Brain Pickings

The Influencing Machine: A Brief Visual History of the Media

By:

What a statue of Saddam has to do with cognitive bias, or how to think critically about improving information.

One of the coolest and most charming book releases of this year, The Influencing Machine is a graphic novel about the media, its history, and its many maladies — think The Information meets The Medium is the Massage meets Everything Explained Through Flowcharts. Written by Brooke Gladstone, longtime host of NPR’s excellent On the Media, and illustrated by cartoonist Josh Neufeld, The Influencing Machine takes a refreshingly alternative approach to the age-old issue of why we disparage and distrust the news. And as the book quickly makes clear, it has always been thus.

Tracing the origins of modern journalism back about 2,000 years to the Mayans — “publicists” generating “some primordial P.R.” — Gladstone and Neufeld walk through our journalistic roots in the cultures of ancient Rome, Britain, and Revolutionary and early America. With this as background, the book then dives into our contemporary media condition, tracing how we got from Caesar’s Acta Diurna to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Everything we hate about the media today was present at its creation: its corrupt or craven practitioners, its easy manipulation by the powerful, its capacity for propagating lies, its penchant for amplifying rage. Also present was everything we admire — and require — from the media: factual information, penetrating analysis, probing investigation, truth spoking to power. Same as it ever was.”

The Influencing Machine then turns to the timely, framing in pragmatically optimistic terms the impact of the Internet not only on traditional news outlets, but on our minds themselves.

Brain studies suggest that consuming information on the Internet develops different cognitive abilities, so it’s likely we are being rewired now in response to our technology. That process doesn’t stop. It can’t stop. And even the most strident critics of the Internet cannot truly wish for it to stop, considering how far we have come since we grasped that first tool.”

Although edification was a welcome byproduct, we were thoroughly entertained by The Influencing Machine, and know it will find ardent fans among comic collectors, history buffs, and anyone with an interest in how information makes its way from the original source to our brains — and more critically, how we can make it better.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Highlights from TED Global 2011, The Stuff of Life: Day Two

By:

How to get eaten by mushrooms, why we’re all African, and what language has to do with genetics.

It is Day Two in our ongoing coverage of TED Global 2011, titled The Stuff of Life. (Previously: highlights from Day One; two sets of must-read books by this year’s speakers; remarkable work TED Fellow Nathalie Miebach.) Gathered here are the most noteworthy highlights of Day Two, in photos and soundbites.

SESSION 4: FUTURE BILLIONS

Historian Niall Ferguson, author of The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World and presenter of the excellent six-part BBC series of the same name, which is now available online in its entirety, opened with some striking insights on wealth and the global economy. Most of the world’s wealth was made after the year 1800 and is currently owned by people we might call “Westerners” — economic historians call this The Great Divergence, and it reached its zenith in the 1970s. But, Ferguson argued, it’s not geography or national character: it’s ideas and institutions.

There are six killer apps that set the West apart from the rest: competition, the scientific revolution, property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society, and work ethic. These killer apps can be ‘downloaded” — they’re open-source. Any society can adopt these institutions.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Historian Niall Ferguson

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The biggest story of our lifetime is the end of Western predominance.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Political economist Yasheng Huang

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Political economist Yasheng Huang explored the parallel economic growth of China and India, examining why China has grown twice as fast as India in the past 30 years. He pointed out the difference between the statics of a political system and the dynamics of a political system — statically, China is strictly authoritarian, but dynamically, it has shifted from more authoritarian to more democratic. Women, Huang argued, play a significant role in strong societies, with 60-80% of China’s workforce being female.

In a surprise visit, economist Tim Harford — whom everyone should follow on Twitter and who authored the excellent new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure — delivered one of the most striking and captivating talks of the day. (Bonus points for calling Hans Rosling “the Mick Jagger of TED,” which couldn’t be more accurate.)

Undercover economist Tim Harford

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Harford explored the mind-boggling scale of consumer choices we face daily and juxtaposed it with the conditions under which our brains evolved.

