From Media Effects to the Empathy Machine: The Nature of the Audience and the Persistence of Wishful Thinking

A chapter from A Companion to Documentary Film History:

The narrative of media’s potential to change the world is an ancient one. This chapter focuses on the audience and the shifting and often contradictory claims made for it, particularly in light of the documentary project. Marketing specialists and academics alike developed media effects theories, each distinguished by varying degrees of media causality and audience agency. The names of scholars such as Lasswell, Lazarsfeld et al., and Klapper have been cemented into the foundations of mass communications as a discipline, and their ideas continue to circulate, even if implicitly, when discussing virtual reality as “empathy machine.” The film medium took form in a world of change. A rapid increase in urban inhabitants helped along by migratory populations; concentrated industrial development and with it unequal distributions of resources; new ideologies and challenges to inherited social norms: all these and more rendered the state and its primary beneficiaries precarious.

“From Media Effects to the Empathy Machine: The Nature of the Audience and the Persistence of Wishful Thinking”

William Uricchio

About William Uricchio

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks about algorithms and archives; and researches narrative in immersive and interactive settings. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, founder and Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and Principal Investigator of the Co-Creation Studio. He was also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has received Guggenheim, Humboldt, and Fulbright fellowships, the Berlin Prize, and the Mercator Prize. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; Collective Wisdom: Co-Creating Media Within Communities, across Disciplines and with Algorithms, and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently leading a two-year research initiative on augmentation and public spaces with partners in Montreal and Amsterdam.


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