Full text of Alain de Botton, author and television presenter, on The News: A User’s Manual at Talks@Google conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – Alain de Botton on The News – A User’s Manual at Talks at Google
It’s a real pleasure to be here, not least because this book was written on Google Docs. Is anyone here — who here is on — are you guys building it here? It is the most wonderful tool. And actually a book before this, called Art as Therapy, I co-wrote with a colleague in Tasmania on Google Docs. And we would work simultaneously. And it would not have been possible without your work. So really from my heart, thank you. You guys are doing a great job.
What I want to talk about today is a book which is all about information and how we are categorizing it and using it. So it’s kind of a Google topic, very much. But the kind of information that I’m talking about is news, news information. We’re very confused I think as a society as to the way we are using news. I think it’s one of the most inefficient uses of our time. Of anything that we do in the day, the way that we access information through this thing, this massive entity called the news, right, is full of redundancy. It’s full of quirks. It’s full of perversions. It’s not working as it should. There’s an enormous opportunity to make news go better. And that’s what my book is about. Trying to imagine how, in a different range of areas, we could make news go better. Because I think it’s terrible at the moment. Not terrible, I’m being hyperbolic. But not great.
Part the problem, of course, is we are not educated in it. So when we go to school, people will tell us a little bit about paintings and how to look at them. And people will tell us a little bit about drama and literature. But no one tells you what on earth you’re supposed to do when you come across this kind of thing, or this kind of thing. We’re not systematically inducted into the weirdness of the news world.
One of the problems, of course, is information overload. It used to be thought that way back in the 18th century, there were some promises made about what would happen if news became widely and freely available. The great promise of the Enlightenment is put information out there, people will read it, use it, and society will improve. Okay, that’s the dream. It hasn’t really worked out that way. It’s almost nowadays as though you’ve got two options. If you want to try and keep a population passive, supine, not really able to understand reality, okay, the first option is the North Korean option. You throttle the pipe of news. No news, right. Then people don’t know what’s going on and they’re confused.
But the other way to make sure that people don’t know what’s going on and are confused is you give them so much news they don’t know what on earth is going on. I mean, you guys are unusually clever. But most people don’t know what on earth was happening last week. We don’t know because there is too much information. And most of it is orphaned. It’s ripped out of context, et cetera. And therefore, the promise of news has been seriously undermined. In many ways, news replaces this religion. Just as in the olden days, you used to go to religion and religion would tell you what was right and wrong, what the important issue of the day is. Now, we switch on the news. That will tell us what is important, what’s right and wrong. But, of course, huge assumptions there. And just as you can be an agnostic, a skeptic, an atheist in relation to religion, so all those tags can apply also for the news.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Look, here’s something else now about the news. This is a guy and his five-year-old son. And shortly after this picture was taken, the man took this boy and his sister, who is a couple of years older, he took them into his car. And he stabbed them with a knife and then he killed himself. And this took place in a little lane in the south of England. And the car was found a few days later, with the bodies, and the blood everywhere. And when this story ran in the world’s most popular English language website, which is called the MailOnline, which none of you have ever read I hope, so when this ran in the MailOnline, this was the most popular story that they ran two years ago.
Okay. So what’s going on? Are we sick? Are we mad? What are we doing? Will we care, how horrible, ugh. What are we doing? Okay, let’s go to Aristotle, who has some interesting insights. Now, Aristotle, in the 4th century BC, was very aware that his fellow Athenians did a weird thing every year. They went out and looked at tragedies, plays by Sophocles and Euripides, on the foothills of the Acropolis. They looked at this sort of stuff. They looked at stories of incest, and of murder, and all kinds of disastrous events. And Aristotle made a very fascinating point. He said look, it is horrific. It is ghastly. But properly appreciating the things, dynamics within tragedy is part of the civilizing process. An education in horror has a role to play in civilizing you, a very weird point.
