Koran, a newspaper, listen to music, or just watch a football game. One of us may choose to read the New York Times, while another likes the Christian Science Monitor, or the local Sentinel in our own home town. Another may prefer to read a magazine like Newsweek, or Rolling Stone.
We can still tune to the radio or television stations of our choice. If we don’t agree with Rush Limbaugh, we have the freedom to watch Peter Jennings, we can watch FOX news, or PBS, it’s our choice. We can also shut them both off and read a book or newspaper.
Today, most Americans get their information, opinions, and news on television, along with their entertainment, as Goebbels had envisioned. “We do not intend to use the radio only for our partisan purposes. We want room for entertainment, popular arts, games, jokes and music.” Goebbels continued in his speech.
We still have a choice; however as to what we watch, read or hear. You buy a new television set, and you have to turn it to a channel to use it. You pick up your new car, and you preset the radio buttons to stations you like. If you want to buy a newspaper on your way home, you need to pick one from the rack, or ask for one by name.
But a tenth great power is upon us, a new alliance, if you will. The World Wide Web, and the “personal computers” that put its information in front of our eyes. Along with this great new power, unlike the press of Napoleons’ time, the radio or Goebbels or the Television of my fathers day, comes a new way for a very elite few to influence the current “masses.” The web has the potential for a very small group to control all of the information that the “masses” of the entire world will be able to see.
There are presently more than five billion web pages on the World Wide Web today, up from zero just ten years ago. The vast majority of those pages are hosted in the United States.
What scares me is not the Volksempfänge, as Goebbels called the cheap radio receiver, introduced in 1933, the Nazi’s planned to use to propagandize and entertain the German people, and the rest of the world as well with “…a radio that also reaches across our borders to give the world a picture of our life and our work..”
This modern day Volksempfänge does not need to be tuned in to any particular frequency to work its wonders. We are making personal computers by the millions, and almost all of those millions come already tuned in to, and “default” or stay tuned in to: http://www.msn.com or http://www.aol.com if you happen to subscribe to AOL. We can visit any page we want, read any book we wish. But each time we turn it on, this new propaganda machine goes right back to the default home page and most of us will never change it, or even know how to change it.
It is probably a very good thing that Joseph Goebbels is not alive today, and that he does not work for Microsoft or America On Line. He would have quickly recognized this new tenth power-- the “World Wide Web”-- as the greatest power ever unleashed!
Who does recognize it?