At Data & Society, I research and write about the history, vocabulary and theory we use to make sense of problematic information, from public relations to propaganda.
For the past several years, I have written about 20th-century corporate-sponsored 'economic education' media. More recently, I've been researching advocacy groups and other intermediaries with a stake in defining and shaping the emerging 'sharing economy'; and thinking about what propaganda might mean under 21st-century media conditions.
I have a variety of projects underway via the Media Manipulation research initiative at Data & Society, with some due to release in the coming months. This work largely concerns the historical question of propaganda in the era of social media. My Points piece, What's Propaganda Got to Do with It? is a good introduction to the work we'll be releasing over the summer and into the fall. You can see my whitepapers and public-facing writing at the "In Print" tab.
Research on the Tech Sector Logics initiative at Data & Society is ongoing; I will present work in progress on the history of direct marketing software at the Society for the History of Technology.
My dissertation is a comparative, historical study of corporate-sponsored media campaigns intended to teach the public about economics. Using textual and discursive interpretation, I analyze both the media texts themselves and the archival documentation of their production and distribution. Throughout, I draw out the cultural meanings my historical actors ascribed to the media technologies by which they distributed their messages to the public.
In this research I explore the political economies and cultural discourses of corporate-sponsored media in the late twentieth century as expressed through three such ‘economic education’ projects: The Advertising Council’s 1975 booklet The American Economic System and Your Place in It; public broadcasting station WQLN’s 1980 television series Free to Choose: A Personal Statement featuring economist Milton Friedman; and the business-advocacy organization Junior Achievement’s Applied Economics high school curriculum, which from 1983 onward provided high schools with curricular materials ranging from textbooks to digital simulation games.
Critics often charged that such corporate-sponsored 'economic education' media campaigns were simply propaganda for big business. However, the production records demonstrate that the sponsors, producers and distributors of such media very often considered their work to be a vital service to community and country. I argue that this public-service characterization of 'economic education' relied on particular shared understandings of media, democracy and the role of business in society. Further, I find that drawing on these shared understandings was a way of asserting social legitimacy and securing access to public resources.
For me this is not merely an historical exercise, but rather a way to open up new perspectives on contemporary practices. In our own time, banks and other corporations fund the production of digital economic literacy media, bolstered by narratives of technological empowerment and entrepreneurial opportunity; activists create online role-playing games to dramatize the pressures of living on a low wage; and a new set of institutional intermediaries is emerging to advocate for or against practices within the 'sharing economy.' My dissertation work complicates and historicizes these present-day efforts.