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)

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.

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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.

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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.

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