IT DOESN’T COME with any instructions, because it’s meant to be the most normal, easy, obvious and unremarkable activity in the world, like breathing or blinking.
After an interval, usually no longer than a night (and often far less; if we’re feeling particularly restless, we might only manage ten or fifteen minutes), we interrupt whatever we are doing in order to check the news. We put our lives on hold in the expectation of receiving yet another dose of critical information about all the most significant achievements, catastrophes, crimes, epidemics and romantic complications to have befallen mankind anywhere around the planet since we last had a look.
What follows is an exercise in trying to make this ubiquitous and familiar habit seem a lot weirder and rather more hazardous than it does at present.
THE NEWS IS committed to laying before us whatever is supposed to be most unusual and important in the world: a snowfall in the tropics; a love child for the president; a set of conjoined twins. Yet for all its determined pursuit of the anomalous, the one thing the news skilfully avoids training its eye on is itself, and the predominant position it has achieved in our lives. ‘Half of Humanity Daily Spellbound by the News’ is a headline we are never likely to see from organizations otherwise devoted to the remarkable and the note-worthy, the corrupt and the shocking.
Societies become modern, the philosopher Hegel suggested, when news replaces religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority. In the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths. Dispatches track the canonical hours with uncanny precision: matins have been transubstantiated into the breakfast bulletin, vespers into the evening report. But the news doesn’t just follow a quasi-religious timetable. It also demands that we approach it with some of the same deferential expectations we would once have harboured of the faiths. Here, too, we hope to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.
The news knows how to render its own mechanics almost invisible and therefore hard to question. It speaks to us in a natural unaccented voice, without reference to its own assumption-laden perspective. It fails to disclose that it does not merely report on the world, but is instead constantly at work crafting a new planet in our minds in line with its own often highly distinctive priorities.
FROM AN EARLY age, we are educated to appreciate the power of images and words. We are led to museums and solemnly informed that certain pictures by long-dead artists could transform our perspectives. We are introduced to poems and stories that might change our lives.
Yet, oddly, people seldom attempt to educate us about the words and images proffered to us every hour by the news. It is deemed more important for us to know how to make sense of the plot of Othello than how to decode the front page of the New York Post. We are more likely to hear about the significance of Matisse’s use of colour than to be taken through the effects of the celebrity photo section of the Daily Mail. We aren’t encouraged to consider what might happen to our outlooks after immersion in Bild or OK ! magazine, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the Hokkaido Shimbun, the Tehran Times or the Sun. We are never systematically inducted into the extraordinary capacity of news outlets to influence our sense of reality and to mould the state of what we might as well—with no supernatural associations—call our souls.
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. Cocooned in classrooms for only our first eighteen years or so, we effectively spend the rest of our lives under the tutelage of news entities which wield infinitely greater influence over us than any academic institution can. Once our formal education has finished, 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. As revolutionaries well know, if you want to change the mentality of a country, you don’t head to the art gallery, the department of education or the homes of famous novelists; you drive the tanks straight to the nerve centre of the body politic, the news HQ.
WHY DO WE, the audience, keep checking the news? Dread has a lot to do with it. After even a short period of being cut off from news, our apprehensions have a habit of accumulating. We know how much is liable to go wrong and how fast: an A380 may rupture its fuel line and cartwheel into the bay in flames, a virus from an African bat may leap the species barrier and infiltrate the air vents of a crowded Japanese commuter train, investors may precipitate a run on the currency and yet another deceptively ordinary father may call a violent end to the lives of his two beautiful young children.
In the immediate vicinity, there might well be stability and peace. In the garden, a breeze may be swaying the branches of the plum tree and dust may slowly be gathering on the bookshelves in the living room. But we are aware that such serenity does not do justice to the chaotic and violent fundamentals of existence and hence, after a time, it has a habit of growing worrisome in its own way. Our background awareness of the possibility of catastrophe explains the small pulse of fear we may register when we angle our phones in the direction of the nearest mast and wait for the headlines to appear. It is a version of the apprehension that our distant ancestors must have felt in the chill moments before dawn, as they wondered whether the sun would ever find its way back into the firmament.
