Monday, September 29, 2014

Comic Bookshelf: The Influencing Machine (2012)

 From "The Golden Age of Objectivity,"
page 115.
Too many books, too little time. Despite having a number of literary irons in the fire (The Lone Ranger Goes North, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, to name a few), the final book I read as my summer break drew to a close over a month ago was one which was recommended to me by a former star student, Tom. The Influencing Machine (2012), written by Brooke Gladstone and illustrated by Josh Neufeld, was assigned as his freshman read prior to arriving at American University in September. His suggestion was based in equal parts on both my prior role as his AP Composition and Language teacher and appreciation of comic books graphic novels.

Illustrated in clean black-and-white (with baby blue accents) panels drawn by Josh Neufeld, The Influencing Machine is an engaging graphic novel detailing the ever-evolving ways in which information flows. The emphasis here is on information as "news," though concepts are applicable to broader arenas. Using balanced evidence, and an impartial voice, author (and NPR journalist) Gladstone deftly moves chronologically from ancient Guatemala to award-winning journalist Robert Wright, filling in gaps with a who's who of journalism including Dan Rather, Edward R. Murrow and Albert Camus.

Through examples from a variety of historic touchstones in which communication, or lack thereof, plays a role in impacting the American perception of events, Gladstone demonstrates how those in control of information's flow are capable of shaping the message in an effort to have it reflect there own best interests. The majority of scenarios shared by Gladstone are large scale efforts that are fairly common to anyone with even a superficial understanding of history, most notably (and perhaps obviously) the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Gladstone reinforces the familiar with anecdotes from scientists (like those at the Max Planck Institute), journalists (George Seldes) and others that offer a variety of perspectives on the "machine."

From "The Goldilocks Number," page 51.
Along the way, Gladstone and Neufeld lay out concepts, such as the Goldilocks Number (left), that aid the reader's comprehension of numerous abstract theories in concrete use. As I read, I found myself post-it noting numerous pages worthy of further review. I also found myself wishing that the authors had taken some of these impressive ideas regarding communication and reduced the scale of consideration to a more personal level. It occurred to me that many of the fascinating concepts regarding the modern transmission of news are also worthy of consideration as they relate to interpersonal communication. It was these ideas that I set aside for later cherry-picking in future classes.

A thought came to me as I read: each year, educators at our school will suggest the offering of a media literacy course. Whether due to a lack of awareness of potential resources such as The Influencing Machine, or because there are secondary agendas at play, in application, these "courses" often become opportunities to inform on the evils of social networking. One of the things Gladstone and Neufeld do very well with their tome is illustrate (ugh!) the roles we has senders and receivers of information have in either objectively pursuing our own answers to questions or in questioning the answer we are given. If this doesn't get to the heart of media literacy, or rhetoric, than I'm unsure what does.

In an educational climate that promises to seek making high school students "college and career ready," you need look no further than the author's own reasoning as to why The Influencing Machine as suggested in an interview with NPR: "I wrote a 2,000-year history of the media and a manifesto as to why it is the way it is and what one needs to do to make it be the way we want it to be — all in panels, about 160 pages, 2,000 years and tons and tons and tons of end notes. And I think it's because it's so compressed. It's a useful book, because every chapter, rather than completing the discussion, is kind of a launch for discussion, because you really have to say things in very, very few words."

An accessible read recommended for news junkies, educators and those hoping to see the message both shaped and authentic.

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