Now, why is Aristotle saying this? Because he felt that in the hands of a great tragedian, like Sophocles or Euripides, a story can be told in such a way that rather than calling the guy who has murdered his family a weirdo, or a nut case, or et cetera, you start to see something very, very frightening indeed. Which is that all of us are capable of anything if pushed in a certain way. That all of us are capable of doing this to our children, for example. And I know it sounds unreasonable. But that’s what he believed. And I think he was right. We are on the edge of a precipice all of time. And when we don’t do these things it’s because we’ve not been pushed hard enough or we’ve been blessed by a certain capacity for self-restraint. But it’s there. The fear should be there. So we should feel pity for the tragic hero, who has ruined his or her life. And we should feel fear for ourselves, how close we come to the precipice. All of that is available. And as so often happens in the news, the news takes us to an interesting place and then doesn’t capitalize. The news is full of undigested meals. It is full of raw ingredients that have not been properly combined. And one of its mainstays, which is tragic news, is on the precipice, on the edge of something very interesting. And it doesn’t take us to the most interesting thing.
This also goes on with this, car crashes. I mean car crashes are hugely popular. Everybody loves a good car crash. The news loves a good car crash. There’s been snow, a massive pile-up, many dead. But of course as you’ll know, nothing beats this, a really good plane crash, preferably a wide-bodied airliner, huge explosion, fireball, and many dead, off the scale popular. Again, are we monsters? No. We’re searching for the meaning of life. In looking at these things, we’re searching for the meaning of life.
Back in the Middle Ages, it used to be a classic piece of Interior decoration to put a skull on your table or have a picture of a skull on your wall. Why? Because the thought of death, the reminder of death, is a very important part of leading you to focus on what is important in life. So it is not in order to make life meaningless. But it is in order to try and separate out the things that are meaningful and the things that are less rich in meaning. And in a way, these are our modern memento mores. These are our modern skulls on a table. We don’t really use them as such. So again, we’re not quite using the information which is on the edge of something very interesting in the way that it should be used.
Look. At the end of the day, what the news is trying to do a lot of the time is terrify us. It’s trying to suggest that we cannot survive and that there are bad things on the horizon, bird flu, a snowfall. I mean my goodness, the snow. Everything that is supposed to be bad is coming on the horizon and we are meant to be terrified. And that’s why when we break down on a cold, dark night and we have to go and seek out the help of a stranger, we know that we are going to be chopped up in small pieces and put in the trunk because we have read the news. And we know that everybody out there is a serial killer, a murderer, or a pedophile, et cetera.
And then we come across a stunning realization that, of course, people are really nice. And always go, oh, I was stuck in a snowdrift and you know what, people are really nice. Of course, they’re really nice. We’ve got an unbelievably crooked sense of statistics. By its very nature, news over-represents the weird, dark stuff. But because it’s on all the time, we tend to think nowadays that the weird, dark stuff is us. It precisely isn’t us. That’s why it’s in the news. But we miss that very basic point. The human brain is very bad at holding on to this distinction. And it matters a lot because the news start to influence what we think it means to live among Americans. What are Americans like? Well, they’re on the whole crazy. And they shoot people in huge numbers. And, well, that’s because we’ve read the news. So it’s very harmful. There’s very little of our information nowadays that is gathered through our own senses, through our own experiences. We have offloaded the task of making up our minds in large measure to people like the news industry, like the New York Times. Think of that asinine comment, asinine strap line, all the news that’s fit to print. If ever there was a more hubristic comment. All the news, are you sure, are you really sure you’ve got all the news that’s fit to print? Oh, yes, yes, absolutely. We’ve gone out there and we looked at everything. All right. So anything, anything happening in Wall Street, a few blocks from your offices? This is 2006. And he goes anything happening at all? Oh, it all seems fine, yeah. And Ben Bernanke told us it’s all fine. And we’re over — okay, great. So you just walked past the most major calamity, systemic errors in the banking crisis, all the news that’s fit to print. It is not “the news.” It is some news, gathered together, often by very mediocre people, in a hurry, drinking cups of Styrofoam coffee, and not thinking too hard. And they’ve scooped up this stuff for you in order to make reality seem like it has a narrative. It’s full of holes and errors. And we just have to keep our eyes open all the time.
Look, I was talking about fear. The other thing, of course, the news sometimes does is to make us hopeful, particularly around the area of science and technology. You guys will know about this. That’s why you guys are in the news so often. The news is to the best friend of science and technology. Because it’s all about saying that we are advancing towards a sunlit uplands. And so soon, very, very soon, everything will be solved, all human problems will be solved. This is the kind of progeny of the Enlightenment dream. And that’s why the news is constantly telling us that if you drink more cranberry juice or less cranberry juice, or have walnuts before dessert, or have an aspirin, or thing, you’ll delay Alzheimer’s or kidney diseases. This is like a major thing. There’s a constant story going round and round and round.
