Mental Speed and the Crisis of Mass Communication in the Early 20th-Century United States

Long before the invention of the 24/7 news cycle, interwar social critics warned that the speed of mass media, especially its new broadcast varieties, constituted a crisis for democracies. For one critic, radio advertising and fascist propaganda left the listener "[hear]ing one after another an endless succession of totally unconnected things, and so entirely without a breathing space that he does not manage subsequently to ponder and consider what he has heard." In arguing that the accelerated pace of mass media undermined informed and rational behaviour, these social critics assumed that the mind itself had a less adjustable pace, or what Information Age psychologists would later call "processing speed." The perceived gap between the speed of the media and its audiences has, needless to say, troubled critics ever since.

What made the perceived crisis of modern mass communication possible, this talk argues, was early 20th-century psychologists' equation of intelligence with mental speed. This talk traces that equation to the transformation of clerical work and the advent of timed testing. A new and controversial practice, timed testing did not so much measure established conceptions of knowledge, intelligence, and comprehension as create new ones. Yet as psychological research conducted in laboratories and classrooms across the country was applied to radio audiences, the idea of mental efficiency helped convince observers that the new kind of media threatened democracy itself.

This talk will be situated in the presenter's larger project, which examines the chronopolitics of American culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This broader project asks how Americans came to attribute changes in the period to an inevitable, technologically determined acceleration--and what power relations this discourse of speed overlooked and concealed.


Justin Clark is Assistant Professor of History at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Date & time

Tue 28 May 2019, 4.30–5.45pm


Theatrette (2.02), Sir Roland Wilson Building, Building #120, McCoy Circuit, ANU


Dr Justin Clark (Nanyang Technological University)

Event series


Humanities Research Centre
+61 2 6125 4357


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