Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

10 FEBRUARY, 2012

How McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore Created a New Visual Vernacular for the Information Age

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The rise of the experimental paperback and how ‘typophotography’ paved the information superhighway.

One faithful day in 1965, the most monumental and legendary typo in media history took place: someone switched a letter in the title of what soon became an era-defining book by legendary media theorist Marshall McLuhan*, best known for coining the catchphrase “the medium is the message.” Thus The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects was born, thanks to a unintentional error most McLuhan biographers sweep under the carpet. But, the legend goes, once McLuhan saw the typo, he exclaimed, “Leave it alone! It’s great and right on target!” The title of the book was suddenly open to four possible interpretations — a play on “Message” and “Mess Age,” or “Massage and “Mass Age.” The book soon came to be referred to simply as Massage. But what is most curious — and least known — about it is that it was developed explicitly for young readers, relying on graphic materials to engage younger audiences with big-idea nonfiction. (Sound familiar?)

Massage, however, was part of a bigger and much more significant picture — it was one of eight books developed by Jerome Agel (1930-2007), a kind of transmedia, cross-disciplinary publishing puppeteer, who collaborated with trailblazing graphic designer Quentin Fiore to distill the complex and important ideas of thinkers like Buckminster Fuller, Carl Sagan, Herman Kahn, and Marshall McLuhan into digestible and viscerally absorbing narratives for the general-interest reader. These paperback books had a wholly novel visual vocabulary and a new way of entering the mass market as full-spectrum media events that, long before the days of sleek book trailers, boasted $100,000 publicity budgets.

The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan / Agel / Fiore and the Experimental Paperback tells the fascinating story of these collaborations and how they created a new media form “designed to put into popular form, or into more understandable form, some of the greatest ideas of our time.” Zooming in on the nine-year window of innovation in mass-market publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford Humanities Lab founder Jeffrey T. Schnapp peels away at the sociocultural and technological factors that gave rise of this bold new graphics-driven storytelling and transformed the paperback into a kind of stage and screen for “typographic pyrotechnics.” The promise of that story is a deeper understanding of contemporary visual culture, the convergence of highbrow and lowbrow, the vernacular of advertising, the dynamics of newspaper and magazine publishing, the creation of avant-garde mass culture, and a wealth in between.

The purpose of this inventory is to draw a circle around a body of objects; to take stock of their common properties; and to tell a story about where they came from, what they were, and where they led. Their variety is such as to sustain a multiplicity of narrative threads: about the rise of a new photo-driven graphic vernacular; about the triumph of a certain cognitive/cultural style; about criss-crossing between high and low, the erudite and the mass cultural; about the shifting boundaries between books, magazines, music, television, and film.”

Together, McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore engendered a sweeping shift in the filed of mass communication, whose impact still reverberates in the present wave of publishing disruption. But among the trio’s greatest feats was the radical reshuffling and remixing of traditional specialized silos, wherein writers write in solitude, editors edit against impossible deadlines, designers design with purely aesthetic concerns, and booksellers sell based on rigid categories engineered around a stale market. In the foreword, Adam Michaels observes the “pedagogical prejudices” that have created a chasm between education in design and education in writing:

Most educational superstructures ensure that the art student and the liberal arts student shall never meet. The alienation between text and image production is learned early on and reinforced by increased professionalization over the course of life.”

(For the ultimate testament to higher education’s failures to foster this cross-pollination of disciplines, look no further than Steve Jobs’ iconic 2005 Stanford commencement address, in which he recounts the serendipitous breach of this chasm that sparked the founding philosophy of Apple.)

McLuhan, Agel, and Fiore embraced “the book’s intrinsic strengths as a site for synthesis and surprise,” as Michaels eloquently puts it, and forged a visionary model in which the unconventional intertwining of form and content engaged audiences with new, almost cinematic modes of delivery.

