The News

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

The news is the most powerful and prestigious force in contemporary society, Alain de Botton says, replacing religion as the touchstone of authority and meaning:

It is usually the first thing we check in the morning and the last thing we consult at night. What are we searching for? The news does its best to persuade us we must keep up with its agenda — but to what end? What are the ghastly, wondrous, thrilling, destructive, bitter stories for?


The news of our times is predominantly an agent of confusion, envy, purposeless excitement and needless terror.

The news should cover celebrities, he argues:

Serious news organisations are currently highly dismissive of celebrities, and abandon the whole field of celebrity to the lowest outlets, who bring us the celebrities we currently have and know too much about.

But human beings need and will always look for role models. We therefore shouldn’t complain about, or eradicate, ‘celebrity culture.’ We just need to improve it. We need to bring a better kind of person to the fore of public consciousness: we need better celebrities rather than no celebrities at all. Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, the news ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions. In the Utopian society, the best-known people (the ones whose parties and holiday photos and clothes and new hairstyles we looked at most often) would also be those who embodied and reinforced the highest, noblest and most socially beneficial values.

Maybe video isn’t the medium for that…

Anyway, he makes a number of similar suggestions, but this point about the nature of news stands out:

What is news? A standard definition might go: ‘news’ is something that people don’t know about, that matters a lot — and that has happened just now.

But consider another, subtly different way of defining the subject: ‘news’ is anything that people don’t know about, that matters a lot and that could have happened at any point in time, perhaps today, but equally, perhaps, some time in the fourth century B.C.

The news holds a prestigious place in society because — as it likes to tell us in often bombastic tones — it can inform us about the most important things that have happened anywhere in the world in the past few hours. By its very nature, the news assumes that everyone has by now already heard all about what happened yesterday and the day before — and that everyone has by now already had all the interesting thoughts that it’s ever possible to have about the past, and that we hence never need to go over any of it again. The ‘news’ simply has to be about what happened since the last bulletin — or tweet.

A lot of the time, this makes great sense. We don’t need to pour over the old stuff. We’re heading into the future, and at dizzying speed, and therefore we need the most up-to-date information, right now. But, sometimes, this philosophy robs us of a chance to get at key bits of information that didn’t gestate since breakfast time.

Sometimes — and this is something the news will never tell us — the real ‘news’ happened a long time ago. It deserves to be called news because it’s still important, it’s still relevant and most crucially, it’s still new to most people alive now. There’s a lot of vital information out there that for various reasons hasn’t reached us yet. News organisations may boast about their high-tech satellites and fibre-optic cables, but the obstacles to delayed news are often cultural and psychological. Important information floats in the darker parts of the ether, but we’re distracted by other things, no one is bringing it up, we’re looking elsewhere. But the day we learn to tune in at last, it become news.

How many people even read the archives of blogs they enjoy?


  1. Carl says:

    I used to be a hardcore news junkie, but after reading Moldbug I saw there was no real point following things closely. It’s much more amusing to see the underlying patterns behind the news. Also, I do go through and read the archives of new blogs when I find them and like them. Such as this one.

  2. Faze says:

    Celebrities really are important, they are our ancient Greek gods and goddesses, acting out dramas of our universal subconscious in the parallel, Olympian universe, embodying our communal dream life and providing a kind of cultural unity and continuity. Unfortunately, knowing what’s going on in the “serious” news is a status marker for knowledge workers with upper middle class aspirations. If you don’t believe this, imagine that someone in your office expressed some kind of concern over what’s going on in the Ukraine, say, and you replied: “Well, I don’t really keep up on what’s going on in Europe. But I am concerned about Lindsay Lohan’s latest relapse …” You’d be considered a lower class dope — rather than the keen student of human nature that you really are.

  3. Alrenous says:

    If a blog’s archives aren’t worth reading, I generally expect its new posts aren’t worth reading either. Admittedly I didn’t manage to read all of this one’s backlog.

    The old news is supposedly covered in school. It’s assumed all relevant history is covered in history class. (You should always know what your assumptions are.)

  4. Spandrell says:

    I for one do spend hours in blog archives.

    I’m always tempted to stop following the news, but you need topics of conversation to talk to people. That’s what news are: conversation fodder.

  5. James James says:

    Y’all might be interested in Bruce Charlton’s latest book, Addicted to Distraction: Psychological consequences of the modern Mass Media.

    He covers the news “replacing religion as the touchstone of authority and meaning”, and the news as conversation fodder. It’s quite difficult to make small talk with people who follow the news (everyone) if you don’t.

    It’s well worth reading.

  6. Steve Johnson says:

    “How many people even read the archives of blogs they enjoy?”

    I’m with Spandrell on this one — when I find a blog where the writer is interesting, I’ll read the archives.

  7. Reading the whole of your archives back in 2009 or so, when I first discovered this blog, was a defining moment in my intellectual life.

  8. Isegoria says:

    Wow, thanks, Scipio. I can almost hear Uncle Ben’s words in my ears now: “With great power…”

  9. Barnabas says:

    I was exposed to some cable news recently after being without television for the last 3 years or so. It struck me what a steady stream of propaganda it was. I think Fox News only exists to recruit cannon fodder from flyover country and to push a slightly stale brand of leftism.

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