The Magazine and Generation X

Evolving Media and Technological Culture

Stephen Bau
Oct 10, 2018 · 14 min read

I am looking back over 50 years of my life, growing up evangelical in Canada. In the early years, I felt confused and fearful. Now I am disgusted and angry, coming to terms with a social identity that is unravelling in light of a growing awareness of a wider reality, an evolving perspective as I try to compare my point of view to the lived experiences of others.

by Stephen Bau

COMM 112, Section A
Prof. G. Forsberg
April 6, 1992

ma·ga·zine n. [OFr. magazine < OItal. magazzino < Ar. Makhazin, pl. of makzan, storehouse < khazana, to store.] 1. a. a place for storage, esp. of ammunition. b. The contents of a storehouse, esp. a stock of ammunition. 2. A periodical containing a collection of articles, stories, pictures, or other features. 3. a. A compartment in some types of firearms for holding cartridges that are fed into the firing chamber. b. A compartment in a camera for holding rolls or cartridges of film that are fed through the exposure mechanism. c. Any of various compartments attached to machines for storing or supply necessary material.

word history: The use of magazine to mean “a periodical publication” is a specialized development of the original, more general sense “storehouse.” Magazine was at one time used in book titles to mean a storehouse of information on a special topic, equivalent to the use of encyclopedia today. The word was also used in titles of periodical publications that contained a storehouse of miscellaneous literary works, articles on various topics, and other features. From the latter use the word magazine became a generic term for all such publications. (Webster’s II 714)

In the marketplace of ideas, the print medium that best reflects and represents the diverse interests and opinions of the popular culture is the magazine, or periodical, considering the volume of formats: consumer magazines, trade journals, sponsored publications, farm publications, comics (DeFleur & Dennis 130–1); and the variety of subject matter and content: news, articles, essays, fiction, illustrations, photography, sports, politics, science, business, economics, fashions, art, sex music, etc. (Wood 350–1). Of those who consume these magazines, one significant market is that group referred to in Douglas Coupland’s novel of the same name: generation X, those born in the late 1950s and 1960s, now in their twenties and early thirties. To begin to understand the role of the magazine in shaping the beliefs, attitudes, and values of the X generation requires a critical evaluation of the magazine’s structural characteristics as well as its development, alongside other technologies and media, as a major form of mass communication.

The magazine’s influence has changed over the course of its history much as the cultural and social environment has been altered by the introduction of new technologies and through the “constant interplay with other media” (McLuhan, Understanding Media 39). The magazine, as a medium, owes its existence to several pivotal technological innovations, each of which have “had psychic and social consequences that suddenly shifted previous boundaries and patterns of culture” (McLuhan, Understanding 156). The invention of phonetic writing by ancient Semites around 1500 BC (Ong 89) and the later perfection of the alphabet by the greeks between 1,000 and 700 BC (Meggs, History 39) gave mankind the ability to represent sounds as visual symbols, to transform “oral-aural speech” into the written word (Ong 85). Obviously, without the alphabet, magazines could not exist in their present form as “storehouses” of information. The alphabet not only gave oral speech a form which could extend the boundaries of time and distance, able to provide an identical message to large numbers of people in different places and in different times, but it also enhanced, and in some cases replaced, memory; caused shifts toward abstract, analytical, logical thinking, introversion and individualism; and made possible new systems of knowledge such as philosophy, theology and science, and alternative systems of social organization (McLuhan 84–90; Ong 104).

Without the ability to reproduce written or typographic information afforded by the invention, by Gutenburg in the mid-fifteenth century AD, of the printing press and movable type, the magazine would be an economic and practical impossibility. This “mechanization” of writing introduced the concepts of “uniformity and repeatability,” and, consequently, the uniformity and continuity of time and space; the “emergence of nationalism”; the fragmentation of knowledge; “the separation of thought and feeling”; the portable, accessible, marketable nature of information; and, eventually, the industrial revolution (Meggs, History 78; McLuhan, Understanding 155–62).

