The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

By Williams, Kristian | The World and I, March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media


Williams, Kristian, The World and I


The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

Brooke Gladstone, illustrated by Josh Neufeld, et al.

W.W. Norton & Company, 2011, $23.95. hardcover

ISBN: 978-0-393-07779-7

Brooke Gladstone has written a new comic analyzing the role of the media in society. "The Influencing Machine" outlines the history of the media--past, present, and future--and discusses censorship and propaganda, objectivity and bias, and the effect of new technologies, all with intelligence, care, and good humor.

The choice of the comics medium as a platform for discussing the media is canny. The drawings allow us to consider the use of image, to regard an image as an image, and to see it at the product of a process of composition and selection and presentation. A drawing is obviously the creation of some fallible human being. An illustration presents itself as a representation of reality--therefore, an interpretation of reality--in a way that a photograph or a film does not, or not always.

Gladstone will be familiar to NPR listeners as the host of On the Media. Her move to the long-form comics medium offers new opportunities to experiment with presentation, allowing her to discuss many of the same topics as on her radio program, but at greater length, in more depth, and with both the added aplomb and the mnemonic advantage of visual cues. Her partner in this endeavor, the cartoonist Josh Nuefeld, is a journalist in his own right, having written and illustrated a nonfiction comic about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Gladstone appears here--in cartoon form--in something very like her usual host role, orienting us to the various topics, explaining the background, introducing us to the major figures, and then standing back and letting them say what they have to say. In this endeavor, one of the advantages the comics medium has over radio comes into the fore: comics allows for the possibility of time travel. Gladstone can insert herself into past events--that is, drawings of past events--and, people who lived long before the age of recorded sound can appear on the page and talk, using their own words. The visuals make the historical quotations more vivid, and more memorable, than mere words on a page.

The approach and the tone of "The Influencing Machine" owes a great deal to Scott McCloud's excellent book "Understanding Comics." (In the Acknowledgements, Gladstone cites McCloud's book as "the inspiration for The Influencing Machine.") There, McCloud, too, uses comics to offer an introductory but erudite overview of his chosen medium. He presents himself as a benevolent, authoritative narrator, recounting the history of comics, explaining its mechanics, enthusing about its potential, and prognosticating about its future. Gladstone clearly borrows McCloud's format and strategy; to some degree Josh Nuefeld imitates the simple, clear look of this book as well. And, by and large, the two live up to the high standards of the earlier example.

Unfortunately, the homage stays too true to the original, and "The Influencing Machine" inherits many of McCloud's flaws. In the last quarter of the book, Gladstone suddenly breaks from the cautious probing of the earlier chapters and enters instead into a phase of wishful thinking and home-team boosterism, paired with an eagerness to make Big Claims about neuroscience and human evolution--which are really just ideas about human nature and the structure of history dressed up in more fashionable, scientific language.

Gladstone is convinced that we're on the threshold of a new epoch, in which advances in technology are going to remake humanity and the world. Not to worry, though, because humanity has crossed similar thresholds in the past, and we've always turned out okay. So the Brave New World is bound to be more or less like the Boring Old World--except braver, and newer, and cooler, and better. …

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