Fiore also redefined the role of the designer as author** and pioneered a new visual genre that came to be known as “typophotography,” a neologism coined by media theorist László Moholy-Nagy to describe “the visually most exact rendering of communication,” an elastic new form of visceral storytelling. Steven Heller writes in the introduction:

[Fiore] strongly believed in experimentation and was not just attempting to navigate through McLuhan’s disjointed prognostications, sarcastically mocked by [critics]: he was actually attempting to construct what eventually evolved into a primitive iteration of ‘the information superhighway,’ using the paperback book as its bedrock foundation.”

As for Agel, what made him an exceptional visionary were his faceted interests. (Something Jackson Pollock’s dad would approve.)

Jerome Agel […] had a keen appreciation for photography and narrative as fine arts. But he was, first and foremost, a journalist equipped with a mile-a-minute, omnivorous mind and a genius for public relations.”

Agel and Fiore’s most celebrated graphic masterpiece was their 1970 collaboration with Buckminster Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb: Environment and Man’s Future, which repeated the formula of Massage — a bold and highly visual distillation of big ideas for young people — with even greater precision.

Agel saw the book as part of show business and McLuhan was among the first to recognize the cultural significance of this paradigm shift. In the modern bible Understanding Media, he wrote of “the phenomenon of the paperback”:

[It is] the book in ‘cool’ version … transformation of book culture into something else… The paperback itself has become a vast mosaic world in depth, expressive of the changed sense-life of Americans, for whom depth experience in words, as in physics, has become entirely acceptable, and even sought after.”

A foretaste of the technique in question can be found in the September 1965 issue of Books, the front page of which led with 'The McLuhan Galaxy,' a montage of cartoons and quotations radiating outward from a book-slaying, television-antenna-crowned McLuhan. It was accompanied by a lengthy 'interview' that hails Understanding Media as the 'must read book in the country today' and implements what will later become the method of the McLuhan/Agel/Fiore inventorying of media effects: a sequence of quotations fired one after the other, interrupted only by questions -- 'why is everyone reading field Marshall McLuhan?' 'what the hell is going on?' 'OK, WHAT'S THE MESSAGE?' -- and designed to swarm the reader with information. In the interview's midst, Agel dutifully inserts McLuhan's call for the 'fresh air reeducation of book culture.'

Ultimately, The Electric Information Age Book is about what made this collaborative book innovation — which McLuhan called “the mosaic of instantaneous communication,” “the process rather than the complete product of discovery” — extraordinary at the time, but also about how it paved the way for the tectonic shifts happening in media today, with our customizable iEverything and highly visual neo-magazines a-la-Flipboard. Schnapp observes:

[These inventory books] all communicate some version of the following script to the reader: even if this book is ‘by’ a major thinker, you fill in the blanks, you connect the dots, you navigate the book forward or backward to find the tasty tidbits; look for the patterns, ideas, and story line yourself They tender the promise that, if you follow these instructions, in return, you will discover that not only is this ook about you, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your world, but also about how to make them yours.

* For more on McLuhan, see Douglas Coupland’s excellent almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, as well as this 1984 biographical TV segment on McLuhan by none other than Tom Wolfe.

** For a contemporary meditation on the evolving role of the designer as Internet futurist and entrepreneur, see Cameron Koczon’s necessary article, “An Important Time for Design.”

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09 FEBRUARY, 2012

A Brief History of the To-Do List and the Psychology of Its Success

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On reconciling the fussy with the fuzzy, or what Benjamin Franklin has to do with Drew Carey.

