Books I’ve been reading (II)

Life has been busy recently. So I’ve had the chance to read, but not make notes on what I’ve been reading. Apologies – this may be a long one.

The influencing machine

I’ve been reading a few books on media lately – more on that to follow. The Influencing Machine is a useful piece, and it was an interesting read as it stepped through the different processes and systems that go into what we think of as the homogenous whole of ‘media’. Having said that, I found it vaguely dissatisfying; it felt as though it didn’t really dig deep into structural issues, or think about some of the underlying economic drivers of particular aspects of the media industry. There’s better stuff out there. But for kids, or someone wanting something light, this is worth it.

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 lies. Also present was everything we admire – and require – from the media: factual information, penetrating analysis, probing investigation, truth spoken to power. Same as it ever was …

The Monarch of the Glen by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman is a brilliant writer; so much so that he manages to make it look easy, which is half the battle. If you liked American Gods, then worth reading this novella set in the same context.

Ike and McCarthy by David Nichols

Ike and McCarthy is a fascinating piece. As someone asked me, does it have any basis in fact? I’m not a historian, but as a lay reader it seemed reasonably well researched, and he explicitly notes that he’s had access to a set of notes that one of the key actors kept of the whole incident.

It’s fascinating because it’s a story of how a cunning, ruthless politician (Ike) defeated another cunning, ruthless politician (McCarthy). He didn’t do it by calling out his dishonesty, or through public confrontation. He did it through cunning internal machinations, planned in advance, all while presenting a nonchalant, guileless exterior. It is … a story of cynicism, of deceit, and of layers upon layers of politics. It is encouraging, in that it is the story of a populist who harangued witnesses relentlessly, eventually brought down. But about the only thing that sets a positive tone is Ike’s decision to prize the right decision (opposing McCarthy) above the political advantage (in supporting McCarthy, who rallied a decent section of the population). But the rest is all very effective, but pragmatically so. And it leads, ultimately, to this moment and the downfall that followed.

This book is well worth it if you think the past can shed light on current political situations.

Eisenhower’s approach to dealing with McCarthy was not nearly as passive as it appeared. He instinctively understood that treating him as inconsequential would drive the senator into self-destructive behaviors; he sensed that repeated presidential snubs over time would have a cumulative effect …

“As for McCarthy” he [Eisenhower] continued, “only a short-sighted or completely inexperienced individual would urge the use of the office of the Presidency to give an opponent the publicity he so avidly desires” …

“There would be far more progress made against so-called ‘McCarthy-ism’ if individuals of an opposing purpose would take it upon themselves to help sustain and promote their own ideals, rather than to wait and wait for a blasting of their pet enemies by someone else.” [Eisenhower] …

A different kind of Republican platform:

Eisenhower outlined ambitious proposals regarding foreign aid, his Atoms for Peace program, taxes, a farm aid program, enhancement of Social Security benefits, and an increase in the minimum wage. It would be without question, the most sweeping legislative program proposed by a Republican president since Franklin Roosevelt.

But Eisenhower did seem to tack to McCarthy’s wind at points:

Eisenhower’s other rhetorical gambit aimed at McCarthyites was to suggest that membership in the Communist Party was “akin to treason”. He proposed that Congress deprive such persons of their US citizenship, subject to their being convicted in the courts of conspiring to overthrow the government.

Nichols concludes that Eisenhower did lie to journalists, in concealing the role he’d played in the Army dossier that brought down McCarthy:

Did the president lie to the press on May 19, 1954? Yes, he did.

At least some observers thought that Ike’s stance on McCarthy cost them politically. It’s interesting, too, that a figure who looms so large in subsequent history is here just a side-figure:

On November 2, 1954, the Democrats won both houses of Congress by narrow margins. Vice President Nixon suggested that the adminstration’s conflicts with Senator McCarthy had cost the support of “pro-McCarthyites” in three Midwestern states: Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin …

“It’s no longer McCarthyism” he [Eisenhower] said. “It’s McCarthywasm.”

The Image: A guide to pseudo-events in America, by Daniel J Boorstin

The Image is a frustrating book. Put simply, I’d say that there is about a blog post’s worth of interesting ideas in here. Definitely not a book’s worth. Which means, unfortunately, that a lot of it is padding, rambling, spat out to fill out a set of ideas which while interesting, aren’t developed as rigorously as they could be.

There is a review on goodreads, that claims to be by his son, saying that he wrote it in three months. That, I believe. It might even have been shorter.