Yet there is a particular kind of pleasure at stake here too. The news, however dire it may be and perhaps especially when it is at its worst, can come as a relief from the claustrophobic burden of living with ourselves, of forever trying to do justice to our own potential and of struggling to persuade a few people in our limited orbit to take our ideas and needs seriously. To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity. It can be an escape from our preoccupations to locate issues that are so much graver and more compelling than those we have been uniquely allotted, and to allow these larger concerns to drown out our own self-focused apprehensions and doubts. A famine, a flooded town, a serial killer on the loose, the resignation of a government, an economist’s prediction of breadlines by next year; such outer turmoil is precisely what we might need in order to usher in a sense of inner calm.
Today the news informs us of a man who fell asleep at the wheel of his car after staying up late into the night committing adultery on the Internet – and drove off an overpass, killing a family of five in a caravan below. Another item speaks of a university student, beautiful and promising, who went missing after a party and was found in pieces in the trunk of a minicab five days later. A third rehearses the particulars of an affair between a tennis coach and her thirteen-year-old pupil. These occurrences, so obviously demented, invite us to feel sane and blessed by comparison. We can turn away from them and experience a new sense of relief at our predictable routines, at how tightly bound we have kept our more unusual desires and at our restraint in never yet having poisoned a colleague or entombed a relation under the patio.
WHAT DOES ALL this news do to us over time? What remains of the months, even years we spend with it in aggregate? Whither those many excitements and fears: about the missing child, the budget shortfall and the unfaithful general? To what increase in wisdom did all these news stories contribute, beyond leaving behind a vague and unsurprising sediment of conclusions, for example, that China is rising, that central Africa is corrupt and that education must be reformed?
It is a sign of our mental generosity that we don’t generally insist on such questions. We imagine that there would be something wrong in simply switching off. It is hard to give up on the habit first established in our earliest years, as we sat cross-legged during school assembly, of listening politely to figures of authority while they tell us about things they proclaim to be essential.
To ask why the news matters is not to presume that it doesn’t, but to suggest the rewards of approaching our intake more self-consciously. This book is a record, a phenomenology, of a set of encounters with the news. It is framed around fragments of news culled from a variety of sources that have been subjected to analysis deliberately more elaborate than its creators intended, based on an assumption that these fragments might be no less worthy of study than lines of poetry or philosophy.
The definition of news has deliberately been left vague. Though there are obvious differences between news organizations, there are also enough similarities for it to seem possible to speak of a generic category that blurs into one the traditional fiefdoms of news—radio, TV, online and print—and the contrasting ideologies of right and left, high- and lowbrow.
This project has a utopian dimension to it. It not only asks what news currently is; it also tries to imagine what it could one day be. To dream of an ideal news organization shouldn’t suggest an indifference to the current economic and social realities of the media; rather it stems from a desire to break out of a range of pessimistic assumptions to which we may have become too easily resigned.
MODERN SOCIETIES ARE still at the dawn of understanding what kind of news they need in order to flourish. For most of history, news was so hard to gather and expensive to deliver, its hold on our inner lives was inevitably kept in check. Now there is almost nowhere on the planet we are able to go to escape from it. It is there waiting for us in the early hours when we wake up from a disturbed sleep; it follows us on board planes making their way between continents; it is waiting to hijack our attention during the children’s bedtime.
The hum and rush of the news have seeped into our deepest selves. What an achievement a moment of calm now is, what a minor miracle the ability to fall asleep or to talk undistracted with a friend—and what monastic discipline would be required to make us turn away from the maelstrom of news and listen for a day to nothing but the rain and our own thoughts.
We may need some help with what the news is doing to us: with the envy and the terror, with the excitement and the frustration; with all that we’ve been told and yet occasionally suspect we may be better off never having learned.
Hence a little manual that briefly tries to complicate a habit that, at present, has come to seem a bit too normal and harmless for our own good.
Copyright © 2014 by Alain de Botton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.