Full Transcript – Alain de Botton, author and television presenter, on The News: A User’s Manual at Talks@Google
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Alain de Botton – Author, Television Presenter
It’s a real pleasure to be here, not least because this book was written on Google Docs. Is anyone here — who here is on — are you guys building it here? It is the most wonderful tool. And actually a book before this, called Art as Therapy, I co-wrote with a colleague in Tasmania on Google Docs. And we would work simultaneously. And it would not have been possible without your work. So really from my heart, thank you. You guys are doing a great job.
What I want to talk about today is a book which is all about information and how we are categorizing it and using it. So it’s kind of a Google topic, very much. But the kind of information that I’m talking about is news, news information. We’re very confused I think as a society as to the way we are using news. I think it’s one of the most inefficient uses of our time. Of anything that we do in the day, the way that we access information through this thing, this massive entity called the news, right, is full of redundancy. It’s full of quirks. It’s full of perversions. It’s not working as it should. There’s an enormous opportunity to make news go better. And that’s what my book is about. Trying to imagine how, in a different range of areas, we could make news go better. Because I think it’s terrible at the moment. Not terrible, I’m being hyperbolic. But not great.
Part the problem, of course, is we are not educated in it. So when we go to school, people will tell us a little bit about paintings and how to look at them. And people will tell us a little bit about drama and literature. But no one tells you what on earth you’re supposed to do when you come across this kind of thing, or this kind of thing. We’re not systematically inducted into the weirdness of the news world.
One of the problems, of course, is information overload. It used to be thought that way back in the 18th century, there were some promises made about what would happen if news became widely and freely available. The great promise of the Enlightenment is put information out there, people will read it, use it, and society will improve. Okay, that’s the dream. It hasn’t really worked out that way. It’s almost nowadays as though you’ve got two options. If you want to try and keep a population passive, supine, not really able to understand reality, okay, the first option is the North Korean option. You throttle the pipe of news. No news, right. Then people don’t know what’s going on and they’re confused.
But the other way to make sure that people don’t know what’s going on and are confused is you give them so much news they don’t know what on earth is going on. I mean, you guys are unusually clever. But most people don’t know what on earth was happening last week. We don’t know because there is too much information. And most of it is orphaned. It’s ripped out of context, et cetera. And therefore, the promise of news has been seriously undermined. In many ways, news replaces this religion. Just as in the olden days, you used to go to religion and religion would tell you what was right and wrong, what the important issue of the day is. Now, we switch on the news. That will tell us what is important, what’s right and wrong. But, of course, huge assumptions there. And just as you can be an agnostic, a skeptic, an atheist in relation to religion, so all those tags can apply also for the news.
And I would probably characterize myself on the more skeptical/agnostic/atheist end of the business. Nevertheless, I recognize the unbelievable importance of this stuff. If you’re planning a coup, always drive your tanks not to the homes of the computer programmers, the poets, the historians, the novelists. You take your tanks to the news HQ because that is where social, political reality is made in the consciousness of the population.
So it’s an incredibly valuable and important area. But it’s going wrong in lots of ways. Let me run you through some of the areas where I think it’s going wrong.
One of the things is the very important stuff of life, all right, used to be at the top of the headlines. It used to be at the top of the news. The important stuff is at the top and the kind of frothy stuff is at the bottom. The news, what is news, should be important. And that’s why we tune in. And that’s why news can command our affection.
However, nowadays, if you put something like this on the front page of your site or your news bulletin, the greatest news story on Earth, your ratings will plummet. No one is interested in this at all. However, if you put her on, wow, Taylor Swift, everybody’s interested in Taylor Swift, particularly in shorts. This is one of the perennial favorites of all news organizations, endless photos like this.
Okay, what are we going to do about this? Well, one response of many serious journalists is to despair. They’re prone to despair. And this fact really leads them to take to the hills, and hunker down, and escape civilization. I’m hopeful because I know about the history of the Renaissance. And in the Renaissance, the Catholic Church knew that it had an awful lot of complex messages to get across to people, arduous messages, difficult messages. Really about how to live like Jesus Christ, kind of difficult, all about the Gospels, et cetera.
So when they set about doing their altar pieces of giant advertisements for their faith, they realized that they had to do some particular things in order to get the message across. So if you’ve got something important to say and you simply put it in the hands of the bearded guy there on the bottom right, with a big book and the big beard, no one listens to guys with big beards like that. You’re just not going to sell the message. That’s why they took the Taylor Swifts of the day who were in the centerpiece, and gave them very lovely clothes, and hair, and svelte appearance in order to sell the message. So in other words, they realized that they were in the business of popularization, not merely the gathering of important information, but it’s conveyance, all the techniques of artistry. They realized they had to work very hard, not just to gather what Jesus said, but to make sure the what Jesus said was going to be listened to. And that might involve them getting Giovanni Bellini to make an altarpiece.
