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THE NEWS:  A USER’S MANUAL

Alain de Botton (Pantheon, 2014) ISBN: 978-0307379122 The News

The News:  A User’s Manual is pop philosopher and celebrated egghead Alain de Botton’s latest contribution to dinner party conversation*.  It is a meditative, considered musing on why western societies in particular are so obsessed with “the news” and keeping up with it.  As a news junkie myself, passing through an airport bookshop, I was curious to see what de Botton might have concluded about it all.  I have not previously read any of his books, though I did once catch an episode of the documentary series The Architecture of Happiness, so that counts, right?

The book is divided into several sections, reflecting the various types of news we see on a daily basis — that is, catastrophes, the weather, celebrities, etc., and posits answers as to why our society is so attracted to those kinds of stories.  I tend to agree with de Botton analysis of the role the news media plays in capitalism, keeping us all busy and distracted, and so overwhelmed by the constant flood of information that concentrating on one issue, let alone becoming involved in activism about any one issue, is a challenge.

I also tend to agree with some of de Botton’s propositions as to why people tend to be interested more in faff about celebrities than global events — or even small tragedies in countries such as the US as compared to larger ones in, say, Burundi or Tajikstan.  That is, that we simply have no context for the lives of people in countries with vastly different cultures and economic realities to ours.  Travel, de Botton suggests, is essential to a more globalised understanding of the world, and to being able to empathise with people whose lives seem so alien.

Nonetheless, de Botton is himself deeply embedded in middle class culture, and assumes the audience’s understanding of certain philosophical concepts and theorists, and takes as given aspects of culture, such as inculcation in the worlds of theatre and literature.  Naturally this is because de Botton writes for his audience, and assumes people reading a book about philosophy would be familiar, at least, with his own previous works.  I do take issue with him claiming such middle class cultural norms as universal, however; it is important to acknowledge that there are many people in our society who consume the news, but were not provided with, or did not take up, the same opportunities at a very young age to engage in cultural activities such as the opera or high literature.  While writing for one’s audience is part of the writer’s task, we should make at least a cursory attempt not to alienate potential readers by assuming their backgrounds are the same as ours.

This leads to another problem I had with de Botton’s writing, and that is that he doesn’t cite anything.  The book is entirely his own thinking, as a book of philosophy, but even when quoting other philosophers or ideologies, he does not provide references.  This might serve to undermine his arguments.  Philosophers should not tell people what to think, but provide the framework and language for deeper personal knowledge and understanding of our own motivations.  Citations would assist readers in developing their understanding of the issues and the ideas de Botton discusses, rather than forcing them to assume that, as a philosopher, he must know better.

And I do have quibbles with his arguments.  For example, de Botton argues that, for much of human history, “the news” was not accessible and so most people lived their lives without caring about it.  While I do agree that information, especially accurate and international information, has become progressively more democratised over the past centuries, and exploded with the advent of popular access to the internet, I do not agree that people in the past were unbothered by the need to seek new information.  In my opinion, gossip and “the news” are two sides of the same coin.  Gossip, as a more petty form of “news” about what one’s neighbours are up to, and what Old Fred in the next hamlet over said about Phryne’s pig, would have been a form of information currency, which people would have cared about.  News, and any form of cultural capital really, are just heightened forms of gossip.  Indeed, gossip itself is now a huge aspect of the globalised media — but the relationship between gossip and news seems not to have occured to de Botton at all.

De Botton also speculates that societies which understand time as cyclical, rather than progressive, are not as obsessed with the news.  Because this is not cited, it seems a stretched assumption.  There are also variables to consider, such as whether societies where such views predominate have similar power of access to the news.  Without any hint of where de Botton got the idea, it feels an awfully big leap.  And I would certainly resent it if Alain de Botton did present himself as the final authority on human motivation.  I don’t think he intends to, but the line between informing and dictating draw thin in this book.

While de Botton discusses much about the motivations for reading news, and a little about its production, the book could also benefit, I think, from a discussion (it need not be in-depth) of exactly how the news we see is reported and chosen for display to the public.  Widespread syndication from a small range of news sources, for example, is not mentioned at all.  Perhaps the issues that arise from syndication are more of a problem in Australia than in de Botton’s native UK.  The BBC, after all, is very well funded and tends to syndicate more than receive syndications — but syndication is still something that should be considered.  The use of syndicated stories, mostly due to the economic realities of news production, means we are often presented with only an artifice of globalised media.  Take a look at the bottom of the next news story you read to find out its source.  If it is not a national headline, there is a good chance it is syndicated from either CNN, The Guardian, the New York Times or Reuters.

The news cycle, or the reason nothing seems to happen on weekends, is also not mentioned.  Though de Botton does point out that weekends are when most of the “lifestyle” news is printed in newspaper fold-outs, little attention is paid to the way the news cycle works.  The news cycle is an imperative aspect of the media to be aware of.  What is a big story on Monday or Tuesday informs so much of what we talk about for the rest of the week; governments tend to release bad news later in the week when it is less likely to be noticed.  These are phenomena which have been observed.**

Finally, investigative journalism is not mentioned at all.  Perhaps this is because true investigative journalism is only tenuously a part of the “mass” media.  It demands greater attention than the stereotypical 6 o’clock news, and even in its worse form, the Current Affairs style programs that are little more than a protracted editorial designed to provoke outrage, is not as popular as the news itself.  Nonetheless, it is a highly influential aspect of media, which I am certain cannot be limited to Australian television.

Despite these issues, though, I do feel the book encouraged me to think about my own motivations for constantly seeking news updates.  I do think it is important to be informed of world events, and have always been interested in political and human rights developments — but it is equally important to be discerning of the content one chooses to consume.  All caveats aside, you could do a lot worse than consume Alain de Botton’s latest.

*I don’t mean to be disparaging, I just really like the phrase “celebrated egghead”.

**If you’re paying attention, you will of course note that I don’t cite anything either.  But this is a review blog and you should conduct your own investigations, rather than relying on what I, a young woman raised by tapirs, tell you.

About Cecilia Quirk

Cecilia Quirk's ultimate goal in life is to become 'Avatar: The Last Airbender's' Uncle Iroh, or as close a proximation as possible for a redhaired white woman. Or Granny Weatherwax. Or hell, both. She enjoys green tea, long walks, manipulating causality and afternoons at home. She lives in the Magical Kingdom of the Roundabouts and works as a wild gnome herder.
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