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

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.

But let me move on now to kind of an awkward topic. You guys seem really nice. And on a good day, I’m quite nice. And people out there seem quite nice. And it’s very easy to think that people are quite nice until you read a news article and you go, as they say in the trade, below the line and you find out about the comments, what people are saying, what all the people are saying, on social media too. And then you’re in for a shock because you realize then that actually people aren’t nice. They’re crazy, vindictive, bitter, angry, furious, just insane. This is some comments I found at the bottom of a Guardian article on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the money guy at the British government. He’s very much hated. People are insulting him. One guy wants to put a pillow over his face. The other one wants to kick him up the thing. I mean it’s just – it’s violent. It derogatory. You have this in the States as well. This is the modern phenomena. People go celebrate social media, how lovely it is about social media. Then you find this is what you’re hearing about social media.

So what’s going on? Are we crazy as a species? No. No, We’re not crazy. We just writing our journals in public. You know how it is when you keep a journal. And you’ve got a bad day. And then you go up to your bedroom. And you take our your journal. And you say, I’ve had enough. I’m killing myself. I hate everybody. I hate myself. I’m a loser, everybody’s thing. And your tears are mixing with the ink. And it’s all very poignant and emotional. I’m just being a little autobiographical. And you put the journal away. Then you rejoin group life. And it’s very, very important that no one knows what you wrote in that journal. Because if they do, they can’t look at you in the same way again. It’s really bad information to know about you. So you got to keep that private.

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Now, I believe the same holds true in a way with these comments. These are just journal entries. And because we’ve got to get out there, and trust people, and love, and do business with people, it’s really important that we don’t know certain things about our fellow human beings. Because if we do, it’ll make a lot of things very hard. So I don’t know if you guys are working on this. But I have serious doubts about the social validity of some of these comments. We’re not quite understanding what they do to our minds. But we’re living in communities. And this is giving us information about communities we might not want to hear. So something to bear in mind.

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