Bruce's Reviews > The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone
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Apr 04, 12

Recommended for: fans of "On the Media," Scott McCloud, Jon Stewart, and Rush Limbaugh (just to piss him off)
Read in April, 2012

Inspired by Scott McCloud, Brooke Gladstone was brimming with ideas about the history of journalism and the impact, evolution, and continuing relevance of the media. So she called up Josh Neufeld out of the blue (with help from her agents) and asked him to help her unburden herself. What resulted was this excellent manifesto. I just picked this off the library shelves out of curiosity and then we got this week's Muse magazine, which coincidentally includes an excerpt from the book. So then I had to go grab it back from my 4th grader, despite the fact that all Gladstone's references to bias, gatekeepers, and cognitive dissonance would seem to find a better landing place among college graduates. I'm happy for him to read it if he likes, but this one is Samuel Clemens, not Mark Twain.

Gladstone covers virtually every aspect of free speech you can think of, save, I dunno, maybe three. She doesn’t get into law, theory, or the arts. Rather, she’s driven to answer what she perceives as the public’s eternal love-fear relationship with the published and broadcast word. That polarity infects every page of this book, Gladstone swings between good news and bad news, tracking studies, claims, counterclaims, threats, movements, achievements and diminishments, highlights and lowlights, and finally peering into the wired-in future. I'd offer a preview, but it's just too dense for that, just watch this promo video.

Her message is fair: as media consumers we should trust, but verify what we read and hear. Cassandras have been around forever citing the various evils of an unfettered press, but in the main, the boons outweigh the bogeymen. “Our” press will always remain courageous, honest, and true; while “theirs” will ever be incompetent, libelous, seditious drivel. The trick to unpacking reality from our Rashomon comfort bubble lies in remaining open (just enough) to multiple sources, especially primary sources.

In surveying and distilling her sources (which are extensive and range in writings from Plato to Kurzweil, with stops at John Milton; Thomas’ Paine, Jefferson, and... ugh... Helen; including nods to Albert Camus; Marshall McLuhan; and Douglas Adams (“Don’t Panic!”); and with imagery spanning from Williams Hogarth and Hearst all the way to The Watchmen), Gladstone offers two good reasons to remain optimistic in today’s helter-skelter welter of information sensation and noise. We are all media consumers. We are all the media. People are social animals whose experience of the universe is essentially mediated, so provided we continue our collective journey on the planet, we must all remain tuned in to us.

What a great book. You can read it in one night, but will find something new in it every night, as every page is jam-packed with goodies. The only downside I can think of is that annoying Booby McFerrin ditty that’s stuck in my head. Now every time I pass the little metal kiosks by the metro, I’ll be hearing a little voice that endlessly repeats, “Don’t worry. Be happy.”
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