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  • ALAIN DE BOTTON: 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.

  • Way back in the 18th century, there

  • was 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.

  • OK, 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,

  • OK, 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 news they don't what on earth is going on.

  • I mean, you guys 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/aethist 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.

  • OK, 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

  • are 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're 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.

  • It's 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,

  • OK, 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.