“The list is the origin of culture,” Umberto Eco famously proclaimed. (Leonardo da Vinci, John Lennon, and Woody Guthrie would have all agreed.) But the list, it turns out, might also be the origin of both our highest happiness and our dreariest dissatisfaction. So argue New York Times science writer John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. While the book is fascinating in general — an unconventional “self-help” tome that, much like Timothy Wilson’s Redirect, grounds its insights and advice in thirty years of serious academic research into willfulness and self-control — its third chapter, titled “A Brief History of the To-Do List, From God to Drew Carey,” is particularly interesting. In it, Tierney and Baumeister dissect the sociocultural anatomy of our favorite organizational tool, from the storytellers who crafted the Bible and wrote the Genesis myth with its six-step world-creation plan, to Benjamin Franklin’s fastidious pursuit of virtue bound by goal-setting lists, to comedian Drew Carey’s quest for supreme personal productivity.

These anecdotes and pieces of cultural mythology are interwoven with ample psychology experiments from the past century and, ultimately, distilled into insight on how to make the to-list a tool of fulfillment rather than frustration.

Franklin, for instance, demonstrated one of the greatest pitfalls of the to-do list: trying to do too much at once, letting different goals come into conflict with one another:

Franklin tried a divide-and-conquer approach. He drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’

When, as a young journeyman printer, he tried to practice Order by drawing up a rigid daily work schedule, he kept getting interrupted by unexpected demands from his clients — and Industry required him to ignore the schedule and meet with them. If he practiced Frugality (‘Waste nothing’) by always mending his own clothes and preparing all his own meals, there’d be less time available for Industry at his job — or for side projects like flying a kite in a thunderstorm or editing the Declaration of Independence. If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: ‘Perform without fail what you resolve.'”

The result of conflicting goals, the authors argue, is unhappiness instead of action. But deciding on the right goals can be a daunting task.

Tierney and Baumeister recount a revealing experiment: When a psychologist was invited to give a talk at the Pentagon on managing time and resources, he decided to warm up the elite group of generals with a short writing exercise. He asked them all to write a summary of their strategic approach limited to 25 words.

The exercise stumped most of them. None of the distinguished men in uniform could come up with anything.

The only general who managed a response was the lone woman in the room. She had already had a distinguished career, having worked her way up through the ranks and been wounded in combat in Iraq. Her summary of her approach was as follows: ‘First I make a list of priorities: one, two, three, and so on. Then I cross out everything from three down.'”

Unscrupulous, perhaps, but the authors argue this is a simple version of an important to-do list strategy for reconciling the long-term with the short-term, or “the fussy with the fuzzy.”

Comedian Drew Carey took a different approach to mastering his to-do list — he outsourced his strategy to productivity guru David Allen, author of the cultish, modern Bible Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals. The latter loom in the back of our mind like a nagging mother, never fully silenced until specific actionable steps are taken.

In fact, our brain appears to be wired to nag about unfinished to-do list items as uncompleted tasks and unmet goals continue to pop up into our minds. This is called the Zeigarnik effect and explains phenomena like earworms — when you hear only a portion of song, the song is likely to run through your mind at odd intervals as your brain struggles to finish it. Originally, the Zeigarnik effect was believed to be the brain’s way of ensuring goals are eventually accomplished, by prodding you into urgency until they are. But recent research has shed new light on the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious in our cognitive to-do lists.

[It] turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.”

The moral, then? Unless you are Woody Guthrie, keep your to-do list to a few very specific, actionable, non-conflicting items, then go fly your kite in peace.

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08 FEBRUARY, 2012

Paul Rand on The Role of the Imagination

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Paul Rand (1914-1996) — design legend, professional curmudgeon, uncompromising businessman. He is best remembered as the author of Thoughts on Design (1947), one of the most important design books of all time, but nearly half a century later, he produced another indispensable tome: From Lascaux to Brooklyn, published mere months before his death, gathers his life’s wisdom on the basic principles of design, creativity, and timeless visual communication.

From it comes this absolute gem, which echoes Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Anne Lamott’s sentiments on intuition vs. rationality, succinctly captures Steve Jobs’ famous advice on dot-connecting, and reflects my own philosophy of combinatorial creativity:

The role of the imagination is to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection. Imagination begins with intuition, not intellect.”

Then again, The Little Prince said it first.

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