Where so many see information overload, Pablo Boczkowski finds plenty
Pablo J. Boczkowski is Professor Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani at the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, where he directs the school of communication Latinx Digital Media Center. A pioneer in global communication studies whose work transcends borders, focusing on people, their cultures, their habits and their rituals, Boczkowski also co-directs the Center for Media and Society Studies in Argentina, his birthplace and the inspiration for much of his scholarship.
The most recent and personal of his books to date, “Abundance: On the Experience of Living in a World of Information Plenty,” recently published by Oxford University Press, was heavily influenced by Boczkowski’s daughters. Sofia, now 20, is currently finishing her sophomore year at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Emma, 17, will be a senior at Evanston Township High School next year. The book’s proceeds support the Marsha P. Johnson Award, the first of its kind in the School of Communication (SoC), which was created to recognize students who demonstrate leadership and / or advance the conversation about LGBTQ + through their scientific work, their teaching or their research. The first recipient of the award will be announced at the SoC convocation on June 13, 2021.
Boczkowski spoke to Northwestern Now about Argentina, the research and its children, and how they are connected.
Q: We know a lot about information overload in the digital age. What is “abundance”?
The idea behind “information overload” is that there is an optimal level of information that any person or group of people can process to make a particular decision, and that any additional information beyond that is a burden. and, therefore, has negative consequences. . Applied to the digital world, this idea assumes two false premises. The first is the emphasis on decision making: most people use the information they get through home screens, social media platforms, and news and entertainment channels primarily to make decisions. I realized during the research phase of this project that most people use this information primarily to express themselves, connect with others, and manage and make sense of their life in general rather than making decisions.
Second, while it is true that very often people feel surrounded, and sometimes even overwhelmed, by information, there is no optimal level of information that applies to all levels, and to have it. much does not necessarily have negative implications. On the contrary, it is sometimes a welcome addition to everyday life. To help make sense of how individuals experience our world of information abundance, in the book I propose a shift from information overload to abundance, a more descriptive term unloaded with the implications of ‘a discourse of deficit and in which the value of having more or more less information is something that emerges from the context in which the information is received and the purposes for which it is used.
Q: Why Argentina?
There are three issues that make Argentina an ideal setting for the argument presented in this book, and all three have to do with what separates Argentina from the global North in general, and the United States, in particular.
First, unlike the Far North, where much of the research on information overload issues has been undertaken, Argentina is in the throes of economic hardship. Despite widespread poverty, access to and use of information devices and services has been very high. As I write in the book, “a situation of greater material scarcity helps to understand when, how and why people can value information so much that they are willing to devote a significant portion of their income to it.”
Second, Argentina has historically had a very strong associative culture in which friendship is sort of an art form. “So,” as I write in the book, “the Argentinian context helps to highlight and make visible the importance of a [social connectivity] which withdraws into the background and loses a certain visibility in societies marked by more individualistic and utilitarian associative cultures.
Third, there are the issues of trust in publicized information, especially with regard to fake news, disinformation and disinformation in modern democratic life. Mistrust of information disseminated on traditional, digital and social media has grown around the world and Argentines are among the most suspicious. As I write in the book, “to deal with this situation, many Argentines have become very skeptical and… have developed critical reception and sociability practices to try to determine what they consider to be the real news. behind the news… Argentina provides a sort of avant-garde to examine the character of agentic media reception and put into perspective the hypodermic needle nightmares commonly associated with the abundance of contemporary information.
You write in the acknowledgments of the book: “There I was, a single dad with an Argentinian outlook and 20th century sensibility, trying to parent two teenage girls in the heart of the United States who embody a 21st century outlook on life. Of all the differences in position and culture that have marked this process, our respective experiences in the information world have been one of the most disheartening for me, as the part of their emotional and daily life is at stake in the process. digital environment. Listening to them and learning from their worldviews laid the foundation for a beautiful bridge that the three of us built to connect our perspectives and transformed us in the process.
Q: Your work on the book coincided with the teenage years of your daughters, Sofia and Emma. How did the experience of this project help you make sense of their world?
The book project lasted nearly five years, which coincided with the education of two teenage girls. During that time, I was genuinely intrigued by the way they navigate the news world, primarily through digital media. Their perspectives and practices were very different from mine. So, I asked them a lot of questions about what they were doing in this regard, what things meant to them, etc. and sometimes I threw them some ideas emerging from the analysis of the book. Over time, as I write in the acknowledgments, I realized that it ends up building a bridge between their worldview and mine, which was a wonderful and unexpected outcome of the reading process!
Q: Your recent study of newspapers that stubbornly remain in five very different countries despite the overwhelming digital shift is a unique and nuanced exploration of media consumption as a ritual on a large scale. What sets your work apart?
My research program over the past decade and a half has taken a global and comparative turn, exploring the dynamics of media consumption and the use of technology in different parts of the world. I believe that all social science studies need to be contextualized instead of assuming that what happens in one context applies to all others – which is the default position of a lot of research in and on the Global North. , especially in the United States.
By doing benchmarking, you can determine what might be unique about a given phenomenon in a country and what might be shared between countries, and account for both the presence and absence of patterns. common. While most comparative research on media consumption and technology use uses quantitative techniques (as I did in my previous book project “The News Gap,” MIT Press, 2013), the gist of my most recent work has been based on qualitative methodologies. The document you mention was based on 488 interviews with media consumers conducted in five countries: Argentina, Finland, Israel, Japan and the United States. Qualitative comparative work in the social sciences, especially on this scale, is very rare and sets my research program apart from most of the relevant scholarships available. It takes a lot of coordination, patience and curiosity about other cultures. Doing this work together with great colleagues who have become dear friends not only makes it professionally possible, but also very rewarding personally.
Q: What’s the one thing you hope readers will take away from the book?
The agency that all of us who are users of the technologies behind this current phase of information abundance have to shape the way we use these devices, interpret the content we access through them, and collectively affect our society. Despite the dominant dystopian, if not apocalyptic, rhetoric often associated with these technologies, we have a lot of power in determining our destiny, and it is important that we take this stance and all together build a more equitable and sustainable future.
Q: Argentina has been devastated by a second wave of COVID-19 in recent weeks, pushing the remote country to the top of the list for the highest per capita death toll. As an expert on disinformation and public opinion, can you talk about what is happening in Argentina?
One thing I can say from a research perspective is that this is not a case of anti-vaccination sentiment or reluctance to vaccinate. We measured vaccine reluctance in October 2019 as part of a larger disinformation study, and preliminary analyzes indicate it was extremely low, and has remained so since the start of the pandemic. based on a survey conducted by a colleague from the Universidad de San Andres two months ago.
In other words, if the country had the same level of access to vaccines as the United States and had started the vaccination campaigns at the same time as we did here in the United States, it is likely that the vaccination process would have prevented this dire situation. . Because access to vaccines appears to be linked to patterns of global economic inequality, the current situation once again reminds us of the need to work together among nations to address the persistent inequalities between rich countries and the rest of the world. world. This need becomes particularly pressing during major crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.