General Question

Harp's avatar

Who are some of the forgotten shapers of our society?

Asked by Harp (19130points) April 27th, 2009

I’ve been watching a BBC series that talks about a man I’d never heard of, Edward Bernays, who pioneered the application of his uncle Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories to marketing and mass influence. He was the inventor of the field of Public Relations; the pioneer of the appeal to emotion and desire in advertising; the strategist behind the social acceptance of smoking among women; the advisor behind much of the Cold War propaganda strategy; the engineer of a Guatemalan political coup; the force behind a PR campaign to link capitalism and democracy in the minds of the American public…and on and on.

Watching this, I’m astonished to see that this one man is at the root of American consumerism as we know it, yet he’s now virtually unknown to those of us awash in the culture he spawned.

This makes me wonder who else may have strongly influenced how we live and think, then passed into obscurity.

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18 Answers

DeanV's avatar

Personally, I think George Creel would be up there on the list, not just because of shaping of modern propaganda and the current media and film industry, but also because of his long-lasting effect on newer businesses/businessman, like Rupert Murdoch, who called Creel the most influential person in his life.

But mostly because I just did a report on him, and he was the first person that came to mind.

Jeruba's avatar

Probably we should mention Raymond Loewy, touted as the “father of industrial design.” I read about him in Henry Petroski’s interesting book The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts—From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers—Came to Be as They Are, which I found out about right here on fluther. Loewy was responsible for the shape and appearance of an awful lot of what we see around us.

RedPowerLady's avatar

I just watched a Great hallmark movie about Irena Sendler. She helped children escape the Nazi concentration camps by placing them with German families. She was tortured at some point.

I also say that MANY, maybe most, Native Americans are forgotten. And we have many, including some greats today. The ones who are noticed are often the ones who helped the settlers (i.e Sacajawea) and the random few chiefs who upheld the image of the stereotypical “Indian”.

SquirrelEStuff's avatar


Finally checking out Century of the Self I see. What a great flick.

I would say that the Rockefeller’s and Rothchild’s have been huge shapers of our society. Check out Behold the Pale Horse written by William Cooper to see how they used Bernays and public relations to help mold our society into what it has become.

fireside's avatar

The Century of Self was a great series.

I think Dr. Spock had a huge impact on the baby boomers and subsequent generations.
Like Bernays, he had a lot of theories which were used to over indulge the individual ego.

Jeruba's avatar

@fireside, true, but he wouldn’t be one of the forgotten ones, would you say?

(Not only did my parents read Dr. Spock, but I did, too, to find out how I was being handled.)

phoenyx's avatar

Nikola Tesla for his work on electricity and magnetism.

Also, I think a lot less of Edison now.

fireside's avatar

@Jeruba – I would say that Dr. Spock’s influence is at risk of being forgotten. Many people my generation (I’m 34 now) may have heard of Dr. Spock and know that he has something to do with child care but not everyone has read his works or understands how he may have influenced society.

The same could be said of James Murray, who pioneered the creation of the Oxford English dictionary. Not a lot of people understand the kind of large network of volunteers that Murray spearheaded in his quest to canonize the English language as a growing and evolving language. The Meaning of Everything is a good book that details this effort.

In a similar vein, not everyone is aware that Cervantes was really the writer of the first modern-style novel, even though many have heard of Don Quixote.

Harp's avatar

Just thought of another: Frederick Winslow Taylor, the champion of rationalizing industrial production methods using scientific principles to maximize efficiency. He brought the stopwatch into the factory, analyzed each minute step of each process and developed precise scripts for each of these steps, establishing “the one best way” to do it.

He also institutionalized the division between labor and management. In his scheme management was the “brains” of the operation, solely responsible for establishing the rules of production and assuring that the workmen followed those rules. The workman was simply to perform each step as instructed. Here’s what he thought of the workman’s capacities for understanding his job: “I can say, without the slightest hesitation that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is… physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron”.

His “scientific principles” lead to an explosion in the productivity of American industry, tensions between labor and management, and started the decline of the ideal of craftsmanship in America. Craftsmanship was antithetical to Taylor’s philosophy.

Jeruba's avatar

@Harp, I never knew that that’s what happened to craftsmanship. All along I’ve thought it was greed and impatience. What a great shame.

Do we have Taylor to thank for the fact that managers are in love with metrics, no matter how impossible it is to quantify some functions? and that measurement defines value in education?

SquirrelEStuff's avatar


Thank you for that information on Frederick Winslow Taylor. I have never heard of him before, but his philosophy make a lot of sense, especially when thinking of knowledge that the “elite” have available that the “average” person does not.

Harp's avatar

@Jeruba Taylor’s goal was to so thoroughly define a task of extremely narrow scope that you could stick any unskilled schmuck in that job. The prior model had been that the work was directed by a master craftsman who worked alongside his employees, with the goal that they too would become master craftsmen. Each craftsmen learned every aspect of the trade. But then, of course, they could demand higher wages or set up their own shops.

Taylor’s vision offered little prospect of growth for industrial laborers. They could look forward to endlessly repeating the same prescribed motions for as long as they stayed with the company, and then would have no transferable skills to take to another establishment.

In his defense, I don’t think he intended to be cruel. He thought that the workman stood to gain materially from the overall increase in efficiency (great believer in trickle-down economics). His was a very elitist perspective: he saw industrial laborers as so devoid of spirit and vision that they would be quite content with such conditions.

Yes, I do think that metrics mania began with Taylor, as well as the notions of “best practices” and standardization.

Zuma's avatar

Mathematicians are always a good bet for obscurity and impact. Here, Mitchell Feigenbaum is a good candidate, since he is one of the early mathematicians that got the ball rolling on Chaos Theory popularized by James Gleick. Chaos theory is part of a larger study of turbulence in dynamic systems, the hidden order within disorder. It is one of the most far-reaching scientific paradigm shifts of the 20th Century. This revolution has pried scientific thinking out of its reductionist malaise and gotten people to think more dynamically and holistically—as in the fields of ecology, economics, epidemiology, parallel computing, nanotechnology, quantum computing, the fractal geometry of nature, etc., etc. Such terms as “the butterfly effect” or “tipping points” are beginning to find their way into ordinary everyday speech.

Alan Turing, a gay man who founded modern computer science is another. All of the things that computers bring immediately come to mind, but Turing has influenced influence mathematics by allowing computational proofs (as in the four color map problem). Information theory has also had an influence on theoretical physics, where physical phenomena can be recast in terms of information flows.

I’m not sure how famous Richard Feynman is outside of physics, but he is another thinker whose influence will be felt for centuries.

YARNLADY's avatar

The first black woman honored with a bust in the US Capital, Sojourner Truth

mattbrowne's avatar

Here are two examples:

The American Dale Carnegie who wrote ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ first published in Great Britain in 1948.

The German politician Ludwig Erhard creating the concept of a social market economy in the early 50ies. All politicians and people opposing both socialism and free-market fundamentalism favor in some form or another a model of social market economy.

Harp's avatar

@chris6137 @fireside Having just finished the last installment of The Century of Self, I agree that it’s a wonderful series. But one thing that irked me was the manipulative use of music throughout, especially the “ominous chord” that invariably signaled that they were about to show you something nefarious. I just found it ironic in the context of a documentary about the psychological manipulation of the public through emotional channels.

fireside's avatar

@Harp – excellent observation. I also had issues with the pacing of the editing, in the first part at least. They seemed to calm down a bit but that first one really just hammered away unrelentingly.

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