Populations grew as the mechanization of agriculture and production increased the availability of food and goods: the diminishing need for farmers and the “spread of transportation” networks forced large numbers of people from rural areas to urban centres in search of work; and education became more and more accessible as books became cheaper and “education for all citizens” was legislated. Each of these factors played a critical role in developing a market which could realistically support the publication and distribution of magazines. Industrialization, the first step in the development of the consumer society, created a surplus of products which needed a market. The need for consumer product advertising on a national scale brought about a need for specialized magazines. The rapid population growth afforded by the increased production of food and goods provided a larger and more diverse magazine market. Urbanization, by concentrating populations and providing a transportation infrastructure, made magazine distribution practical and economical. The spread of education dramatically increased the potential readership, making it possible for many of the literary and religious magazines, though they generally shunned the use of advertising, to remain extremely successful, depending solely on circulation to generate revenue (DeFleur & Dennis 116–18; Leiss, Kline & Jhally 100).

The first periodical publication of its kind to provide an alternative to the newspapers of the day, The Review, was founded in 1704 by Daniel Defoe for the dual purpose of political commentary and entertainment. This new print medium, first given the name magazine with the publication of Edward Cave’s Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1731, caught on quickly. It distinguished itself from the newspapers by the quality and variety of content, and the accomplishment and notoriety of contributing writers, thus attracting an “affluent, well-educated” audience. it was not, at first, a medium for the masses, but rather for the elite, not only for reasons of content, but also because the cost of subscribing was so high that magazines were generally affordable only for the well-to-do (DeFleur & Dennis 111–12). The impact of industrialization, population growth, urbanization, and accessible education was to transform the magazine from a forum for literary works and editorial opinion into primarily a vehicle for national consumer product advertising.

The illustrated magazines, leading the way with innovations in photographic and colour reproduction techniques, altered the print media and advertising industry alike, because they demonstrated the economic vitality of cheap, high-circulation journals that relied on advertising revenue (Leiss, Kline & Jhally 101).

As a result of the commercialization of the print media at the turn of the century, magazines came to find themselves in a strategic position between manufacturers, advertisers and consumers. As advertising became the major source of revenue for both newspapers and magazines, publishers found that more than selling magazines on the basis of the appeal of their contents, they were selling audiences to advertisers on the basis of the interests and consumption patterns of the magazine’s readership (Leiss, Kline 7 Jhally 102). It was on this idea that the concept of market research was founded, as a valuable service to advertisers in understanding “…how consumers experience the meaning of products and how they formulate the intention to purchase; and [how] to construct persuasive communications strategies on the basis of that understanding that will reach the inner experience of persons” (147).

The advertising industry, armed with the data concerning consumers’ “media use and product preferences” (Leiss, Kline & Jhally 147), assumed the task of social cohesion through the creation of what Daniel Boorstin calls “consumption communities” (57), and paved the way towards the building of our present national consumer culture. Over the course of the history of advertising since 1890, the purpose of advertising has shifted from simply selling products by providing descriptive information concerning their quality and utility to crating a desire for the product by attributing symbolic values to goods, by associating them with various images of self-transformation, and by selling a lifestyle rather than a product, stressing the “attractiveness of the community” or the setting in which the product is used or consumed. Advertising, by constantly exposing populations to “persons, products and images of well-being, became a form of social communication, influencing beliefs, attitudes, and values that would correspond with those needed to sustain a consumer society (Leiss, Kline & Jhally 327–9).

With the invention of electricity and the telegraph, words were able to transcend the barriers of time and space, to travel vast distances at the speed of light. the unfortunate result was what Neil Postman refers to as the “decontextualized information environment” (67). The immediacy and instancy afforded by the telegraph revolutionized the methods of information gathering and dramatically altered the language, style and content of the information presented, favouring trivial and isolated facts or “news” over editorial opinions. The news generally consisted, and still does, of “information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action (McLuhan, Understanding 226; Postman 68).

