Panic Mode: The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld

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For many, January 20, 2021 was a moment of collective relief. Four years of a worst-case-scenario presidency had drawn to an end, and we finally had a chance—if only for a few minutes—to grieve the lives lost, the traumas inflicted and endured, the wounds that were just now beginning to scar over. And while there wasn’t quite the rosy optimism that had been so palpable on the same day in 2009 (it was far too late for that) there was a sense of quiet determination, a more clear-eyed vision of the work that lay ahead. We were not a broken nation, said Amanda Gorman, “but simply unfinished.”

I was thinking about Gorman’s words as I read The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media, considering what it might mean for a nation to be “finished,” or if such a thing is even possible. This graphic novel (or “media manifesto in comic book form”) was forged by the collaborative efforts of On the Media host Brooke Gladstone and illustrator Josh Neufeld. It was published in 2011, near the midpoint of Obama’s presidential tenure—while social media platforms were gaining momentum but hadn’t yet achieved the dystopian omnipresence they have today. Earlier this year, the beloved work celebrated its tenth anniversary with a brand-new and updated edition, which attempts a reckoning with the devastating circumstances brought about in the decade following its release.

Terrible though these last four years have been, to long for a pre-Trump America is to forget that while Trump may have magnified our nation’s fraught relationship with the media, he did not create it. The Influencing Machine reminds us of this fact by returning us to the latent anxieties of that era, many of which will sound exhaustingly familiar: a dangerously polarized populace, growing distrust of the media, eroding consensus over what constitutes a fact.

With more than two decades under her belt as both a member of the media and a critic of it, Gladstone is well-situated to tackle these attendant anxieties with precision, dexterity, and characteristic economy. (On the Media, the weekly WNYC radio show of which she is the co-host and managing editor, is known for its density and ultra-tight editorial style.) Her goal is to demystify that frightening, amorphous entity that is “the Media” by humanizing it; the Media, Gladstone argues, is necessarily driven by emotion, pursuant of ever-shifting goals—powerful, but not omnipotent.

In fact, the title refers to a term coined by Freudian psychoanalyst Victor Tausk in his seminal work, The Origin of the Influencing Machine in Schizophrenia. Tausk (rendered by Neufeld in prim Victorian dress) noted a pattern in his schizophrenic patients: many of them seemed to invent a “diabolical machine” that they believed influenced them from afar, gradually breaking down their sense of agency and personhood until their egos were utterly dissolved. This is Gladstone’s provocation: perhaps the mounting anxieties and conflicts built up around the Media are simply a mass psychogenic illness, a shared delusion that our very selves are under threat of invasion. On both the right and the left, after all, media bias is condemned as a form of “brainwashing”; moral and political stances are subsequently dismissed on the grounds of ignorance. The implication? People are not free-thinking individuals but puppets, controlled by the Media à la the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Naturally, there is some truth to this—we are all influenced by our environments, and the media has an ever-more-ubiquitous place in our environment—but Gladstone challenges us to see reciprocity between ourselves and the media. The media is a product of us as much as we are of it—not in the sense that we can eradicate bias and shady journalistic practices, or that we can force a nationwide consensus on who and what in the media we deem trustworthy. What we can do is place media institutions in their proper historical context and become more responsible, discerning consumers of information. If we can understand the media as a series of interactions between the press, the world, and ourselves, it needn’t be feared as a nebulous, nefarious influencing machineeven in the era of clickbait and truthiness and invasive content recommendation algorithms.

Everything we hate about the media today was present at its creation,” writes Gladstone early on, italics and all. The goals and inclinations of journalistic institutions are cyclical, ebbing and flowing with the tides of public opinion; backlash and criticism against these institutions are predictable. Wartime tends to mean censorship and new industry standards (like the advent of the byline after the American Civil War, or the rise in “impartiality” as a tenet of journalism in the era of cheap newsprint); new technologies spark panic over diminishing boundaries between fact and fiction. “It covers us all over with lies,” says an editor of the Richmond Enquirer, depicted in a state of exasperation at his executive desk, “fills the very air we breathe and obscures the very sun; makes us doubt of everything we read, because we know that the chances are ten to one it is false…” The text is a quotation from a letter published in 1863 and refers to the advent of the telegraph.

The wide-angle historical lens Gladstone takes lends The Influencing Machine a reassuring level-headedness, made lively by her sense of humor (“who doesn’t take guilty pleasure in the refreshing saliva spray of a commentator spouting our views?”) and the playfulness of Neufeld’s illustrations. A curly-haired, bespectacled Gladstone—in a sensible black dress and pearl earrings—travels the world through millennia, scrawling on a papyrus scroll in Ancient Egypt, sporting a waistcoat and neck doily in an eighteenth-century courtroom, watching televised reports of Vietnam in the ‘60s, even trying out some polymer nanotubes and silk fiber electrodes in the near future.

The sheer volume of historical periods, characters, concepts, and controversies that Gladstone covers in well under two hundred pages is staggering. “Graphic nonfiction was not a suitable genre for a book about ideas,” writes Gladstone in the acknowledgements, “because ideas are hard to convey without a lot of words.” The Influencing Machine proves otherwise; the images serve to make complex ideas more concrete and historical figures more human. The history of media is long and closely intertwined with the history of all civilization; many voices, cultures, and circumstances are at play. Neufeld’s imagery allows a seamless transition between time periods, events, and controversies by evading all the lengthy contextualization that prose alone would require.

