BYLINE: Laura Burgoine
There’s no more powerful force in modern society than the news. So says philosopher Alain de Botton in his new aptly named book: The News.
Why did you choose the news/modern journalism as the topic of your latest book?
There’s no more powerful force in modern society than the news. It shapes how we see the world, what we judge to be good and bad, important or silly, right or wrong. And yet too often, we don’t see the extent to which the news is forming our mentalities.
No one teaches you this at school. It is deemed more important for us to know how to make sense of the plot of Othello than how to decode the front page of the New York Post. We are more likely to hear about the significance of Matisse’s use of colour than to be taken through the effects of the celebrity photo section of the Daily Mail. We aren’t encouraged to consider what might happen to our outlooks after immersion in Bild or OK! magazine, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the Hokkaido Shimbun, the Tehran Times or the Sun. We are never systematically inducted into the extraordinary capacity of news outlets to influence our sense of reality and to mould the state of what we might as well – with no supernatural associations – call our souls.
For all their talk of education, modern societies neglect to examine by far the most influential means by which their populations are educated. Whatever happens in our classrooms, the more potent and ongoing kind of education takes place on the airwaves and on our screens. Cocooned in classrooms for only our first twenty years or so, we effectively spend the rest of our lives under the tutelage of news entities which wield infinitely greater influence over us than any academic institution can. Once our formal education is over, the news is the teacher. It is the single most significant force setting the tone of public life and shaping our impressions of the community beyond our own walls. It is the prime creator of political and social reality. As revolutionaries well know, if you want to change the mentality of a country, you don’t head to the art gallery, the department of education or the homes of famous novelists; you drive the tanks straight to the nerve centre of the body politic, the news HQ.
That helps to explain why I wrote the book: to make sense of one of the most powerful sources at work in the world today.
Do you think people are more cynical about trusting news sources after the phone-hacking scandal, rise of social media and citizen journalism, etc? Or, do these just show that the news is even more ubiquitous and powerful in modern society?
The phone hacking scandal revealed a deep longing for a better kind of news, a news that wouldn’t be so cynical and so destructive. We know in our hearts that this isn’t doing national life any good.
Yet, we still keep taking in the news as much as we ever did. What does all this news do to us over time? What remains of the months, even years we spend with it in aggregate? Whither those many excitements and fears; about the missing child, the budget shortfall and the unfaithful general? To what increase in wisdom did all these news stories contribute, beyond leaving behind a vague and unsurprising sediment of conclusions, for example, that China is rising, that Central Africa is corrupt and that education must be reformed?
It is a sign of our mental generosity that we don’t generally insist on such questions. We imagine that there would be something wrong in simply switching off. It is hard to give up on the habit first established in our earliest years, as we sat cross-legged during school assembly, to listen politely to figures of authority while they tell us about things they proclaim to be essential.
Why does the news play such a significant role in people’s lives today? Is this our generation’s version of religion?
Societies become modern, the philosopher Hegel suggested, when news replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority. In the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths. Dispatches track the canonical hours with uncanny precision: matins have been transubstantiated into the breakfast bulletin, vespers into the evening report. But the news doesn’t just follow a quasi-religious timetable. It also demands that we approach it with some of the same deferential expectations we would once have harboured of the faiths. Here, too, we hope to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.
The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to disclose that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own often highly distinctive priorities.
Does the news work for us, against us, both? What are the ramifications of this?
It does both because the news both informs us of some very important things and then very quickly also distracts us by changing the subject and introducing a 100 other concerns.
It would be easy to suppose that the real enemy of democratic politics must be the active censorship of news – and therefore that the freedom to say or publish anything would be the natural ally of civilisation.
But the modern world is teaching us that there are dynamics far more insidious and cynical still than censorship in draining people of political will; these involve confusing, boring and distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganised, fractured and intermittent way that most of the audience is unable to hold on to the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.
A contemporary dictator wishing to establish power would not need to do anything so obviously sinister as banning the news: he or she would only have to see to it that news organisations broadcast a flow of random-sounding bulletins, in great numbers but with little explanation of context, within an agenda that kept changing, without giving any sense of the ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short while before, the whole interspersed with constant updates about the colourful antics of murderers and film stars. This would be quite enough to undermine most people’s capacity to grasp political reality – as well as any resolve they might otherwise have summoned to alter it. The status quo could confidently remain forever undisturbed by a flood of, rather than a ban on, news.
