This thesis examines congressional discussions of media technologies at two distinct historical moments in order to see how Congress evaluated and sought to regulate technologies with the potential to reshape public modes of thought and communication. Specifically, it examines congressional discussions centered around Television and the Fairness Doctrine, as well as Facebook and the recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica by asking how Congress has understood what is at stake while attempting to regulate emerging media technologies. Specifically, it probes questions such as: What is assumed about the technologies while attempting to legislate them? What is treated as subject to assessment and revision; what is given priority for consideration over other alternate angles? How do the legal and political contexts in which these discussions are framed impact legislative proceedings and society’s ways of knowing and relating to the world?
While these moments are only a subset of such moments in US history, and Congress is only one of a range of forums in which such political discussions can take place, the thesis focuses on these cases because not only are they important in themselves, but also they reveal issues and approaches that are not unique to these moments. The thesis draws on the on the work of Neil Postman, who argues that the emergence and subsequent dominance of media like television have the capacity to alter the manner in which we think and thus have profound effects on the texture and character of American civic life. In this vein it uses a comparison of how lawmakers attempted to regulate television and social media platforms like Facebook to explore whether and how lawmakers have attended to the capacity of these media to shape public thought.
The thesis demonstrates that understanding of media’s epistemological influence is only ever tacitly acknowledged by lawmakers and is not regarded as an important consideration during evaluative legislative efforts. Instead, Congress tends to focus on matters that are of immediate concern and pragmatic in nature, eclipsing questions about how these technologies fundamentally alter our perceptions of the world and the ways we as individuals and as a society relate to it. By not taking such questions into account during our legislative proceedings, the thesis argues, we cede opportunities to employ and regulate technologies to better serve our cultural ideals and remain susceptible to unwanted forms of cultural erosion mediated by technologies.