Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘media’

21 JULY, 2011

Tom Wolfe on Marshall McLuhan for His 100th Would-Be Birthday

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How the man who coined the global village became the first seer of cyberspace and digital empowerment.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of iconic media theorist Marshall McLuhan, one of my great heroes and a Brain Pickings repeat offender. Marshall McLuhan Speaks is a fantastic, beautifully designed site commemorating the centennial with a treasure trove of McLuhan video appearances and interviews. Chief among them is this excellent biographical segment by equally iconic writer Tom Wolfe from 1984, produced and directed by Marshall’s daughter, Stephanie McLuhan-Ortved. (With bonus points for the Woody Allen cameo in the beginning, where you might also recognize the origin of the title of Douglas Coupland’s must-read McLuhan almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!.)

The segment was eventually adapted in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, edited by McLuhan’s daughter and with a foreword by Wolfe offering a 21st-century perspective on McLuhan’s life and work.

Today, on the eve of the 21st century, with hot speculation about the coming digital civilization, in which all humanity will be wired up and online so that geographic locations and national boundaries, or so it’s predicted, will become irrelevant, McLuhan is very much in the center of the screen again, nearly two decades after his death, this time as the first seer of cyberspace.” ~ Tom Wolfe

Wolfe, of course, is best known in relation to McLuhan by way of his 1965 essay, “What If He’s Right?”. (“Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov… What if he is right?”)

For the ultimate lens on McLuhan’s thought and legacy, I can’t recommend Douglas Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! enough — a compelling celebration of what I consider to be McLuhan’s greatest talent: his penchant for pattern-recognition and cross-disciplinary dot-connecting.

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14 JULY, 2011

The Influencing Machine: A Brief Visual History of the Media

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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.

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14 MARCH, 2011

Harvard’s Steven Pinker on Violence and Human Nature

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Harvard psycholinguist and prolific author Steven Pinker is easily our favorite thinker about language and the human mind. But Pinker has also done some fascinating work on the history of violence, unearthing some surprising and counterintuitive findings that go contrary to what contemporary media might suggest about the rate of violence in the world today.

In this excellent talk from 2010’s Harvard Thinks Big event, Pinker looks at two reasons for these misconceptions: Our cognitive limitations and our moral psychology.

Our intuitions about violence and the facts about violence go in opposite directions.” ~ Stephen Pinker

News media has the unprecedented ability to send cameramen to places in the world where violence takes place and beam them back to our laptop screens or television. Moreover, they have the programming philosophy ‘If it bleeds, it leads.'” ~ Stephen Pinker

In a cultural environment where we’re bombarded with doom-and-gloom messaging about human nature and the state of the world, Pinker’s research is a necessary and timely grounding element that puts reality in perspective. For a more in-depth look at his fascinating work on the subject, we highly recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

HT Open Culture

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