At about the same time that the telegraph was compressing the perception of time and space, Daguerre and Talbot were bringing the technology of photography to the world, and creating a new “epistemological bias”: “seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing.” Through what Daniel Boorstin calls the “graphic revolution” (Postman 74), the photograph replaced and undermined our previously text-centred understanding of reality.

László Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky [influential designers of the 1920s Constructivist avant-garde] embraced the image as a supplement to and even replacement for the word, and they were especially entranced by mechanically transmitted pictures — photographic, lithographic, and telegraphic. (Lupton 62)

Moholy-Nagy’s passion for typography and photography inspired [an] interest in visual communications and led to important experiments in the unification of typography and photography. [He] saw graphic design … as evolving toward the typophoto. He called this objective integration of word and image to communicate a message with immediacy “the new visual literature” (Meggs, History 332).

Magazine advertising quickly adopted the style of this “visual literature” as immediacy of communication became essential in the contest, with editorial content and increasingly other media, for the attention of the reader. But, according to Neil Postman, photography married with typography created the “illusion” of a context for the information presented in newsmagazines and newspapers, a context without a connection to “action, or problem-solving, or change” in the real world (75).

When radio became a commercial institution in the 1920s, the new national radio networks rather than the newspapers became the magazine industry’s primary rival in the competition for advertising revenue. Faced with this challenge, magazines set up marketing departments and research services in order to help attract larger and more specialized audiences and, thus, increase the amount of advertising revenue they could solicit. They could also provide audience research services to advertisers to aid in their decisions concerning ad placement and campaign strategy (Leiss, Kline & Jhally 103–7).

During its adoption in the 1950s, television, since it was as entirely dependent on advertising revenue as radio, became for magazines a significantly greater rival in the competition for national brand advertising. Consequently, most national general-interest magazines virtually disappeared as advertising was shifted to television. Some magazines, by narrowing the focus of their content and shifting from national to specialized market advertising, occasionally relying more heavily on subscription revenue, were able to survive the impact of television. Using market research to their advantage, controlled-circulation magazines, distributing free of charge to affluent areas or to those on selective mailing lists, based their equally upscale advertising rates on demographic surveys which indicated that advertisers would reach and influence a readership that would give them a high rate or return on their investment (Leiss, Kline & Jhally 105–7). Therefore, those magazines with a more limited readership tended to reflect the views and interests of the affluent. Alternatively, those that achieved a high circulation generally pandered to the lowest common denominator. That the “TV Guide is not the number one bestseller of all periodicals published in the United States” (Nourie, “TV Guide” 519) illustrates the present state of public discourse concerning television — that is, about is content” (Postman 79).

The microcomputer, through the democratization of production, is presently “changing the institution of magazine publishing — its cost (cheaper), its bureaucracy (smaller), its subject matter (more specialized), its market (more focused).” Perhaps the greatest impact of the computer will be the proliferation of new magazines and an increased demand for talented people who are willing to face the “challenges of technology” and able to fill a variety of roles in the process of “conceiving, structuring, and editing the content of publications” (Lupton 67, 196).

The magazine, as its “meaning and existence” has been molded by technological innovations, has had, along with other media, an impact on the psychological as well as the social environment (McLuhan, Understanding Media 39, 156) out of which generation X was born. Coinciding with the synthesis of typography and photography, there was collision between abstract conceptual literacy and concrete visual imagery, and reality was split between the apparently exclusive domains of “objective” sensory perception of the material world and “subjective” spiritual or psychological experience. As Einstein’s theory of relativity and the splitting of the atom ushered in the Nuclear Age, the entrance of relativism and materialism onto the stage of social consciousness was helping to set the scene for the Age of Anxiety.