The power to make a reportable event is thus the power to make experience …

A pseudo-event, then, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:

  1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it …
  2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced … Its success is measured by how widely it is reported …
  3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous …
  4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy …

The factual basis for calling any book a best seller is not so much a statistic as an amalgam including a small ingredient of fact along with much larger ingredients of hope, intention, frustration, ballyhoo, and pure hokum …

The art of promoting books, then, like the art of government administration and some others, has increasingly become a technique of telling attractive untruths without actually lying …

What the pseudo-event is in the world of fact, the image is in the world of value …

When we use the word “image” in this new sense, we plainly confess a distinction between what we see and what is really there, and we express our preferred interest in what is to be seen …

Strictly speaking, there is no way to unmask an image. An image, like any other pseudo-event, becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it …

I’ll just mention here, the fascinating moment where I was with a friend who commented on their food ‘I have food envy, of myself’. There is something encapsulated there, about the ability of our focus on images to dominate our primary experiences, that I struggle to articulate more clearly, but I think is fascinating and important.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu

The Master Switch is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It tells the story of how media empires rise and fall. How a new technology disrupts an existing system; but how power concentrates the system over time, and an existing system attempts to destroy contenders that could disrupt it.

He takes readers through multiple fascinating cycles in the twentieth century: radio, film, television, each unique but reflecting an underlying pattern. I only wish he’d done nineteenth century newspapers. Well worth it.

History shows a typical progression of information technologies: from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel — from open to closed system …

Every few decades, a new communications technology appears, bright with promise and possibility. It inspires a generation to dream of a better society, new forms of expression, alternative types of journalism. Yet each new technology eventually reveals its flaws, kinks, and limitations … When these problems reach a critical mass, and a lost potential for substantial gain is evident, the market’s invisible hand waves in some great mogul like Vail or band of them who promise a more orderly and efficient regime for the betterment of users. Usually enlisting the federal government, this kind of mogul is special, for he defines a new type of industry, integrated and centralized. Delivering a better or more secure product, the mogul heralds a golden age in the life of the new technology. At its heart lies some perfected engine for providing a steady return on capital … he gains a certain measure of control over the medium’s potential for enabling individual expression and technical innovation-control such as the inventors never dreamed of, and necessary to perpetuate itself, as well as the attendant profits of centralization. This, too, is the Cycle.

Wu tells a fascinating story about how the telegraph influenced US politics:

Hayes might never have been president but for the fact that Western Union provided secret access to the telegrams sent by his rivals.

Later, he writes:

Whatever technological reality we live with is the result of tooth-and-claw industrial combat …

Later still:

… in the United States, it is industrial structure that determines the limits of free speech.

The dawn of the cheap press in Victorian Britain by Martin Hewitt

Hewitt’s book is not so much a comprehensive overview of press change in Victorian Britain, although it provides a useful overview. Rather, it focuses on a particular advocacy group that was attempting to repeal a set of taxes that were applied on newspapers: taxes on paper, deposit requirements for licensing, and taxes on advertising. Collectively, the whole group of taxes (I may have missed a few) were cleverly labelled ‘taxes on knowledge’. One of the arguments was that once they were repealed, knowledge would be more widely available, increasing people’s level of knowledge.

The book feels a little like a repurposed PhD thesis, but it’s a fascinating study of the lobby group politics, the different alignments that you might not expect, in the cut and thrust of political conflict in a very different time and place.

The Association demonstrated the full repertoire of pressure politics: as we have seen branch associations and petitions; ostensible party-political neutrality; electoral pressures through pledges from parliamentary candidates, and holding MPs to account through their voting record: the propaganda of machinery of speeches, lectures, pamphlets, tracts, handbills and periodicals; deputations to ministers; parliamentary interventions and motions …

It sought first to win the argument about the impolicy of the taxes, second to promote them to a position of priority, and third to make the difficulties of repealing them seem less of an evil than those of maintaining them …

After 1855 a thriving business emerged in the part-printing of papers in London, with a space (at times relatively small) being left for filling with local news so that the sheet could be badged as a local issue, along the lines of the Teesdale Mercury …

… in January 1858 the Morning Star offered the anecdote of Palmerston, on meeting a newsboy hallooing out a misleading cry about the Indian Mutiny, ‘asking the man how he dared to deceive the public so. “My Lord”, said the shrewd outsider of literature, “I follow my business as you follow yours”.’

Miracle Man by Neil Gaiman is well worth it. It’s a beautifully put together re-imagining, from different perspectives, of a world where gods had returned. It doesn’t have easy answers or simple questions, but it’s beautiful and entrancing.

The Writing on the Wall by Tom Standage

The Writing on the Wall is an interesting piece. Standage’s central thesis is that many of the features of contemporary social media have always been with us; and he sets out to trace their origins in ancient parallels.

He’s persuasive, but ultimately it felt as though he didn’t dig deep enough into what it is that makes a social network, or social media; and he looses some explanatory and predictive power because of it.

A central part of his thesis is that new social media (the tweets and book faces) is closer to older forms of social media such as newspapers and coffee houses, rather than uni-directional mass media that dominated much of the twentieth century.

