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Book Review: The Influencing Machine

The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

Realistically, what can I add about a NY Times Bestseller that’s written by a beloved NPR host? The book is critically acclaimed across the board, and it came out a few years ago, so there are plenty of reviews already published.

gordon meyer with book

Still with me? Thank you. Once up a time, I was studying broadcast communications, so I had a few media studies classes in college. And, as a sociologist, I was exposed to popular culture research, and I became very familiar with books like The Hidden Persuaders, and of course, the works of Marshall McLuhan. To my way of thinking, this book is in the same general orbit.

If you’re a fan of Scott McCloud, you’ll be tickled pink that this book is a triumph of non-fiction sequential art. I have deep admiration for what Gladstone and illustrator Josh Neufeld have accomplished in this regard. The writing, pacing, artwork and,—well, everything—is perfect. For that reason alone it should be required reading for technical writers and instructional designers in every field.

This is a revised edition of the book with an afterword for the Trumpian world in which we all now suffer. Some of what the book decries is now even worse than when it was originally published, and some of the hopefulness it expresses now seems naive. Adding the new material at the end was a smart move, as it’s impossible to read the book without feeling nostalgic for the pre-Trump and pre-FacebookNation era.

Some of the parts that stood out to me include:

  • Referring to the media as a societal mirror, Gladstone writes; “And who doesn’t take guilty pleasure in the refreshing salvia spray of a commentator spouting our views?”
  • For some reasons, 50,000 is commonly used in fearful journalism. Gladstone makes a compelling case for this odd coincidence, citing several headlines that all use the figure, such as “50,000 children die from hunger every year.” From now on, when I don’t know an actual value, I’ll just say 50K.
  • Mark Twain is credited with observing that little lies for money are nothing compared to the big lies upon which society is based. (Now, Twain is credited with many things he didn’t actually say, but Gladstone cites the source. (As she does for many other references, in one of the easiest to use presentation of End Notes that I’ve encountered.)
  • The true sense of the word propaganda is “propagation of faith.”
  • “Likes” and reactions on social media trigger a cocaine-like dopamine bump. And the bump is stronger when we’re talking about ourselves. In real life, we talk about ourselves 30-40 percent of the time. On social media, it’s 80 percent!
  • Harvard’s free online test for implicit bias is interesting and worth checking out.
  • Neuroscientists have detected people make decisions about seven seconds before they become consciously aware of making them. (Conjurors, take note!)

The one bad thing I do have to say about the book is that Gladstone lost me in the final chapter when the story line fractures into a mishmash of bon mots from “visionaries” such as Marshall McLuhan, Ray Kurzweil, and even Douglas Adams. It felt like an attempt to end the book on an optimistic note, but it comes off as Twitter-style exuberance.

I bought my copy at Quimby’s Books in Chicago, but of course, it’s also available at the Amazon.


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