It’s not every day one has the opportunity to hear an esteemed philosopher speak, and at such an iconic venue as the Sydney Opera House. But that’s just what I did this past weekend, on the arm of a very generous friend, who had procured the tickets. In town to promote his new book, The News: A User’s Manual, Alain De Botton – who is to critics and the world alike what Marmite is to the world at large – captivated the some 2000-strong audience from the moment he stepped on stage.
His first point was to address the over-saturation of the news in this technology-laden day and age, saying the smart phone has brought news into the bedroom and thus replaced the need for conversation. I would imagine my readers will agree with this point, reading this as they most likely are on their iPhone/iPad/Android device. Referencing Granny and her solitary sheet of newspaper, from which one could garner the news in one sitting; De Botton raises the point that we are so overcome with “the news”, that the likelihood is it goes in one orifice and out another, in our race to keep up with it.
The self-proclaimed “pop” philosopher blames this overloading of information for modern day insomnia, asserting that all the unique thoughts we suppress throughout the day in order to fill our heads with “the news” come back to get their revenge at 3am.
It is not just our hunger for news but the way in which we need to consume it that De Botton debates. Showing us a picture of a melting glaciar, alongside a picture of Taylor Swift wearing very short shorts, De Botton makes a witty commentary on the line between appealing and important. What we want to see and what we need to see are apparently two very different things. It is finding the balance that we have yet to achieve. In a piece on The Philosopher’s Mail the two stories were juxtaposed into one in a commentary on this very subject.
According to De Botton, the news bearer too must be pretty and appealing in order for us, the consumer, to be receptive to hearing “the news”. We are less likely to listen to the big bearded bloke than we are to the smiling busty blonde. That’s potentially an over-exaggeration and slight dig at the intelligence of most people, but you get my point. As much as we may try not to judge the cover, many of us fall prey to the pretty packaging and long supple legs a la Swift and co. Or as De Botton states, the “sugarcoating” that dusts every modern news cycle.
There are, according to De Botton, only 43 news stories ever circulating the globe, give or take a few. Essentially, the same stories are redressed and rejuvenated to trick us into believing we are reading several different stories that in fact originate with the same, lone archetype. Because, that is in fact what these stories are. Archetypes. Models upon which to base narrative. A story about Prince William carrying his newborn son in a car-seat, is the same story as Taylor Swift food shopping, is the same story as Jesus himself being born in a barn. It is all about the extraordinary few doing ordinary things. Same script, different cast.
On the subject of celebrity, De Botton is of the opinion that it is not celebrity culture that is the issue but rather the types of celebrities the “news factory” is churning out. Were the news to deliver us good celebrity role models as opposed to the pro-twerking canon that is Miley Cyrus and her ilk; perhaps the serious journalists would feel less offended by having to compete with them for column inches.
From celebrity to mortality and the human fear of our own demise, De Botton parallels the disaster stories that litter the news to the skulls which used to adorn households centuries ago as amounting to the same important symbol. Memento Mori’s – as they are called – are reminders to us not of our fear about death but of the importance of life and making the most of the one we have. The skeletal artefacts of centuries past have the same impact on us as reading about the recent Malaysian Airlines disaster or a fatal car crash; they remind us of how fleeting and fallible human life is and that we must attempt to savour every day as though it were our last.
The media is made up of so many elements but to successfully navigate it, first we must understand each component and it’s aim. Bias in the media trying to waive our political and sociological affections, social media encouraging individual thought yet ultimately forcing us to nurture the machine that is “the news” as we regurgitate (or retweet) the information fed to us by the BBC and CNN and Fox etcetera, and the ability of the news to skew the human life cycle by making us simultaneously fearful of being blown apart in some freak disaster and yet hopeful that we’ll live forever once the scientists complete their research on magic immortality pills. Once we have grasped these elements and the role they play within “the news”, the better equipped we are to make the news work for us, rather than keeping us trapped in a bubble of over-informed terror and confusion.
De Botton brings us back to reality with a much-needed bump, as he tells us what we fundamentally know; that what is reported in the news is by and large, is the “exception”. Having travelled to Uganda where, he says, there are lots of murders that are rarely reported compared to Australia which he asserts as being known to be a relatively safe site of the world and report numerous murders between the sheets of its broadsheets and tabloids; the point is, when something appears in the newspaper it is because it is out of the ordinary.
Ultimately, that’s what people want to hear about or else it wouldn’t be “news” to begin with. We live between a need to see the extraordinary few being ordinary and extraordinary occurrences to flavour our mostly ordinary lives. The exception is what people aspire to because there are only a few who will achieve it. Reading the weekend supplements that fill the Saturday and Sunday papers, De Botton speaks of his envy for those extraordinary individuals profiled between the pages. But, he says, it is not their accomplishments of founding multibillion dollar companies, or their glamorous wives or even their full heads of hair (spoken by a true baldy!); no, it is the virtues they possess that afforded them these achievements to begin with. Courage, determination, self-belief; that is what he envies. However, rather than drown in envy, he asserts the need to act progressively with the feeling and use it to understand who we should be and who we are meant to become.
The news, he says, blithely generates and sustains these feelings of envy, as well as our consumption of Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus et al and our obsessive fear that is wrapped up in the stories of modern day disaster. If we are to learn anything by our relationship with “the news” it is this, put down your smart phone, close your laptop and turn to the actual people in your life and talk to them. Because at the end of the day, the news they have to tell you is just as important.