It’s kind weird because most news organizations now see themselves as data driven businesses. We bring you the data, the important facts. And we leave it on the table and you will read it and consume it and then you will be overwhelmed. The Catholic Church, much wiser. If you simply put the Gospels on the table, with the guy with the beard, no one will listen. You need to work a little harder. So this altarpiece is a symbol, a metaphor if you like, for that extra work we’re going to need to do.
The other thing about the news, of course, is there’s too much of it, as I mentioned. But there isn’t really too much of it. What there is is stories that keep saying they’re brand new and they never happened before in history of the world. But in fact, of course they’ve happened before. It’s just we’re taught by the news organizations not to recognize what we could call archetypes. The news is full of archetypes.
In my book I say that there are 32 archetypes that keep running round and round. They’re the same stories. It just keeps running. The Kiev story, it’s an archetype. It’s been running since 1789. Of course, the news will never tell me that. No. For the news, it’s totally new. Something completely unbelievable has happened. But it doesn’t want you to understand the threads that are running constantly through human life. This happens just with less significant stories as well.
Let me show you a story which looks like lots of stories, but in fact only one story. So there’s this guy and there’s this lady. And there’s these guys. Now basically, that looks like three stories. It’s about only one story because what it’s a story of is there’s Prince William, a high and mighty guy, wrestling with a car seat, with a baby seat. Wow and amazing.
This is Taylor Swift again and she’s at Whole Foods buying lettuce. Amazing. A high and mighty person buying things.
And this is a high and mighty son of God. But he’s born in humble circumstances. He could have been in a place. It’s the same story. Its emotional structure is identical. But the news is not in the business of sharpening our eyes to the similarities between stories, reducing the number of phenomena. I come from the background of philosophy. It’s all about trying to reduce phenomena down to some noumena. The news works in the opposite direction. Everything is always new. We’ve never seen it before, et cetera. That makes life dizzying. It makes it harder to navigate.
The area that we know as foreign news, okay, the great promise of foreign news used to be you send out some reporters. You give them some fiber optic cables. You give them a satellite. They will tell you about stuff going on in other parts of the world. And then people will care. They will agitate for change and the world will improve. Nonsense. None of that happens.
Last week, 200 people were killed in fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. None of you know that. I only know that because I’m in the business. It just washes over us. And the reason is, again, this problem of data. People think. News organizations believe that you can go out there and get the facts, like 200 people died. And people go, oh, my goodness, how awful, how terrible. We must do something about it. We must write to the congressman. You don’t do anything about it because you don’t care. And the reason you don’t care is why should you care about the death of 200 people whose lives you never knew existed? You didn’t know that they were alive. So who cares if they’re dead. I mean it’s like a mirage.
If I put you in a performance of “King Lear,” you might be weeping at the end of a performance of “King Lear” for a guy who what, didn’t even live. So there you are. You’re weeping about people who never lived, written 300 years ago. And meanwhile, you’re totally indifferent about someone who did live yesterday. So what’s going on? Are we monsters? Are we crazy? No. Again, it comes back to the fact that information needs to enter our imaginations. And it can only do that through a technique which I will call art. Art is the discipline that’s designed to get important concepts powerfully into our imaginations. And the art form that is most relevant to news gathering is photojournalism.
I come from the background of philosophy and most philosophers are quite depressive people. But, boy, you haven’t met a depressed category like photojournalists. They are really depressed. And the reason is no one is paying for their work anymore. So people like Magnum are in panic and all the rest of it because the value of photojournalism is gone.
Now, what is good photojournalism? And why might we need it? What’s a good photograph? What’s a bad photograph? What’s a good photograph? It is something that you could spend years of your life trying to figure out. But I’m going to tell you the answer in one second. I think that a good photograph is one which advances your understanding of a situation. It’s rich in information. I don’t care about the color balance, or the field, the thing, and whether it’s wonky. It’s how much information, new information does it carry? And a bad photograph is one which many confirms, corroborates information which you have probably gathered nonpictorially before. It’s an image of corroboration, not an advancing of knowledge.
Let me show you a good photograph. This is a good photograph taken by a woman Stephanie Sinclair, who spent some time in the Yemen. She won a Pulitzer Prize for this photo essay on child marriage in the Yemen. Now, we think you know all about child marriage in the Yemen. But we don’t really. And this photograph tells us why. You see when you look at that photograph, you realize that it’s not children. It’s not girls getting married to men. Those aren’t girls. If you look at their faces, these are little old ladies. The trauma of what they’ve been through has aged them 40 years. And similarly, the men are not men. They don’t, you know, in command. These are boys. These are lost boys. It’s far more poignant, weird, disturbing than one might have thought. So this is a picture rich in information. It’s bringing you something that you didn’t know without the picture. And we need to make a case for that, for good photographs as bearers of information. This is true in all areas. I mean this is a bad photograph of President Obama. It’s a dead photograph. The reason it’s dead is you don’t learn anything about the guy. Everything you knew about this guy is not advanced one iota by seeing this photograph.