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

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.

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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.

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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.

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