And what the news is not telling you is you’re going to die. Whatever happens, you will die. This vital piece of information has been delayed. So death, it seems like a rumor. It comes from a airliner or a car crash, et cetera. It’s not telling you that — and the thing that the news replaced, these guys, all right, for all their faults — I’m speaking to you as a Jewish atheist — these guys at least knew that it was coming. And they reconciled it to you in a sober context. It was not going to be by surprise. The news does not induct us into the steady state 4of the human condition, which is death is inevitable, around 80 years old. There’s going to be no discoveries unless Google has something we don’t know. But, you know.
The other area is celebrity. Now, celebrity news upsets a lot of people. Because when we think about celebrity news — when serious people gather together late at night and worry about the condition of the human soul, they think, oh, yes, we live in a culture where the kids are only interested in celebrity news. And this kind of lady here doesn’t add to the argument. I mean it’s true. Yeah. There’s a lot of this stuff around.
So what are we going to do about it? Well, the thing to do is to get rid of celebrity news and just live quietly. Now, my view is we can’t. Celebrity is really important. We need celebrities. We need to admire. We need role models. Every functioning society, every functioning civilization has had role models. You can’t do away with them. We don’t know how to be without looking at others and modelling our behavior on theirs. It’s very normal. We need to adjust to it.
So the thing to do is not to get rid of celebrities, but to find our way to the right sort of celebrities. How are we going to do that? Well, you can see sort of hints of this. The other day, Natalie Portman took her son to the park. And it’s really boring going to the park with your child. I don’t know if you’ve got kids. It’s cold. And then it’s so boring. And it’s quite nice to think, well, I took my kid to the park and so did Natalie Portman. That’s pretty nice. Yeah. So the light of glamor shines for a few moments on an ordinary activity. And that’s very good. So for a small moment, Natalie has become Saint Natalie of taking your child to the park. And, of course, these guys who came before knew that the role of saints is to bolster behavior in areas where it needs bolstering. So we need celebrities. We just need the right sort.
And the problem is that the high-minded types who run the more high-minded news organizations are not interested in celebrity. They think it’s bad. And so what do we end up with? We end up with celebrities, but celebrities that were made — and celebrities are always made — by news organizations of the lowest common denominator sought. So let’s brain up celebrity. We should have some celebrities of a more ambitious nature.
Now, here’s something else that the news does to us all the time. And we should be ready for it. You’ll know this guy, won’t you, working in the industry? You know who he is? Yeah. So here’s this man, Elon Musk. And he’s very, very successful. Here’s his wife. And he’s got now five children. And he’s just doing amazing things. And he’s just great. And often you get a Sunday supplement or a Saturday — weekend magazine. And there will be a story about Elon at home with his kids, a nice piece. Or maybe Elon’s — I don’t know — discovered how to cook pasta or something. And we’re supposed to be interested and charmed and then put the newspaper down and get on with our lives.
How on Earth are we going to do that? It used to be the case in the news when there was kind of strobe lighting or something, there would be a warning coming up going, strobe lighting coming, or look away, et cetera. There should be a major warning, envy, envy warning, right? Many stories in the news drive us insane with envy because we live in meritocratic, mobile societies, where, if you’ve got a good idea, or you could be the next Larry, et cetera. So it’s constantly tantalizing us, the sense of possibility. And it’s the news that brings us this information.
The thing is that we still live under a Judeo-Christian heritage which thinks very badly of envy. You’re not supposed to think about envy, a very bad person. The thing is about envy, envy is really important. It’s really important to be envious quite a lot of the time because envy is a confused, but in some ways telling story about who you want to be. And the thing to do with envy is rather than squashing it and pretending everything’s fine and it doesn’t exist, you need to analyze your envy to sort out the wheat from the chaff and to get to the root of what the envy might be telling you. I recommend that we keep an envy diary where we see the patterns of all the people who have made us envious over the last day. And we gather this up. And we’ll see patterns emerging.
