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On Not Caring About The News

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We should go a little easier on ourselves when it comes to indifference to the news, and recognize 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?

Much of what we now take for granted as news has its origins in the information needed by people taking major decisions or at the centre of national affairs. We still hear the echoes in the way news is reported; timing is assumed to be critical, as it really would be if we were active agents. If you don't have the latest update you might make a terrible blunder or miss a wonderful opportunity.

Ease of communication and a generous democratic impulse mean that information originally designed for decision makers, now gets routinely sent via the media to very large numbers of people. It is as if a dossier, with the latest news from Kiev, which might properly arrive on the desk of a minister has accidentally been delivered to the wrong address and ends up on the breakfast table of a librarian in Colchester or an electrician in Pitlochry. But the librarian or electrician might quite reasonably turn round and politely point out that they can't do anything with this knowledge and that, surely, the files have come to them by mistake. They don't, but only because habit has closed our eyes to the underlying strangeness of the phenomenon.

Every day the news gives us stuff that is both interesting for some people and irrelevant to you. So one reads a very insightful article on the prospects for political reform in Pakistan, meaning that if you were wondering whether Pakistan was a good place to locate a new factory you'd be able to make a better informed decision. Or there are revelations that tensions in the cabinet are more serious than previously supposed. So if you were wondering whether this might be a good time to launch your leadership bid, this would be a good piece to read. But otherwise...?

The modern idea of news is pleasantly flattering. Yet it's really quite strange. We keep getting information that isn't really for us to know what to do with. No wonder we're sometimes a bit bored. It's not our fault.

The news is also rather jealous. It wants to distract you from a private sense of purpose. It would be dangerous if hardly anyone paid attention to what the government was doing, or what was happening to the environment or events in Kiev. But it is not right to go from this to the demand that everyone should be interested in every item at the very moment when the news machine requests their attention.

Indeed, we badly need people whose attention is not caught up in the trends of the moment and who are not looking in the same direction as everyone else. We need people scanning the less familiar parts of the horizon. There was a time when a particular country in crisis hadn't reached the headlines, when the approved legislation hadn't even been formulated, when few people were interested in coral reefs... These things had to get going, and to do so, they needed a pool of independent thinkers of a kind who turn today's unpromising themes into tomorrow's mainstream, 'obvious' topics of interest.

Indifference to big banner events can be churlish. But it can also be the mark of deep and important originality. Let's treat the phenomenon of not being interested in some stories with cautious respect.

Alain de Botton is the founder of The School of Life and Living Architecture. His latest book, The News: A User's Manual [Pantheon, $26.95], was published this month.