From author, a scoop on how to use the news
Alain de Botton is arguably one of the best storytellers in the world. He enjoys a powerful fandom in Korea. Sixteen of his books have been translated into Korean, from “Essays in Love” (1993) to “Art as Therapy” (2013). As in other corners of the world, the appeal of his books - high-class self-help books peppered with philosophy - are irresistible.
De Botton has helped his readers better understand all aspects of life, including architecture, love, sex, faith, travel, art and work. His new book “The News: A User’s Manual” is a pleasant surprise and a challenge to news writers. In October, Munhakdongne will publish the Korean edition of the book.
The problem restructured by the new book could be summarized like this: Modern people passionately read the news. They, however, feel somewhat “hungry” and empty. Why? What should be done to improve the production and consumption of news? An email interview was carried out to draw out de Botton’s proposals for better use of the news. The following are excerpts.
Q. Some people think that newspapers have no future. Do you agree?
A. They have a great future. They have more readers than ever. Some of the big news websites now have 40 million viewers. This has never happened before in history. The only problem is financial and this will be solved the moment somebody invents a reliable micro-payment system. It will cost you, let’s say, 1 cent to read an article and no one will mind such tiny sums. The problem at the moment is that either it’s free or you have to take out a year subscription. This is an absurd choice - but humans are clever creatures, and we’ll crack this one soon, no doubt.
What are some good directions for newspapers?
I’d say there are three things wrong with news now. Firstly, we’ve got a real problem popularizing important news. Serious journalists often think that what is central to their jobs is to go out and find out “the truth,” then everything in society will change. But in my view, in this distracted, sensation-hungry age, the real task is subtly but importantly different. There are lots of truths out there already that people don’t care much about at all. This is really fatal in a democracy because politicians have to rely on people caring about issues in order that they can have the popular mandate to change things. So in my eyes, a really important task for journalists is to learn how to make what’s important seem interesting - to a large audience. We have too many stories that are “important” but entirely boring to us because journalists haven’t worked hard enough to connect them to our own interests.
Secondly, it’s so hard to focus on what matters because we have a news agenda that deluges us with information, but makes it extremely unlikely that we can track an issue across time and keep an eye on it. It’s almost as if there were two ways to render a society supine, apolitical and resigned to the status quo: either you censor all news, or else you flood people with so much news, they can’t focus on anything. We’re in danger of this latter scenario.
Thirdly, we have political news that is obsessed with a Watergate-style of journalism that identifies what’s wrong in society with active skullduggery: it’s always looking out for crooks. The problem with this is that a lot of what’s wrong in society is the work not of crooks, but just people who have the wrong ideas, or a lack of imagination or have grown stale and uninspired. The point of journalism shouldn’t always be to hunt out scandal because errors don’t crop up in “scandal” shaped forms all the time. What’s important is to look for errors in more subtle, pervasive but invisible forms.
Yes, I think nowadays the news is one category; not the newspaper or the television, but everything. News comes via Twitter, Facebook, TV, news websites, etc. That’s why it felt more modern to group everything into one word; the news.
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 color than to be taken through the effects of the celebrity photo section of a tabloid. We are never systematically inducted into the extraordinary capacity of news outlets to influence our sense of reality and to mold 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 20 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 center 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.
What is the most important thing that can ensure paper-based media’s survival?
The most attractive, charming, sexy and compelling news outlets enjoy unparalleled influence over the minds of tens of millions of people. But unfortunately, they rarely put out content that might make the world a better place. At the same time, there are lots of serious, earnest, good people attempting to change things, but they put out publications full of very interesting and dense articles that only reach tiny and already convinced audiences. So the good ideas go nowhere and the not-so-great ideas mesmerize us from every screen. Therefore, the world doesn’t change.
Take global warming. The planet is being heated up hotter than it should. This is going to have major, lasting implications for water levels around the world. A few people care a lot but, strangely and shamefully, Taylor Swift’s legs are far more captivating. They are lovely in ways that seem to defy description: somehow they look ordinary, yet perfect. They are long, yet not freakish. They seem unbowed by their implausible length; both utterly firm and yet yielding and soft.
