Understanding the Influencing Machine

By | Monday, October 05, 2020 2 comments
The Influencing Machine
The way I figure it, the problem a lot of people have is that they don't really understand media. Any of it. Maybe a vague notion about commercial interests or liberal bias or what-have-you, but little beyond that. I think people, on the whole, don't have any real media literacy. They don't see reporters as storytellers; they don't know how to judge/interpret what they're being told; they don't even understand the language well enough to discern why certain words were chosen for a report.

To some degree, I get it. Reading Marshall McCluhan is a tough slog. Trying to take hilariously obsolete opinions of new-fangled things like "radio" or "television" from their original time periods and relate them to contemporary concerns doesn't generally follow a straight path. The big picture is hard to look at, precisely because it's so big. Not to mention that a lot of people just don't even understand the basics of current technology. (Which is why phishing continues to work.)

But, at the same time... it's the 21st century, people! Regardless of what era you grew up in and how you'd like for the world to continue to operate as it did, that's not how it works now. A hundred years ago, "literacy" meant basic reading, writing and arithmetic. That's not enough any more. You used to go through life quite happily with a sixth grade education, but now it's difficult to just do that if you've got a college degree. "Literacy" has expanded considerably. Here's what Wikipedia has to say...
Starting in the 1980s, however, literacy researchers have maintained that defining literacy as an ability apart from any actual event of reading and writing ignores the complex ways reading and writing always happen in a specific context and in tandem with the values associated with that context. The view that literacy always involves social and cultural elements is reflected in UNESCO's stipulation that literacy is an "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts." Modern attention to literacy as a "context-dependent assemblage of social practices" reflects the understanding that individuals' reading and writing practices develop and change over the lifespan[14] as their cultural, political, and historical contexts change.
UNESCO's definition of literacy is already a fair piece more than reading and writing, and there are some folks in education now that are suggesting that the first part of that definition is already too narrow from the standpoint of the second. It's an idea that I happen to agree with, though, and think media literacy is significant and important enough in the 21st century to be pulled under the same umbrella as literacy. The Influencing Machine is essentially a primer on that notion of literacy today. It doesn't cover nearly everything that you need to become 21st century literate, nor does it strive to, but it does tell you what that literacy is and why it's important. The book is "a treatise on the relationship between us and the news media" and "a manifesto on the role of the press in American history". But I think both of those descriptions sell the reason for buying the book short. If the last few years have taught us anything, though, it's that knowing how to read and interpret whatever media you consume is absolutely vital if you don't want to fall into a Fox or OAN or Q-Anon black hole which obliterates actual news and facts.

The book is nearly a decade old now, but it seems to me that its message is more critical than ever! If you slept on this back in the day, it's well worth hunting down a copy now!
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Matt K said...

A lot of people don't really understand any of the systems by which our society functions, or doesn't. Any of it.

Just as one example, it's hard to say who is worse-off when it comes to being informed: someone ignorant of how government is even supposed to work, or someone who expects a functional "Schoolhouse Rock" bill-becomes-a-law process that is nothing all like how power acts now in America.

I generally reluctant to quote myself, but "most of the signs, maps, and sociopolitical wayfinding resources to which most people refer are constantly misdirecting them" at this point.

The conceptual framework relied upon by most people and contemporary institutions, in this country, is basically magical thinking.

I'm inclined to say mis-informed is worse than un-informed. If you're mis-informed, you have to overwrite whatever was taught to you previously, whereas if you're just ignorant, then you've got a clean slate to start with. I know many of the biggest ongoing challenges I've had over the past several decades was unlearning bullshit that I was taught as a kid. You see that Schoolhouse Rock stuff when you're super-impressionable and no one ever even tries to correct or properly amend any of it until it's been burned into your brain for a decade or more.

Not to mention that our educational system is, generally speaking, built more on rote memorization than comprehension! So the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, and the Civil Rights Act made them equal, end of story. There's no context or nuance or, ultimately, understanding. Furthermore, since they make school such a dreadful experience, it discourages people from actual education and they don't seek out more knowledge independently because they've been taught it was tedious and dull memorization.

So you wind up with an entire country that's mis-informed and has no inclination to even look to correct 'facts' they were already taught. At least with the un-informed, there's a chance they might stumble onto something accidentally! But if a mis-informed person stumbles across the same thing, they're going to dismiss it because they already committed the incorrect version to memory and they don't have the tools to evaluate the discrepancies.

But, no, I'm not bitter about my formal education -- why do you ask?