When a new communications technology first comes along, its developers and proponents are convinced that a new day is dawning. The telegraph, the telephone (landline and cell phones), radio, TV and the Internet all rest upon an important base of new hardware, and illustrate a unifying theme -- the initial hope that large groups of ordinary people would be empowered to communicate with each other in a brand new, different, flexible and affordable manner. Power to the people! Sometimes it works out that way and sometimes not.
Random sample polling is another major communications technology, one not usually compared with these others because it is not based on new hardware. Its historic evolution will be addressed after a brief look at the extent to which other technologies worked to empower people.
Within a few years of their initial availability, the broadcasting of Radio and TV became dominated and controlled by advertisers and underwriters. Beyond the establishment of some call-in talk shows in recent years (which are themselves controlled by the mainstream media), little empowerment for communications amongst ordinary people today remain in broadcasting.
Telephony, was highly regulated and by the early 20th century was available at a reasonable cost to almost everybody, now well over 90% of the population in developed countries. Telegraphy preceding (and cell phones following) the telephone had similar stories. These technologies evolved from their initial appearance right through to the present day helping people to communicate with each other, broadly, widely and affordably. They were never taken over by wealthy elites. Of course, this does not mean that little money was made by those who were involved or benefited from the growth and evolution of the telephone network and its technology. Quite the contrary.
After its first few years, the Internet was permitted to open up for the general public. Soon thereafter a large fraction of Internet traffic came to benefit commerce. E-commerce still is dominated by the most powerful companies. But the story takes a different turn from either radio/TV or telephony. Many Internet applications in practice are open to many thousands of ordinary people for initiating communication networks with audiences potentially in the millions. This phenomenon both forces the attention of political leaders, and produces counter-reactions by others with strongly different agendas and viewpoints. Many of these networks are making a huge pro-democracy impact (think 527 organizations and bloggers).
A polling critic column, No. 9, looked at the early years of polling. There contemporaneous polls found remarkable comparisons before, during and after two historic events, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, and the unprecedented homeland attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A bit more on the early days of polling, 1936-1940, can also be found in column No. 38.
Good polling was a technological innovation as much as any of the other communications technologies considered here. Optimistic hopes stirred the early random sample polling developers, Elmo Roper and George Gallup. They believed their technology would empower the American people to achieve a new democracy. Their results and enthusiasm for an amazing future not only convinced their polling customers but also the mainstream media. How mainstream? Fortune magazine was headed by Henry Luce. Controlling also Life, Time, and Sports Illustrated, Henry Luce was the top media mogul of his day. To see how much the world has changed, read here how Fortune publicized the power of polling by its own "World Pioneer of Statistical Surveys," as extracted from Fortune magazine in 1942, 63 years ago:
Elmo Roper is a World Pioneer of Statistical Surveys of dispassionately assessing public opinion. He was research director of FORTUNE's surveys of Public Opinion which started in July 1935. "As I see it, the technique of public opinion research may be capable of being used to effect the greatest contribution to the democratic process since the secret ballot. It can be useful in war and in peace, on immediate problems and in the long pull."
Five years ago, one of George Gallup Sr.'s associates back in the 1960s, Winston (Wink) Franklin, wrote "Gallup was a true believer in public-interest polling and would be appalled if he could see how opinion polling is used today." The data in this story confirms Franklinís viewpoint
Both the Gallup and Roper polling organizations evolved over the years and their successors have become very successful commercial pollsters, not public-interest pollsters.
As no less than six preceding columns (Nos. 14, 24, 26, 38, 40, 41) have emphasized, in recent decades commercial pollsters have been captured by big money elites, public-interest polling has become almost unknown (less than 1% of all political polls), and democracy hangs by a thread.
The story is quite different from and sadder than all the other major communications technology innovations, except perhaps broadcasting.
Fortune Magazine, February 1942