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

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

Male Audience: You were saying that the plane crashes and car crashes are the reminders of death that the news presents to us. But then in the next section on science, you said that the news is trying to avoid the fact that we’re going to die. So can you – that contradiction?

Alain de Botton: Yes. I think what the news does is to make death a bizarre, catastrophic spectacle that happens occasionally, rather than, as we know, a daily event. So by making it so spectacular, by focusing death on the spectacular moments, very rarely do you a story about octogenarian’s heart gives out peacefully after a short illness. That is not news. So in a way, death becomes this kind of massive pornographic event that happens very occasionally off the screen, rather than a daily, steady reality. And the daily, steady reality is hang on guys, science is getting there. The guys at MIT has the next wave of whatever and perhaps miniature robots, et cetera. Rather than going, it’s going to be too late for anyone reading this. Anyone reading this is going to die. The eternal life is at least 600 years away. It will probably come. It will come, but 600 years away.

Male Audience: We only have time for two more questions.

Male Audience: Great. So you mentioned kind of the dichotomy between the 40 million hits on a website versus 300 books being sold. And I think it’s an interesting idea. As someone who has come from academia and — was kind of disillusioned by it, or putting in hours and hours of research into something that nobody is really reading, and it really doesn’t become actionable or practical in most people’s lives. On the other hand, you have information that’s really — everybody’s reading, but there’s nothing there. Do you see any news outlets or any sort of form of communication that’s bridging the gap? Because I kind of see the ivory tower. And most of the professors at least that I worked with, they thought writing anything that could be understood by the general public was beneath them which is problematic. So do you see a space there that –

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Alain de Botton: Look, there is totally a space. There is totally a space. This is where our era is. I mean we are living in that era. Because the architecture of news and of the authority around news has broken down. It used to be the case the New York Times would tell us something, oh, everybody listens. Now, Upworthy could tell you something or The Huffington Post, et cetera. It’s kind of a chaos of the marketplace, which means that if you’ve got serious things to say, you can very easily get lost. And I think the only solution in a market system is the most serious people get into bed with the people who can sell stuff, and who are the artists. And look, I mean I don’t want to be idealistic, but let’s think of Shakespeare, right? Shakespeare, the great thing about Shakespeare is that he was a popular writer. He was saying the most interesting things. But he was a business person who wanted to fill the theater. And so he wanted like the local guys from the fish market to come in. And so he got a little bit of blood and guts some guns and things just to keep them happy. And then he also wanted to explore the deeper stuff. And this is where we are. This is the kind of age we’re in. So we’re needing to be nimble in a way that perhaps serious people didn’t need to be 20 years ago.

Male Audience: So you may have alluded to this slightly. But the problem I see is that we have news concentrated in the hands of a few. And the few may have realized that this is a tool that can be used for mass psychology and mass propaganda. And I think we’re seeing some of that happening now. And one way to spot it is by looking at any big story, let’s say Syria. And you look at what the major US outlets put out on Syria and it’s all aligned along the same view. Now, something as complex as that is going to have two, three, maybe a dozen varied different viewpoints. But they’re never heard. So there’s some collusion going on in my view within the major news. And I want to get your comment.

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Alain de Botton: Look, I think it’s even worse than a collusion. I mean this is the kind of Chomsky line. The Chomsky line says there are elderly white males sitting somewhere, controlling the media, sort of pulling the strings, trying to get us to think in certain ways, in the interests of war and the military machine. I think it’s even worse than that. Because if there really were these guys, we can go out there and get them. We could do a scoop on them. The problem is it’s largely unconscious. It’s unconscious bias of the worse sort. People just — in any area you look at, education, Syria, housing, interest rates, economic income distribution, et cetera, there’s the questions you’re allowed to ask and the questions that sound a bit weird. And I’ve been on news programs where I’ve raised a weird question and boy do they get you out fast. It’s like, oh, what’s this question you’re asking? We thought you were coming to talk about classroom sizes. And now you’re starting to talk about what education is for and what learning is about. Off the stage. There’s censorship of this kind of thing.

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