If you wanted to count every product and service available in New York, all 10 billion of them, it would take you 317 years. The society in which our brains evolved had about 300 products and services.” ~ Tim Harford

Perhaps most importantly and urgently, Harford argued for repeated trial-and-error as the only way to eradicate our culture’s God complex, insisting — much like Isaac Asimov did some three decades ago — that schools need to start teaching children that there are some problems with no correct answer, encouraging trial-and-error as the vehicle of learning.

Comedian Robin Ince

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The universe is pointless. Brilliant, that means you can come up with your own purpose!” ~ Robin Ince

Street artist JR stopped by for a quick update on his wonderful Inside Out Project, the product of the $100,000 TEDPrize he won last fall.

Street artist JR

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Anti-hunger activist and UN World Food Programme director Josette Sheeran opened with a striking statistic: This morning, 1 out of 7 people on earth didn’t know how to find breakfast. Most of us, she pointed out, don’t have to go too far back in our own lineage to find an experience of hunger, usually a mere two or three generations away.

Anti-hunger leader Josette Sheeran

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Every 10 seconds we lose a child to hunger.” ~ Josette Sheeran

Sheeran focused on the central disconnect of these devastating statistics: We know how to fix this. A child can be saved every 22 seconds if there was breastfeeding in the first 6 months of life. In countries where girls don’t go to schools and meals are offered in schools, there’s a 50/50 enrollment rate for girls and boys, a transformation in attendance that shows food not only helps keep a girl in school, but also enables her to eventually give birth to a healthier child because malnutrition is set generation to generation.

We shouldn’t look at the hungry as victims, but as the solution — as the value chain to fight hunger.” ~ Josette Sheeran

SESSION 5: EMERGING ORDER

Session 5, Emerging Order, was curated by The Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley and opened with geneticist Svante Pääbo, who explored our ancestral origins.

Geneticist Svante Pääbo

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

From a genomic perspective, we are all African.” ~ Svante Pääbo

As former Brain Pickings contributor Brian W. Jones keenly pointed out, Pääbo echoes this fantastic print by Milton Glaser produced for the SVA and benefitting the One Campaign for improving conditions in Africa and eradicating poverty.

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel spoke about social learning as a springboard to cumulative cultural evolution, calling it “visual theft” that enables us to learn from the mistakes of others by observing their behavior and stealing their ideas for problem-solving. Language, Pagel argued, evolved to solve the crisis of visual theft as a piece of social technology for enhancing the benefits of cooperation. Since the love of language is a standby here, his point that language is the most potent and valuable trait that ever evolved resonates deeply.

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Language is the voice of our genes.” ~ Mark Pagel

Sand artist Joe Castillo

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Sand artist Joe Castillo, despite the tragically non-ironic beret, delivered an absolutely mesmerizing live performance of an evolving sand-painted narrative, shape-shifting into faces from different ethnicities and culminating in a global vision for world peace. Here’s some of his prior work, to scratch the itch until his TED talk goes live:

SESSION 6: THE DARK SIDE

Cyberworld investigator Misha Glenny

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

There are two types of companies in the world — those that know they’ve been hacked, and those that don’t.” ~ Misha Glenny

Underworld investigator Misha Glenny delivered a message of urgency: We are at the beginning of a mighty struggle for control of the Internet. He suggested that many hackers either exhibit characteristics consistent with Asperger’s syndrome or developed their hacking skills during their teenage years, before their moral compass had fully developed, but concluded with the slightly ambivalent message — perhaps honed for the highly pro-hacker TED crowd — that we need to embrace hacker culture rather than condemn it.

The Internet embodies a complex dilemma that pits the demands of security with the desire for freedom.” ~ Misha Glenny

Glenny’s forthcoming book, DarkMarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You, is already on pre-order and a clear must-read addition to these 7 essential books on the future of the Internet.

Cybersecurity expert Mikko Hypponen

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Cybersecurity expert Mikko Hypponen produced a brief history of computer viruses — with many of the early ones bearing a striking visual similarity to some of today’s generative art — and exposed some today’s stealthiest virus techniques, such as “keyloaders” that silently sit on your computer, recording everything you type, including credit card information and personal data.