When I start to analyze my envy for Elon Musk, I realize I don’t really what I found Paypal or be there when e-Bay was starting. That’s not really me. And his wife is very nice, but so is mine. So it’s not really that. But why I really admire this guy is that he’s courageous. He’s unbelievable. Time and time again, he’s got an idea. Everybody thinks he’s crazy. And he goes for it and he bets big time. That’s the honorable thing. That’s what I want to learn from that. The news is not in the business of doing that. It’s just telling us how he’s cooking pasta or his latest project on Mars. The information is presented to us without any understanding of what it’s doing to us, making us crazy with envy, or how we might transcend that envy and take it somewhere productive.
So again, what you’ll notice through everything I’ve been saying is the news isn’t totally on the wrong thing. It’s just constantly not doing some key moves that it should be doing to render the information that it presents to us effective. It’s stalled at the last minute before doing something interesting.
Now, look, here’s something else. I want to talk about bias now in news. Now, bias in news has got a really bad reputation. And when we think of a bad news organization, we’ll think of like Fox News or the MailOnline very biased sources of information. And when we think of good news sources, we’ll think high-minded people, and those guys at NPR, very balanced sort of people, or maybe the guys on the BBC. I mean the BBC, it’s for my country, but it’s everywhere. They’re the most high-minded organization. And they do not present bias because what they do when they present the news is they just like to say that they’re giving you the information, and then they’re giving you opposing viewpoints, and they’re leaving it to you to make up your mind. So if they’re doing a feature on genital mutilation, they’ll get someone who’s very against genital mutilation. And in the interest of balance, they’ll get someone who’s pro-genital mutilation. If they’re doing a story on genocide, well, someone who’s very pro-genocide, anti-genocide, just to get both sides of the story. The only time they ever came off the fence was over apartheid. After much soul searching, they thought about it and then they realized apartheid was a bad thing. And they were going to say that. But until then, they’re just leaving it to us viewers to look. And that’s a characteristic of high-minded news organizations around the world. It’s disastrous. We do not need a lack of bias. We need good bias.
What is bias? Bias is simply a way of evaluating data. Trying to work out what does it mean, what should a reasonable person think, where’s it going, et cetera. If I told you that President Obama is weighing up whether to build that pipeline between the tar sands of Canada and the Gulf of Mexico and then I said, well, look, I’m just giving you the facts. You make up your own mind. You want to go no, come on, you’ve been thinking about it. You’re the BBC. Just tell me what should I think? The BBC’s line is very patronizing. It sort of assumes that the audience is incredibly easily influenced. And whatever is said to them, they’ll kind of bowled over and could go jump off a cliff if told to by somebody. So the very important thing to do is not to tell them anything.
But, of course, most of us, ever since we’ve been sort 3 or 4 are so good at filtering out bias that we don’t like. When your parents told you it’s fish fingers time. Come and sit down at the table. No, it’s not. We are very good at blocking out any lesson that we don’t want. This is just second nature, right? We are very good at bias recognition and also blocking it. We need a take on the big questions. We need the media not just to present us with a narrow range of information. All this comes to the fore with the financial crisis, which is just the key because it happened in living memory. It’s a key moment when information gathering failed on a spectacular scale, an information interpretation.
Despite the unbelievable plethora of news outlets, the story didn’t get through. The story that there was a systemic problem in the banks didn’t get through. Part of the reason for that is the agenda was very narrow. So people will say – if you talk to news journalists now, they’ll go, well, everything’s fine in our world because anyone, anyone can publish a newspaper. Anyone can set up a Twitter account. And you want to go, yeah, of course they can. But only very, very few people ever get listened to.
So this argument about like, well, everybody’s got a Twitter account, yeah, sure. Everybody’s got 50 followers. Only a very few people have got 49 million followers. So this is really the difference. And the problem with the financial world and the financial crisis is that it wasn’t properly analyzed. We do not have a media in this country, or in many countries, that properly analyzes the way the economy works. And it sounds striking because how could that be possible? Well, it’s possible because you’ve got the proof of the pudding. You hear outrage out in the street. Think of the Occupy Movement. The Occupy Movement is the progeny of our news organizations. In other words, it generates outrage and total confusion. These guys are outraged. They want to do something. They’re very nice. They’re very lovely people. And in a few weeks, the police will come along and hose them down. And nothing will happen because in order to change the world, as you guys know, you need ideas. Passion is not enough. You need passion plus ideas.
