On Friday night, British author and philosopher Alain de Botton stood front and center in a lecture hall at the Seattle Public Library and told his audience that “no one knows what’s going on anymore.”
The event marked the last appearance de Botton would make on a press tour for his latest book, The News: A User’s Manual. In the book, de Botton explores and explains 32 different archetypal news stories and how they continue to reappear in the news. In short, the book describes that there aren’t any “new” news stories.
The news is simply a catalogue of recurring events that involves different people each time, and those events are then formatted into an archetype that was developed decades ago.
“I bet that not one of you knows what was going on in the news at this time last week,” de Botton said. “That’s quite normal. We receive a flurry of news, so much of it, that we lose track of what stories are important.”
During his speech, de Botton addressed that the media is the vessel through which social, political and economic reality are formed.
“News has replaced religion,” de Botton said.
He asked the audience to consider how bells chime before a newscast, the sonorous language and the sense that the news is being delivered by a higher authority. This idea is parallel to that of German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who said, “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer.”
“I probably check the news four or five times a day,” said Mattias Rickter, a member of the audience. “I never thought about it before [de Botton’s] talk, but I’m probably doing it to fill some kind of void.”
In addition to news being more important than attending church on Sunday, de Botton criticized the destruction of news architecture. He explained that a photo of an iceberg collapsing as a result of global warming will decimate a news website’s traffic figures, while a photograph of Taylor Swift in short shorts will certainly increase readership.
“This has driven journalists into despair,” de Botton said.
Because of this, journalists are subjected to the task of popularizing everything that is to be published.
“Journalists have to take very important and complicated things and make sure they outcompete Taylor Swift,” de Botton said. “But because of this, the news is louder, more chaotic and less structured than it has ever been.”
The relieving side of this is that the majority of what is being published is not breaking news. News sources are telling readers that everything they are receiving is new news, when that is not true.
“We need to train ourselves to spot the archetypal stories so that everything is less deluged,” de Botton said.
De Botton then went on to display photographs of celebrities involved in everyday activities. The first was Prince William carrying a carseat, and then Natalie Portman playing with her son at a park. De Botton explained that these stories create a surge of emotion within us because seeing celebrities engaged in such common events makes them feel relatable.
While de Botton spent a large piece of his speech criticizing the media, he also offered ways in which he thinks it can improve.
“Ideally, the news should be a medium through which we can learn about one another,” he said. “So we can stretch the tentacles of our empathy and become more humane.”
This leads into why humankind is enthralled with tragic stories of plane and car crashes and kidnappings. We read these stories to realize how close we are to death and destruction, and then to feel reassurance of how we have escaped the two, thus far.
“Are we completely sick?” de Botton asked, of our morbid fascination with these stories. “No. We’re just searching for the meaning of life.”
The downside to these stories, de Botton said, is that they leave us with unresolved emotions. These emotions of fear and anxiety are results of the news. But de Botton mentioned that there are things that the news does not tell us.
“The news forgets to tell us that we are resilient. We are a species that has endured floods, earthquakes and other disasters, and we always come back,” de Botton said.
De Botton asked the audience to consider that perhaps these unresolved emotions would be better dealt with if news sources were more biased. On one hand, Fox News is known for reporting the conservative side of stories. But the BBC always incorporates one opinion that is on the left side of things, and another from the right.
“We’re left with all of this information and then no way to sort it out,” de Botton said.
He ended his address by assuring the audience that what they are receiving isn’t absolute — it isn’t “The News.” He encouraged the audience to use their own eyes and ears to discover what matters to them on a personal level, instead of having the print tell them what to feel.