Alain de Botton on The News: A User’s Manual at Talks@Google (Full Transcript)

Alain de Botton

Full text of Alain de Botton, author and television presenter, on The News: A User’s Manual at Talks@Google conference.

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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.

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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.

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