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Brooke Gladstone
The Influencing Machine
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

W. W. Norton
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-393-07779-7
Publication Date: 05-23-2011
170 Pages ; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 06-18-2011

Index:  Non-Fiction  Science Fiction

"You damn kids," we think — if we're feeling restrained. All the new-fangled media of the next generation seem so overwhelming, so overpowering, and yet, at the same time, so filled with nothingness. Only in this modern world could things go so wrong so fast.

As Brooke Gladstone entertainingly demonstrates in 'The Influencing Machine,' things have been going wrong not just for the past few years, but rather, for the past few centuries. Gladstone is a host for NPR's syndicated program "On the Media," and she proves to be as adept using the media as she is analyzing it.

With 'The Influencing Machine,' she manages to do both simultaneously. Written as graphic non-fiction and superbly illustrated by Josh Neufeld, 'The Influencing Machine,' is meta-media that's smart and entertaining. But most importantly, there's a lot of stuff in here that will stick with you long after you finish reading the book. You'll see the way you see the world differently. Welcome to your life in the funhouse mirror.

'The Influencing Machine' certainly lives up to its name in a variety of ways. The book itself is a smoothly wrought machine, whisking the reader through hundreds of years of media history so charmingly that readers won't realize until after they finish the book just how information-rich the reading experience is. While you're inside Gladstone's machine, you're just having too much fun. Overall, the book takes you through the history of news and media, and within each chapter that chronological progress is repeated in miniature. This is wheels-within-wheels that keep your mind moving smartly from one wow-revelation to the next.

While the architecture of the book is itself quite amazing — if intelligently invisible — the content is equally engrossing and very visible. You'll meet the original mind-controlling media machine, one that proves to be a lot older that you would imagine possible. Gladstone creates characters from history using Josh Neufeld's crisp illustrations and quotes that put the reader in the perspective of these characters so that we can understand just how the media has been seen in the past. Because the book itself is thoroughly modern media, Brooke is a character as well, and she inserts herself, along with our modern perceptions, into those historical settings. The result is a schism that makes some sort of objective reality and the filters through which we see it quite startlingly clear.

Gladstone has a sort of science-fictional perception of her media universe. It's generally subtle, but the final passage of 'The Influencing Machine' looks at the near-future and technology that is just around the corner. There's an extended chapter on war journalism, which is harrowing and informative. She examines bias in the media in a manner that is rarely if ever explored. 'The Influencing Machine' is packed with engaging information.

As Gladstone takes us through hundreds, thousands, even millions of years of mass human communication, it becomes quite clear that we the audience are the influencing machine — and the media is as much a mirror as it is a controlling force. Technology may change, but we always regard it as a threatening force, a harbinger and tool of evil, used by unseen "others" to shape our thoughts, even as that messages that technology delivers is shaped by our desires. That she manages to get all this across while entertaining the heck out of the reader is nearly as amazing as what you'll read in here.

Making all this possible is Gladstone's easy mastery of the graphic non-fiction format. The layout, the usage of quotes, passages of pure prose and well-placed panel design make this easy to read even for someone who defaults to prose. Neufeld's illustrations are well conceived, perfectly drawn and printed with great precision. The production and design of the book live up to the content, and that's important in terms making the book an enjoyable reading experience.

In the end, it is clear that 'The Influencing Machine' could not have been done in any other format, or in any other way. Gladstone knows how to tell a very entertaining story, even when she tasks herself with the story of stories. Our media may be a funhouse mirror for our own self-image, ever poised between the Devil and the deep blue sea of possibilities. With 'The Influencing Machine,' Gladstone puts that mirror in the frame and lets the readers step back to realize that, for good or ill, they are in control.

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