Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Influencing Machine - by Brooke Gladstone, illustrated by Josh Neufeld

Fans of National Public Radio know Brooke Gladstone from the program On the Media. I noticed this graphic non-fiction on a display created by one of my co-workers. Although it is almost 10 years old the messages about how the media influence public opinion are still quite relevant. This book covers history, politics, censorship, bias, echo chambers, misinformation, and the changing nature of the news cycle with good humor in an easy-to-digest format.

Ultimately, what this book is about is information literacy - tracking down sources, verifying sources, and rejecting bad sources. Gladstone explains how bad information can become part of the collective consciousness simply by being repeated by people who don't know anything about it. Furthermore she demonstrates and that it is not always good journalism to provide both sides of an issue if one side is misinformed. She also explains that too much information (information overload) can be harmful. This is not a new concern, and she points to a story in Plato's "Phaedrus" in which "Socrates derides the invention of writing with a story of the Egyptian god who invented the alphabet brags to a king" who reponds that "this discovery...will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls-they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves".  Likewise Gutenberg's printing press had bibliogrpaher Conrad Gesner complaining of the "confusing and harmful abundance of books". Gesner in compiling the Universal Library decided only to include books written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

This of course is where librarians come in. As "media theorist Clay Shirky says many people confuse information overload with filter failure". Catalogers, librarians, news aggregators, and other databases services already have those filters in place. Librarians can help people to navigate to the right resources for their information needs.

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