Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘media’

08 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Machine That Made Us: Stephen Fry and the BBC Explore Gutenberg’s Legacy

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A hands-on history of the most important milestone of technology since the invention of the wheel.

Last week’s piece on how Gutenberg’s printing press embodies combinatorial creativity prompted reader Jim Hughes, who writes the fantastic Codex 99, to point me to the BBC documentary The Machine That Made Us presented by none other than Stephen Fry.

To better understand the genius and his creation — which he calls “the most revolutionary advance in technology since the invention of the wheel” — Fry traces Gutenberg’s footsteps and sets out to build a Medieval printing press from scratch, acquainting himself — awkwardly, amusingly, illuminatingly — with the tools and technologies of the 15th century. Enjoy:

We’re so used to living with printed matter every day of our lives — from the cereal package in the morning to the book at bedtime — that it might perhaps be rather hard to imagine what the world was like before printing.

For more on the history and legacy of Gutenberg’s press, see John Man’s rigorously researched and utterly absorbing Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World With Words.

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20 JULY, 2012

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

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How the economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception.

I like to believe the role of public media — of good public media, at least — is to frame for people what matters in the world and why. E. B. White, ever the idealist, famously said that the role of the writer should be “to lift people up, not lower them down” because “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” But the currencies of what’s essentially a question of motive change dramatically when public media become big business, and the kind of life they inform and shape can become a gross and dangerous aberration of reality, of what really matters from a humanistic perspective. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (public library) by Ryan Holiday lives somewhere between The Influencing Machine, The Filter Bubble, and The Information Diet, exploring precisely what happens when these motives become business motives and not motives of civic responsibility. And Holiday should know — former media strategist for clients of Dov Charney’s notoriety and current marketing director of American Apparel, the college-dropout-turned-communications-mastermind has been, as he puts it, “paid to deceive” on behalf of world-famous authors, musicians, movie moguls, and politicians alike.

Holiday proudly professes:

Usually, it is a simple hustle. Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain — from a tiny blog to Gawker to a website of a local news network to the Huffington Post to the major newspapers to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes real. Sometimes I start by planting a story. Sometimes I put out a press release or ask a friend to break a story on their blog. Sometimes I ‘leak’ a document. Sometimes I fabricate a document and leak that. Really, it can be anything, from vandalizing a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same: The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception — and sell product.

If it sounds appalling and revolting and like the end of the free press, it’s because it is — but lest we forget, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator is also a product, and if selling it requires a calculated maneuver of scandalization, then it’s both fair game and meta-commentary on the very system within which Holiday plays.

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18 MAY, 2012

C. S. Lewis on Why “School Stories” and Media Distortion Are a More Deceptive Fiction Than Fiction

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“Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines.”

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t,” Mark Twain reflected on the osmotic balance of truth and fiction, which has long fascinated famous authors.

In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis — he of great insight on the motives of duty and the secret of gaiety — articulates with extraordinary astuteness the counter-intuitive truth about fact vs. fiction, increasingly timely in today’s opinion culture where we need, more than ever, the critical thinking necessary for teasing apart agenda and opinion from truth.

No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of Literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories*. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’ … To be sure, no novel will deceive the best type of reader. He never mistakes art either for life or for philosophy. He can enter, while he reads, into each author’s point of view without either accepting or rejecting it, suspending when necessary his disbelief and (what is harder) his belief.

* See Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality, which seeks to teach children how to fight myth with science.

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