The form also opened up opportunities for Gladstone to stretch beyond the limits of written language—limits that can have stark implications in the gnarly world of journalistic ethics. English, in particular, makes little use of the subjunctive and has no potential mood (verb forms that indicate the speaker believes what they say to be true, but is unsure). Imagine how different broadcast news would sound if a distinction between fact and opinion were baked into English grammar. The comic-book structure serves as a shortcut of sorts, creating clear visual delineations between fact and opinion, quotation and narration. It is also an emotional shortcut; Neufeld draws from culturally resonant iconography—from the streaming lines of code in The Matrix to the Hooded Man of Abu Ghraib—to summon rich contexts in which cartoon-Gladstone can bypass lengthy exposition and really get to the heart of the matter.

Gladstone looks toward the future with optimistic realism, acknowledging the gravity of the existential threats we face but not proclaiming their inevitability. Advances in technology will, as always, provoke anxiety and distrust, but they can also open up new ways of living, communicating, and even thinking, rewiring our circuitry as technology has done since our ancestors first picked up sticks and fashioned them into weapons. The internet, for example, is surely changing our brains, but it may very well be changing them for the better. (Gladstone cites one 2008 study in particular, which suggests that web searches may improve brain function.) “That process doesn’t stop,” writes Gladstone. “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.”

After such a comprehensive and expert historical overview of the media, Gladstone’s optimism served to calm some of my nerves and provide much-needed perspective on our current woes. But the effect was largely palliative. Was the media simply unfinished, as Gorman would have us believe of our nation, or is it unfinishable? If journalistic institutions are ever toggling back and forth between allegiances, journalists ever falling victim to dishonest sources, the public ever seeking out validation above truth, what hope do we have to get out of this mess we’ve found ourselves in?

By the time I got to the new afterword, even the palliative effects were diminished. Gladstone’s optimism seems to have taken some hefty blows in the last decade. The can-do activism that ends the original edition—“We get the media we deserve”—is now followed by this jarring, single-word sentence: “But.” Cyclical patterns of journalism notwithstanding, Gladstone sees this moment as uniquely concerning. If the point of the preceding one hundred and sixty-four pages was to convince us that the media is not all-powerful, the six pages of the afterword concede that social media platforms indeed are.

“I’ve had to reconsider what I mean by ‘deserve’ and ‘we,’” writes Gladstone, and she doesn’t quite pin it down. It’s a tricky problem: our unprecedented participation in media means we are more implicated than ever in the circulation of falsehoods and the polarization of our society, but insidious, neurologically manipulative algorithms—“hazardous to our individual and collective health”—simultaneously absolve us of responsibility. What power do we have against the “dopamine-driven” social media platforms that are eroding our social functioning and critical faculties? They degrade and devalue us, rendering us as means to an end (i.e. political power, marketing dollars) rather than an end unto ourselves (i.e. sentient beings, agents of morality)—which is to say that social media platforms bear a haunting resemblance to Tausk’s influencing machine.

This tonal shift gave me pause, not because it was a sentiment I hadn’t heard before—I am ever being reminded by political commentators, my Twitter feed, and my mother of the novelty of our current circumstances—but because Gladstone has managed to set herself up as such an authority on the matter. Her trepidation felt uniquely ominous.

Still, I was reminded of two panels we see early in The Influencing Machine. The first depicts Thomas Jefferson in 1799, eyes alight with cheery idealism. “Our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived,” he says, “but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light.” The second, to the immediate right of the first, fast-forwards eight years, where the same Jefferson is grimacing with irritation, wig frayed: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” he says, “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Gladstone points to Jefferson’s presidency to account for the comical change of opinion—“The press hates presidents”—but one can’t help noting the parallel to Gladstone’s own tonal shift. (Which also occurs over a similar timeline.) The point she makes is that it is difficult to have perspective on a crisis while one is living inside of it, and Gladstone has been on the front lines of the media crisis for decades now. It’s a difficult maze to navigate, knowing whether our panic is a result of our knowing too much or not quite enough.

Either way, the message of this revised edition of The Influencing Machine is powerful and convincing: We may not get the media we deserve, but we might get the media we demand. Fifty years from now (if we indeed have fifty years left) we’ll look back on this fraught time and perhaps be better situated to grasp all the moving parts and significant details. Now, as we’re in the thick of it, all of our grandiose analyzing and theorizing is mostly just guesswork. (As Gladstone puts it, “prediction is a mug’s game.”) But if we take Gladstone’s advice and fight for accountability and fairness in the media we consume, and become ourselves more discerning and responsible consumers of media, then perhaps we’ll look back on this time and be proud of the way we rose to meet its challenges.

Lily Houston Smith is an audio producer and writer based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Currently, she is an editor for Laid Off NYC and is pursuing her master's in Cultural Reporting & Criticism at NYU. You can see what she's up to by following her on Twitter at @Lily_H_Smith. More from this author →