When confronted with an incessantly changing world, people tended toward “other-directedness,” characterized by a “diffuse anxiety” that guided a person’s behaviour toward conformity to the expectations of his or her peers (Riesman 72). From this social environment sprung the “therapeutic ethos,” an individual obsession based on the “generation and maintenance of selfhood” (Leiss, Kline 7 Jhally 58). In rejecting both of these systems of values and in reaction to what they perceived to be the absurdly arbitrary and meaningless nature of existence, intellectuals raised the importance of freedom and individual autonomy as opposed to conformity. Though many others exist, these are the values that have filtered down, through the influence of such mass communication media as magazines, into popular culture to become an integral part of the psychological makeup of the X generation.

While the character of the X generation is by no means homogenous, it may be open to a number of broad generalizations, which are evident in popular music, literature, and magazines, concerning predominant beliefs, attitudes, and values. A large percentage of the X generation could be characterized as the “young and disenfranchised” (Coupland 144). They generally experience “alienation and disillusionment” with the consumer society (Wozencroft & Brody), feeling that the material and social success that advertisers propagate is, at least for themselves, unobtainable and ultimately futile. Yet they retain a degree of envy of those who have apparently achieved such “success,” the yuppies, despite the contempt they share for these “rampant consumer[s]” (Black 62) who represent the “hollowness of our present culture and the bankruptcy of meaning” (Wozencroft & Brody). Their ambivalence towards the future arises from a number of commonly experienced emotions: existential angst as result of the “steady decline into meaninglessness and superficiality” (Bonnici); fear of the bomb and nuclear annihilation; a feeling of “futurelessness” (Coupland 86) derived from the anticipation of an impending political, environmental, and economic disaster; frustration from being underemployed and overeducated; apathy from drowning in a “sea of information [where] there [is] very little of it to use” (Postman 67); desensitization from over-exposure to sensory stimulation (Wozencroft & Brody); personal anonymity caused by the transient, superficial nature of relationships within “consumption communities,” as well as the regard held by the mass media toward their audiences as commodities to be “sold” to advertisers; and helplessness in altering the “inevitability of progress” (Postman 158) or controlling the technological environment they find themselves in (Gumpert 6).

Generation X has inherited a technological environment in which magazines, along with other media, have dominated the social communication that has shaped our consumer-oriented culture and altered our personal beliefs, attitudes, and values. The direction in which this communication has take our culture provides little hope for a generation in desperate need of a strong identity, a meaningful purpose, and an optimistic future. Leiss, Kline & Jhally, in their study on the role of advertising in social communication, recommend “a more democratically determined discourse [about the role of goods in our lives] in which commercial interests have a educed but still prominent role.” One such recommendation encouraged restrictions or constraints on the deeply entrenched cultural institution of advertising which presently dominates this discourse (Leiss, Kline & Jhally 383). Neil Postman, a communication scholar and media ecologist, believes the discussion should be brought into the schools, where educators should “engage in the task of demythologizing media” so that students are able to view the media critically and objectively, and to “interpret the symbols of the culture” (Postman 162–3). Louis Danziger, out of his experience as a graphic designer, believes “that designers [can] do socially relevant advertising offering the viewer something of value.” As an educator, he believes in teaching students “morality … and instilling in them a system of values about their work and their lives …” so that they are able to “develop individual thinking and critical judgment” (Meggs, “Notes” 74, 76). While I agree with each of them whole-heartedly, I believe the ultimate answer to the ambivalence and pessimism of the X generation goes beyond the restructuring of institutions and beyond the shifting of social discourse to the sphere of public education.

The answer lies in the transformation of the heart of the individuals as a result of the empowering grace of Jesus Christ, who provides a secure identity as God’s child, a meaningful purpose in loving God and others, and a glorious eternity for those who would place their trust in Him.

Author’s Note

A quarter century later: It’s interesting how I felt obligated to couch my research in spiritual terms and sanctify the work with an appropriate conclusion. I would certainly hesitate to do so now, given the argument that the motivations of the evangelical political voting block has been a front for a white supremacist movement to assume power of law and government and limit the access and rights of those who do not fit their standards for inclusion in American society.

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Stephen Bau

Written by

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design. https://stephenbau.com

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