The development of writing was pioneered not by gossips, storytellers, or poets, but by accountants …

The walls of Roman towns and cities were covered with written messages, including advertisements, political slogans, and personal messages of all kinds …

… [speaking of a European court] the closer to the seat of power one gets, the more one must suppress one’s own opinions, and the more dangerous it becomes to let the mask slip …

Apparently, well before Hansard was on the scene:

At the same time, detailed handwritten accounts of the proceedings in Parliament, under the title “Diurnall Occurrences or Heads of the Proceedings in Parliament”, which had been compiled and circulated on a weekly basis since late 1640, also started to appear in print with the tacit approval of John Pym, Parliament’s unofficial leader.

Writing of another political context:

In retrospect, the problem was that revolutionary leaders such as Mirabeau, Brissot, and Condorcet assumed that the removal of controls on printing would allow the inherent but unspoken unit of public opinion to express itself. But instead the press revealed and amplified the differences between the various revolutionary factions …

And later:

With steam printing, information had become an industrial product …

The Journal had attacked McKinley relentlessly, despite his successful prosecution of the war with Spain, and had run an editorial earlier that year stating that “if bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.” (Hearst insisted that the editorial had been published without his knowledge).

[Paraphrasing Habermas’ view]: Large media organizations, controlled by and operated in the interests of a small group, came to dominate the media landscape, providing their owners with a powerful means to influence public attitudes. In the process, media became a product to be passively consumed, rather than an environment in which to actively participate …

It is a sign of a medium’s immaturity when one of the main topics of discussion is the medium itself.

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

I enjoyed this one a lot. It’s central premise – that new technologies evolve in similar ways, and give us optimism for the future – seems well supported. And, it’s just downright fascinating to read about another communication boom, in an era that feels so similar, and yet so distant, from our own.

The telegraph had originated with Morse and Cooke, both of whom combined a sense of curiosity and invention with the single-mindedness needed to get it off the ground; it had then entered an era of consolidation, during which scientists like Thomson and Wheatstone provided its theoretical underpinnings; and it had ended up the province of the usual businessmen who take over whenever an industry becomes sufficiently stable, profitable, and predictable.

Go set a watchman, by Harper Lee

There have been a lot of reviews of Go set a watchman. This is a good one. I read it because I wanted to see what kind of book it was. Was it something dug up, decades later? Had Lee tried her hand a second time, having succeeded so magnificently with To Kill a Mockingbird? It’s hard to be sure on the origin.

What is clear is that Go set a watchman is the worse book. It’s clunky, and jumpy, and barely makes sense at points. But I think it’s a useful, powerful reminder of the work that goes into a good novel; here’s a set of ideas that didn’t quite make it, that were never polished or internally coherent enough to be a novel. Success can look effortless, but we only appreciate it when we see what an abandoned draft looks like.

But we can sympathise Lee, someone who wanted to ask questions about Atticus Finch. We can recognise that an author may have an imagined version of a character even richer than the version that makes it onto paper. How would it feel, I wonder, to live your life as the world admires Atticus Finch, but as his creator, you know how truly flawed he is?

Having read To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most powerful scenes in the book is when Scout visits Calpurnia as an adult – even though it could have been more powerful handled differently. It is essentially the story of realising privilege, even if only a little:

Jean Louise rose to go. “Tell me one thing, Cal,” she said, “Just one thing before I go – please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?”

The old woman sat silent, bearing the burden of her years. Jean Louise waited.

Finally, Calpurnia shook her head.

The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge

The Company is a wonderful piece; it’s a history of a concept – what makes a company? While I think they jump over the early history a little quickly, it’s fascinating to read about some of the key European legislation that introduced the idea of a limited liability company. Once upon a time, that idea was as foreign and strange as it is completely normal to us now, so obvious that we can barely think to notice it, let alone question it.

But when it was introduced, the idea of a limited liability company provoked fierce debate. Adam Smith was sceptical, and other surprising advocates were very supportive. It’s an interesting point in history.

When they were first introduced, companies were an enormous shock to the system, harbingers of hope and enormous change. Now they are a large part of the system:

Hegel predicted that the basic unit of modern society would be the state, Marx that it would be the commune, Lenin and Hitler that it would be the political party. Before that, a succession of saints and sages claimed the same for the parish church, the feudal manor, and the monarchy. The big contention of this small book is that they have all been proved wrong. The most important organization in the world is the company …

Companies have proved enormously powerful not just because they improve productivity, but also because they possess most of the legal rights of a human being, without the attendant disadvantages of biology: they are not condemned to die of old age and they can create progeny pretty much at will …

Companies sprang from the loins of the state. Even when they were set free in the mid-nineteenth century, they still had to secure what might be called ‘a franchise from society’. The terms of that franchise may be explicit or implicit, but when companies have appeared to break them, society in the shape of people like Woodrow Wilson has reined in companies, often crudely.

 

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