Alain De Bottons latest book, 'The News: A Users Manual', has drawn some harshwords from a number Journalists, irritated at his criticism of their profession. His book questions the nature of the news and how it affects our lives; drawing conclusions that undermine the noble status 'The News' currently holds in our society. It should come as no surprise that many Journalists resent De Botton's critique, his ideas are heresy to their trade. I interviewed Alain about the ideas within the book, and his motives for writing it.
Q. Do you think many people have an awareness of the psychological affects of reading the news?
A. We don't interpret things at all. We let them wash over us. It's like a cult, like a religion... In the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths. Here, too, we hope to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence.
Q. If you were an alien viewing our planet, what do you think your reaction would be to our consumption of news?
A. I'd be most surprised not by the fact there is so much news, but the way that we don't prepare people for how odd this is. We don't train people in the consumption of news.
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. 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.
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.
Q. What significance do you think should be given to the News? Specifically for young people: those still at University or just entering careers.
A. I think the key priority is to become political in the broad sense - aware of what's going and keen to change things for the better. The problem is, the news makes that project hard: the news both informs us of some very important things and then very quickly also distracts us by changing the subject and introducing a 100 other concerns.
It would be easy to suppose that the real enemy of democratic politics must be the active censorship of news - and therefore that the freedom to say or publish anything would be the natural ally of civilisation.
But the modern world is teaching us that there are dynamics far more insidious and cynical still than censorship in draining people of political will; these involve confusing, boring and distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganised, fractured and intermittent way that most of the audience is unable to hold on to the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.
Q. As far as habits of consumption, do you have any views?
A. We should go a little easier on ourselves when it comes to indifference to the news - and recognise 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?
We keep getting information that isn't really for us to know what to do with. No wonder we're sometimes a bit bored.
Q. Looking to the future, do you think the news will continue to define our societies virtues?
A. Yes, but hopefully, it will take its responsibilities more seriously. There are few more influential jobs out there...