I see beauty in the future of the Internet, but I’m worried that we might not see that because of online crime. I’ve spent my life defending the net and I believe that if we don’t fight online crime, we run the risk of losing it all. We have to do this globally, and we have to do it now.” ~ Mikko Hypponen

In what was part comic relief, part powerful illustration of his central point, Hypponen whipped out an old-timey overhead projector for a part of his presentation, to better illustrate our options for when we do lose the things we take for granted. He concluded by proposing and “Internetpol” — Interpol for the Internet, a bastion of cyber security and investigator of cyber crime.

Lie detector Pamela Meyer

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Lie detector Pamela Meyer shared some insights from her book, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, including hands-on tips for telling a fake smile from a real one, the body language of a lie from the body language of truthfulness, and more.

Lying is our attempt to bridge the gap between how we wish we could be and what we’re really like.” ~ Pamela Meyer

SESSION 7: BODIES

Movement expert Daniel Wolpert argued that the only reason we have a brain is to produce adaptable and complex movement, since movement — from the contractions that underpin our speech and facial mimicry to the actions that allow us to exert force — is the only way to affect the world around us.

Movement expert Daniel Wolpert

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of the fascinating The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, revealed some fascinating theories and statistics behind why and how we kiss. (Did you know, for instance, that two thirds of people tilt their head to the right when they kiss, and it has no correlation with righthandedness?)

Biologist and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We’re interpreting the world through our mouths more than we realize. Our lips are packed with nerves and signals.” ~ Sheril Kirshenbaum

TED Fellow Jae Rhim Lee delivered what was positively one of the wildest yet most thought-provoking talks to date. With her Infinity Burial Project, she is advocating for a movement she calls “decompiculture” — environmentally friendly, gentle ways of disposing of our dead bodies, an antidote to the chemical-laden, highly toxic burial and cremation processes of how we handle the dead today. Lee is training a unique strain of mushroom to decompose and remediate toxins in human tissue in a process that’s equal parts scientific exploration and philosophical quest to come to terms with her own mortality.

TED Fellow Jae Rhim Lee

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

By trying to preserve our dead bodies, we deny death, poison the living and further damage the environment.” ~ Jae Rhim Lee

Introducing UP from Jawbone

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The makers of Jawbone revealed an exclusive first look at UP, a jaw-dropping sensor-based wristband that tracks your sleep patterns and eating habits to deliver data that optimizes your everyday life for greater well-being — a promising new personal data tracking tool in the arsenal of the quantified self.

Singer Alice Russell

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Musician extraordinaire Alice Russel closed the evening with her utterly magnificent voice, best described as Adele meets Ella. Her most recent album, Pot of Gold, is an absolute gem.

For highlights from the final two days of TEDGlobal 2011, keep an eye on our friends at the TED Blog, or follow along on Twitter between 8:30AM and 7PM GMT for the live feed.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Ingrid Dabringer’s Map Paintings: Finding Whimsy in Geography

By:

What Manhattan’s biceps have to do with Austrian ballet, bird migrations and flamenco.

As a hopeless lover of maps, creative cartography and, especially, maps as art, I was utterly enchanted by the work of mixed-media visual artist Ingrid Dabringer, who uses acrylic paint to draw — or, more precisely, find — extraordinary, playful characters and vignettes in ordinary maps.

I like to elevate the mundane. The Mundane is so saturated with meaning if we just take an extra second to dwell on it. The Mundane is saturated with symbolism.” ~ Ingrid Dabringer

Manitoulin

New York City Subway

Bird Migration Dame

Bird Migration Dude

Vienna Ballet Countess

Vienna Ballet

Philippines

Ireland and England

OH! Canada

Green Toronto A

Green Toronto B

Flamenco: Middle America

Some of Dabringer’s magnificent map paintings, most certainly on par with The Map as Art, are available on Etsy, or you can contact her directly for originals.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.