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Book Review – The News, Alain de Botton

November 30, 2019

The News: A User's ManualThe News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

His strategy in this book is to take a Platonic Ideal or Utopian vision of what news should be about and shows how the news we are given does not live up to this standard, and suggests ways we could improve the news and get it towards a more ideal position.

He rightfully points out that news is all about selection bias and filtering,and the point is how to filter information in the best way possible to get the attention of the population and set them on a good path by educating them fairly about things going on in the world.

Obviously, none or very few actual people in media are motivated by this vision of how to present news so it is mostly a hypothetical thought experiment that de Botton is engaging in, with at times, not enough consideration of the impracticalities of implementing certain things in line with this hypothetical scenario.

One sees how fast the debate has moved on since the publishing of this book. As now, a central topic would be that of fake news, but at the time of this book one of his main concerns is with the news being too impartial, and so not appealing to peoples emotions enough or getting them involved in the news.

Naturally we seem to have solved the problem in those few years of getting people involved in the news, and it has been done by very partial news presenting on both sides, appealing only to the side your audience is on and filtering everything else out accordingly.

So in this way, a book published just 5 years ago can have aged so much as to be out of touch with the historical situation now confronting us. Nonetheless, another difficulty I find in this book is some of his suggestions for how to change seem to rely on the idea or belief that people can be made to be motivated by altruistic concerns regarding news all the way on the other side of the world.

His puzzlement at our lack of interest in such distant news, comes from a presumption that altruism should be our natural concern and tends to ignore the natural realities we are in fact presented with, where, if not reducible to pure selfishness, we can certainly reduce peoples sense of moral care and motivation to a smaller group of people than the whole world, probably it can be reduced to local communities.

The reason for the importance of recognising this is that it changes how we should view human motivation and incentive. Human motivation is centered on the self, and that self is centered in a community etc.. Yes, it is also placed in a world, but that world can only appeal on abstract terms, not on “felt” terms. We cannot build the felt world up to the level of the whole world, this is not a realistic practical moral approach for certainly the next few hundred years of human capabilities. Instead we have to learn better theories for managing the human connection with abstract notions of humanity, truth and the world. And also to make these notions more accurate and alive.

If we can do this, then maybe the news will return to some sort of sense of reasonableness and honesty as its goal. Until then, if the news is going to continue to alternate with altruistic demands that no one can live up to and so planting shame on all of us, while on the other side, appealing to anger, hatred and pride and provincial unthinking perspectives on the world, then it will continue to only polarise people.

Still, as far as a mature democracy goes, I still think what we have here is a step forward from what we had before. Before we had democracies that were more a case of domestication than civilisation, where an elite narrative and agenda was taken for granted as always in touch with factual reality, and the rest of us simply had to trust it and remain subordinated to it. Now we have grown up somewhat and come to realise that narratives themselves are something that we can exert democratic control over. Whether this will take us to a higher level of civilisation or tear us apart, I guess is the battle we are going to be engaged in, both with ourselves reflecting on our own ignorance, and dealing with the ignorance of others, over the coming years.

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