You lay out precautions for people when approaching the news; can you tell me about some of these?
Modern societies are still at the dawn of understanding what kind of news they need in order to flourish. For most of history, news was so hard to gather and expensive to deliver, its hold on our inner lives was inevitably held in check. Now there is almost nowhere on the planet we are able to go to escape from it. It is there waiting for us in the early hours when we wake up from a disturbed sleep; it follows us on board airplanes making their way between continents; it is waiting to hijack our attention during the childrens’ bedtime.
The hum and rush of the news has seeped into our deepest selves. What an achievement a moment of calm now is, what a minor miracle the ability to fall asleep or to talk undistracted with a friend – and what monastic discipline would be required to make us turn away from the maelstrom of news and to listen for a day to nothing but the rain and our own thoughts.
We may need some help with what the news is doing to us: with the envy and the terror, with the excitement and the frustration; with all that we’ve been told and yet occasionally suspect we may be better off never having learnt.
I wrote a little manual that briefly tries to complicate a habit that, at present, has come to seem a little too normal and harmless for our own good.
You’re aiming to ‘make the news better’; how do you think this can be done?
The news is one of the most important and powerful forces in society. Every day, it shapes our sense of what matters, what’s important, admirable, scandalous or normal. This is why the news should be a major target of concern for all real philosophers. A country can only ever be as good as its news outlets. I suggest a very particular strategy for the ideal news outlet of the future. This would start not with the big worthy stories, but with the stories a lot of people already love to read and talk about. The ideal news would be generous to people’s natural inclinations to:
– look at sexy images
– read celebrity gossip
– read shock stories.
And it would be very sympathetic to popular biases like:
– anxiety about whatever feels foreign
– a taste for vengeance
– lack of empathy for the very poor
– envy of the rich
– resentment of the powerful
– suspicion of those who seem clever
– and dislike of awkward truths.
So one wouldn’t start with the wise, good or serious outlooks. There are plenty of people already doing this (for example, the Economist, or the New York Times). The epochal challenge is to reach people who don’t engage with complex news. Though it’s fashionable to knock the Daily Mail, it’s far better to emulate its success, but with an ulterior motive. Plato wrote that society wouldn’t come right until kings were philosophers or philosophers kings. I believe society won’t come right until media owners become philosophers – or philosophers become media owners.
We’re constantly inundated with information via internet, twitter, facebook; is it overkill? Is it mentally bad for us? Should we be constantly connected (virtually) to events that take place all across the world or is this a burden to the mind and our communities?
We can’t find everything we need to round out our humanity in the present. There are attitudes, ideologies, modalities of feeling and philosophies of mind for which we must journey backwards across the centuries, through the corridors of reference libraries, past forgotten museum cabinets filled with rusting suits of medieval armour, along the pages of second-hand books marked with the annotations of their now-deceased owners or up to the altars of half-ruined and moss-covered temples. We need to balance contact with the ever changing pixels on our screens with the pages of heavy hardback books that proclaim, through their bindings and their typefaces, that they have something to say that will still deserve a place in our thoughts tomorrow.
We need relief from the news-fuelled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premiere parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to rise up into space in our imagination, many kilometres above the mantle of the earth, to a place where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us – and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against the aeons of time to which the view of other galaxies attests.
We should at times forego our own news in order to pick up on the far stranger, more wondrous headlines of those less eloquent species that surround us: kestrels and snow geese, spider beetles and black-faced leafhoppers, lemurs and small children – all creatures usefully uninterested in our own melodramas; counterweights to our anxieties and self-absorption.
A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognise the times when the news no longer has anything original or important to teach us; periods when we should refuse imaginative connection with strangers, when we must leave the business of governing, triumphing, failing, creating or killing to others, in the knowledge that we have our own objectives to honour in the brief time still allotted to us.
Alain de Botton is speaking about his new book The News at the National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, SE1 9PX on February 6 at 5:30pm. Admission: £3-£4. Phone: 020 7452 3000. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk