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 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.

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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.

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Here’s a good photograph of President Obama. This was taken by Pete Souza, who is the White House press photographer. Now, we know that Obama lies all the time, lies to get elected. We didn’t know that Obama lies in order to please the child of a White House staffer, who is into Spiderman. And that’s kind of charming, and cute, and interesting. And hm, yeah, great. So there’s stuff going on here. And that’s good photography. So good photography is a route to information, having its proper due impact on us.

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