It is to some extent the responsibility of the news to give us those ideas. It didn’t. These guys were starved of ideas. Part of the problem is that the news keeps thinking that the problems of the world can neatly be identified with a few bad apples. If you open the hearts of most journalists, you will find inscribed on their heart the word Watergate. Watergate remains the most mesmeric occasion for journalists. Because it involves things that they love, right, a secret. A chance for the journalists to behave like a spy and go in and find the secret, and then the humiliation of the powerful. They just live for this stuff. The problem is very nice. The problem is most of the problems in the world do not fit that paradigm. You’re not going to catch the problems if you think it’s a secret.
The real problem is that many of the things that are most wrong with the world are not secrets. All this stuff about Edward Snowden, et cetera, nonsense. The really important information is in public hands. You know it already. The thing is it’s not pulled together. It’s not analyzed properly. So it’s about getting the nasty guy and putting the handcuffs on. It’s about analyzing the systemic faults in our society. And this, the news is very bad at doing.
Look, I’m just going to pull it together now. But the news is based on the idea — the fundamental assumption of news is the most important things in the world have happened very recently. I mean I’m just being childishly simple. But that is the basis, right. The most important things have happened relatively recently, possibly since the last bulletin or since the last time you checked Twitter. Now, that is sometimes very true, sometimes very, very true, but almost never. It’s very rarely true that the most important things in life happened very recently. Mankind has a very, very long history. And there are lots and lots of truth way back. Those truths are news because news is really important stuff that no one’s thinking about.
So Plato’s Republic, which no one is thinking about, is news. It’s in a way as much news as what’s going on in Kiev because it’s important and no one is thinking about it. And it needs to be brought to our attention. But the news doesn’t recognize that. I mean, boy, if you advance that argument with the average news editor, well, they’ll have you marched out of the building.
So we need to bear that in mind. We need to bear that it’s called the news, but it’s some news. At the end of the day, we have to make sure that Wi-Fi never arrives on airplanes. Because we need time, all of us, to try and find out the news from other sources, other than these mass-produced machines called newspapers, websites, et cetera. We need to find out the news from ourselves, from inside. I mean part of the problem of news is it’s so respectable. It’s so prestigious. If you’re sitting down at home on a Sunday morning and somebody says, so what are you doing? You go, I’m reading the news. All right. Oh, carry on reading the news.
And if you go a bit of you know — rerun that scenario, so what are you doing? Well, I’m just sitting out of the window and kind of — I’m remembering something. When I was 12 and I had a kind of insight when a breeze was — Come on, get and do the washing up. It’s simply not respectable to daydream, to free associate. And yet, of course, as we know, that’s where often the insights are made. That’s when they come. Without noticing, there are lots of things that don’t make it in the news this guy. He never makes it in the news. But he’s out there. He’s a metaphor for a lot of the stuff that we keep missing.
Here’s a little autobiographical endpoint. I’m a philosopher by training. And philosophers really think they’re right, right? They’re an embattled minority. But they really think they have the truth. And they’re going to go to their deaths with it. The problem is no one cares and no one listens. The average work of academic philosophy in the United States sells under 300 copies, under the 300 copies, important information, 300 copies. And I mentioned the MailOnline, the English language’s most popular global website, MailOnline, 40 million hits a day. So 40 million hits a day and 300. That’s the world we’re living in. That’s the kind of challenge.
Anyway, I was having a late night chat with some philosopher friends and we were tossing these ideas around. And then one insomniac night, I was thinking about this. And I thought, okay, look, why don’t we get some philosophers to rewrite the MailOnline? We’ll use all the same stories, all the dramas, the disasters, et cetera, except we won’t have their slant towards kind of racism, and bigotry, and melodrama. We’ll look at truth, and complexity, and subtlety, and justice, et cetera. And we’ll start a new news outlet. So we did that. And it’s called The Philosophers’ Mail. And you can see it at philosophersmail.com. And it’s in many ways a practical application of many of the ideas that are worked out theoretically in my book. I recommend it to you.