People who take environmental news seriously tend to get apoplectic at this point. They’re not wrong. While delightful, Taylor Swift’s legs are of little significance in comparison with the fate of the Western middle class. But getting angry at our fascination with the thighs of a singer is counterproductive in a democracy.
We cannot be collectively dragged into being more responsible through guilt. And for a very simple reason. We don’t have to pay attention. If those who care about education are going to get angry, bitter and stern, they’ll just be ignored.
The problem is, we really do need to do something about that polar ice. But the starting point has to be indulgence toward the way our minds work. We are interested in Taylor Swift’s legs not because we are evil, but because we are wired in unhelpful ways. If we are going to be interested en masse in climate change, we need to take our fragilities on board and therefore get serious, very serious, about trying to make important news not just “important,” but also beguiling - almost as tempting to hear about as Taylor’s legs. Then things stand a chance of changing.
What do you expect as the most important implication of your new book?
I look a lot at how people are bored by some kinds of political news. I feel we should go a little easier on ourselves when it comes to indifference to the news - and recognize that we’re one of the first generations to have to deal with the torrent of information about things very far removed from our own lives. For most of history, it was extremely difficult to come by information about what was happening anywhere else. And you probably didn’t mind. What difference would it make, if you were a crofter in the Hebrides, to learn that a power struggle was brewing in the Ottoman Empire?
Much of what we now take for granted as news has its origins in the information needed by people making major decisions or at the center of national affairs. We still hear the echoes in the way news is reported; timing is assumed to be critical, as it really would be if we were active agents. If you don’t have the latest update, you might make a terrible blunder or miss a wonderful opportunity.
The ease of communication and a generous democratic impulse mean that information originally designed for decision makers now gets routinely sent via the media to very large numbers of people.
Everyday the news gives us stuff that is both interesting for some people and irrelevant to you. So one reads a very insightful article on the prospects for political reform in Pakistan, meaning that if you were wondering whether Pakistan was a good place to locate a new factory, you’d be able to make a better-informed decision. Or there are revelations that tensions in the cabinet are more serious than previously supposed. So if you were wondering whether this might be a good time to launch your leadership bid, this would be a good piece to read. But otherwise...?
The modern idea of news is pleasantly flattering. Yet it’s really quite strange. We keep getting information that isn’t really for us to know what to do with. No wonder we’re sometimes a bit bored. It’s not our fault.
The news is also rather jealous. It wants to distract you from a private sense of purpose. It would be dangerous if hardly anyone paid attention to what the government was doing, or what was happening to the environment or events in Kiev. But it is not right to go from this to the demand that everyone should be interested in every item at the very moment when the news machine requests their attention.
Indeed, we badly need people whose attention is not caught up in the trends of the moment and who are not looking in the same direction as everyone else. We need people scanning the less familiar parts of the horizon.
Indifference to big banner events can be churlish. But it can also be the mark of deep and important originality. Let’s treat the phenomenon of not being interested in some stories with cautious respect.
Some people think that only the elderly and literate people will continue to read newspapers, whereas the young and the less-educated people would find ways to avoid news/newspapers. Do you agree?
I think we will learn that we both need the news a lot - and sometimes, we should not read it at all.
The news is the best distraction ever invented. It sounds so serious and important. But it wants you never to be in touch with yourself again, never to have time where you can daydream, unpack your anxieties and have a conversation with your deeper self.
There are countless difficult things hiding away deep within us which we should give some thought to, even though the desperate temptation is to keep clicking and looking. We need news sabbaths. We need long train journeys on which we have no wireless signal and nothing to read, where our carriage is mostly empty, where the views are expansive and where the only sounds are those made by the wheels as they click against the rails. We need plane journeys when we have a window seat and nothing else to focus on for two or three hours but the tops of clouds and our own thoughts.
We need relief from the news-fueled 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.
A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognize 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 honor in the brief time still allotted to us.
You are so popular in many countries, including Korea. How do you explain your success?
I think that I have a clear mission. I am all the time writing about emotional education: I want, through my books, to look systematically at all the things that make life difficult, crazy, anxious and painful. I am trying to educate myself and my readers. I am delighted that I have an audience.
The Korean edition will be published in October. I hope it will feel very relevant to Korean readers. I have included a chapter about Korean economic news!
BY Kim Whan-yung [firstname.lastname@example.org]