Now on that note, some questions. Thank you so much for listening. But come back with your questions. Thank you.
Male Audience: I think you may be a little optimistic about bias. I mean areas where I know the story, I find that you either get Democrat news or you get Republican news. You don’t get honest news. Yeah, I can pick lots of areas I know. But one area I’ll pick is why is it in the United States that we only get only part of what’s going on, even in Israel? I mean you can’t see the stories that show up in Haaretz, in the US. I mean you’d have people accusing you of all sorts of stuff. Nobody in the US Congress have the courage to say what’s happens in Haaretz. Why is that?
Alain de Botton: Yeah. Look, I think part of the problem is that — you said it’s left wing, right wing bias. I mean it’s crazy that at this stage in civilization, we’re still dominated by this idea of left wing, right wing bias. Can we just have a bit more bias? I mean let’s imagine we had a Buddhist bias. So what’s Buddhist bias? So the Buddha, the five-fold truths, et cetera, there’s a take on the world. Imagine reading the news through a Buddhist lens. You could do that. And it would pick out all sorts of things. Imagine reading the news through a psychoanalytic lens. Imagine reading the news through a lens where the sensibility of Walt Whitman would be programmed into the machine. And you would start to see the sort of things that Walt Whitman might picked up and been — in other words, we’re at the dawn of bias. So I agree with you. We’re getting such a limited set of biases around Israel. But I don’t think the answer is, well, we’re getting the right wing bias and I wish we could have left wing bias. I mean let’s open it up. There’s a lot of other kind of perspectives we could have.
Female Audience: I love all your works, especially the ones that you did earlier. I’m wondering how you did —
Alain de Botton: I’ll remain stoic on that. That’s okay. Anyone likes to hear that. It’s like someone saying to you, you look great. But you looked better younger. But you look great. Yeah. Great.
Female: Audience: Specifically referring to Consolations of Philosophy and Proust’s book. But how do you determine your topic? Because you covered a range of topics, travel, I guess work, love, different direct statement on philosophies. And my second question is, are there any works that you’re particularly proud of or particularly sort of not proud of?
Alain de Botton: Good. So, look, I think what really motivates me is what I could broadly called emotional intelligence. There’s all kinds of visions of intelligence. I’m interested in the emotional intelligence part. And that’s broadly speaking, wisdom. What is wisdom? Wisdom is the part of knowledge that is not merely true, but is also useful and helpful. And I’m very interested in that tradition, which is a neglected tradition. And I’m from the humanities background. And my interest is in reading the history of culture, the history of the humanities, with an eye to wisdom and pulling that stuff out. And I’m interested in how to get it to have an impact in the world. And when I’m in despair in the middle of the night, I sometimes think, ah, do books do anything? What should I be doing? So a few years ago I founded a school, called the School of Life. It’s going really well. We’re opening branches all over the world now. And that’s a school where people go and they take lessons in how to break up with someone, and how to negotiate things with their parents, and how to die. And there are moments of community. So I’m very proud of having started up the School of Life and how well it’s going. And now I’m interested in online. And I’m thinking — I did an app — I did a book called Art as Therapy. And when we did it, we did an app to go with it, which paralleled pictures with some text that brought out the redemptive moral of the picture. And that had 2 million hits. And I thought, wow, that’s great because the book only sold 50,000 copies. And you think, whoa, that’s kind of interesting. So I’m about wisdom. And then I’m about looking for channels down which to get that information. That’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what I’m interested in.
Male Audience: So allow me to play devil’s advocate here. So presume we have this vision of bias — sorry to keep returning to this. But suppose we have this vision of Buddhist bias, and poet bias, and all that. It would be good given the sheer volume of this stuff to have some kind of central organizing force to pull all these biases together, sort of give them to you as an aggregational function. So if you allow that that is a natural conclusion from the construction inside your system, that seems awfully familiar to — you have your left 5leaning expert, you have your right leaning expert, you have your Langston Hughes leaning expert. And the role of the news agencies in this situation would be to take all these smaller, very undistributed sources of bias and aggregate them together. And I would like to hear your response to the proposition that the system of decentralized bias will inevitably, given the small bandwidth of distribution of ideas tend towards some kind of aggregating force, which will return to the status that we’re in now?
Alain de Botton: Look, I think we’ve got more bandwidth maybe than you suggest. I think that the bandwidth is currently clogged up with what you might call orphaned pieces of information. Because we’re talking here at Google, I’m just trying to frame it in language that would seem natural to you. You guys are all about ordering information. Now, the news is also about ordering information. The thing is I guess I’m interested in the more psychological, philosophical level of ordering. If I tell you $100 million has gone missing from the bank account of the president of Uganda, okay, that’s a piece of information. That is a piece of news. $100 million has gone. That information is at this moment not properly contextualized. In other words, I think about that and I think, oh, that sounds bad. But I don’t know what to do with it.
If you say to people — in Africa, they have — in that part of the world, they’ve got a vision of the clan, which means that the president did not think he was stealing. He was giving to his family. He was being an honorable man. In other words, that’s very different from stealing. So you guys are applying a stealing narrative on that story and I want to apply an African clan narrative. And it becomes completely different. Okay. Now, we do this with any number of stories. Now, suddenly that story about the $100 million going missing becomes a lot more interesting. It’s starting to get lively. It’s starting to be more than just another boring, orphaned fact. And I think what we need to do with the news is get a lot better at reconnecting orphaned pieces of information with the question, the context, the theme, which will properly bring out its interest. I think that the news, the way we consume news is a little bit like having about 40 novels constantly presented to us where we’re allowed to read one sentence and then the novel is removed. Then another novel is given us, and another one, another. We can’t follow. We can’t hold onto it. It’s very disorganized. And I’m not sure that quite answered your question. But I think I’m circling the dilemma perhaps you’re circling. Perhaps we can chat later or something.
Male Audience: So you’ve painted quite a troubling picture I think. You’ve explained that fundamentally the aim of news agencies is to astound and terrify us with recent news and that everyone has 50 Twitter followers. So it’s very hard for anyone to change that. So how do we fix it?
Alain de Botton: How do we fix it? Okay. Well, I think there’s two things. Ideas, we got to get the ideas straight. And then we’ve got to go and get some money to do something about it. That could sound sort of terribly idealistic. I’ve met quite a lot of people, with lots of money, in positions of power. And my number one conclusion is they’re not necessarily that sure what they’re doing or what they could do. Sometimes you think, Rupert Murdoch, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s got his — scheew, he’s doing it because he’s committed. And he’s kind of sticking around and someone brings him this idea, someone brings him that idea. There’s a little more fluidity. So I’m kind of optimistic about the way the world is in a way because what you need to do is to think through the anomalies of the news and then start a proper news organization that will put it to right. And that will cost about a billion dollars, which is not that much and Google should give it to me. And I will spend it wisely. You do need, unfortunately — you know my real problem as an author is that I’ve realized that for years, I’ve been writing books going the world should be like this, and you should do that, and you should do this, et cetera. And no one cares because the position of the author is a romantic figure, from the 19th century. It’s this idea of like a genius guy like comes in and has a great idea and then the world changes. Nonsense. It doesn’t change.
The only way the world changes is through institutions, agglomerations of people working in discipline for a common goal. It’s the only way to do it. In other words, what I presented to you here is some of the thought. And now it requires an institution and money to get these things going. There are examples, Glenn Greenwald going to Pierre Omidyar and getting lots of money. My problem with Glenn Greenwald’s journalism is it’s missing out on an awful lot of stages here. It’s based on the idea — that’s what it’s completely based on the Watergate paradigm. It’s also based on the idea that information in itself is enough. And the darker and more shocking it is, the more people will be impressed by it and the more action will be taken, which I don’t think is true. So, as well, I think intellectual quirks there. But I think that’s the kind of model. That’s the way it should go.
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 –
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.
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.
I think we need to keep asking those really uncomfortable questions, yeah, and be aware of it. Look, I don’t know. This is where I am. This is the battle really. Let’s keep fighting against that blindness. We have surrendered an awfully big part of our brains to organizations. And it used to be the case that you knew — you know, a friend of mine who used to live under communism would say, under communism, the great thing was we knew it was all wrong in the media. So we thought quite hard. The problem is nowadays people think it’s right. And so they’ve stopped thinking. That’s the problem.
Thank you very much
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