In book on abundance of information, Argentine researcher discusses ‘devaluation of news and revaluation of entertainment’

Argentine researcher Pablo J. Boczkowski has dedicated himself in recent years to understanding what it means, for the individual and for societies, to live in a period experiencing a "qualitative leap in the amount of information.” He does not use expressions like "information overload,” which already carry a negative meaning, but the term "abundance" to describe the current moment.

The result of years of study and a survey carried out in Argentina, in 2016 and 2017, which includes 158 in-depth interviews and a face-to-face survey of 700 people, is presented in the book "Abundance: On the Experience of Living in a World of Information Plenty," edited by Oxford University Press. The book will be released on May 1, but can now be pre-ordered on the publisher's website, in digital or print format.

In an interview with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR), Boczkowski, who is a professor in the Northwestern University's communication studies department, rejects alleged dystopian effects of the increased information supply and does an historical analysis to show that society has been concerned about this since "Greece and Ancient Rome." He also says that we live in a period of "devaluation of news and revaluation of entertainment" or "of poverty of facts and a wealth of fictions.”

In addition to holding the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani professorship at Northwestern, Boczkowski is a doctor of psychology, founder of the Center for Latinx Digital Media and co-founder of the Center for the Study on Media and Society in Argentina. LJR’s interview with Boczkowski, edited for clarity and length, is below.

Pablo J. Boczkowski

Argentine researcher Pablo J. Boczkowski

LatAm Journalism Review: What is the purpose of the book and its main findings?

Pablo Boczkowski: The book is a study about the experience of living in a society that, at this historical moment, is undergoing very important growth regarding the amount of information available. [...] The way I approached the project is this: there is a lot more information than before, but this does not mean that there will necessarily be certain consequences. Rather, between the large amount of information and the experience of people, there are factors that are in between. These factors are of two types: they have to do with the socioeconomic structure of the society and sociodemographic characteristics: age, gender, social class, education level. And on the other hand, they have to do with the culture of society, what are the values, the systems of interpretations, etc. That is a bit how I thought about it, to get out of the more technologically deterministic vision that says that, because there is a lot of information, a certain thing is going to happen. Because it depends on the culture and structure of society.

One of the most important findings of the book is that, in the structure of access and use of information, today, age has a much more important role than social class or gender. When it comes to the screens we use, such as the laptop, mobile phone, social networks and entertainment, age has a stronger influence, both who uses it and how frequently it is used. Now when it comes to the news, socioeconomic status continues to play a stronger role than age. But if one thinks that the abundance of information is something that encompasses not only news, but entertainment, and also the use of technology, adding all the effects, age has a stronger role in organizing the informational experience than socioeconomic status.

And this is a very important finding, because age is something that endows society with a state of permanent transformation. Every day we are growing older. However, social class is something that for most people does not change throughout their lives. So if we think that age is the great structural organizer of the experience of the abundance of information, that means that it is an experience marked by movement and change, which is what generates this certain sensation of vertigo, in which one has the feeling that there is, in some way, a destabilization of everyday life.

LJR: And why is social class more of a determinant for news consumption than age? Is it because I have to pay to access certain news?

PB: No, because it is correlated with education level, which is one of the great factors of willingness to learn. Nobody pays for news, forget about paying. Today, in a country like Argentina and or in the United States, the dominant medium is television, by far. In the interviews, that is very clear. First television, then radio and then digital media and social networks. But the broadcast media will not grow, on the other hand it is to be expected, especially among young people, that the use of the social networks for information will grow.

LJR: And you were talking about the other findings in the book ...

PB: A second finding is that one of the things that changes a lot [with the abundance of information] is sociability, the way we relate to others and what we expect from social relationships. What there really is is a reconstitution of the social bond, a certain idea that we always have to be available to the gaze of the other, through social networks, and we hope that our social relationships are also always available.

LJR: What does this reconstitution of the social bond mean?

PB: That what we expect from the people with whom we interact is quite different from what we used to expect. We hope that they are always attentive and that their life is always available to us. And it is not that we are more alone as some colleagues say, but actually the great challenge today is how to manage sociability, not loneliness. This has to do with the increase in sociability in groups that were already established, as in the cases of WhatsApp groups. It is not that people are alone, they are perhaps too well-accompanied. In English they say solitude, which is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is being able to be with oneself in some way, in which one does not feel alone, but is without the intervention and presence of others, that is the great contemporary challenge.

LJR: And the third finding?

PB: The third important finding is that there is a huge difference in information experience with respect to the type of media content. The way the abundance of information enters everyday life is different for fact than it is for fiction, for news than it is for entertainment. In the case of news, it is associated with a large experiential devaluation. In other words, people place very little value on news in their daily informative practices, but at the same time they have strongly revalued fictional content. They have a lot of time to consume fiction and they care a lot, especially fiction serialised in streaming services. For example: the average visit to a top 50 U.S. daily news website lasts less than 150 seconds, the visit in its entirety. The week a popular thriller premieres on Netflix, the average user spends 150 minutes a day on it.

So there is, on the one hand, a society that structures its informational experience mostly around age, and therefore, is in permanent movement and change, I say it is an unsettling society. On the other hand, there is a reconstitution of sociability and there is an opposite effect between news and entertainment. There is a devaluation of news and a revaluation of entertainment. As I say in the book, playing with Adam Smith, there is a poverty of facts and a wealth of fictions.

Pablo J. Boczkowski

Boczkowski is a professor in the Northwestern University's communication studies department

LJR: In this context of devaluation of facts and abundance of information, in which individuals are already distracted and exhausted, what should professional journalism do?

PB: The way people consume the news has changed a lot. A quarter of a century ago, when the online world began, the person sat down to read the newspaper or sat down to watch the news on television, and did nothing else. Most of the ways to get informed were primary. It was the primary activity to which attention was devoted. Nowadays, and it comes up a lot with the abundance of information, people inform themselves in a secondary or derivative way, that is, less and less do they sit down to read the newspaper and, when they are being informed by television, they do so while preparing food or looking at social media with the other eye. The ways of reception are different and that is what devalues ​​the news. It's not that people say the news doesn't matter to me, it's that the ways they consume it show that they don't matter. They find out about the news on social networks, but they do not go to social networks to find out the news. Also, since the credibility [of media] is very low, people even say: 'I don't care about the news.'

The first thing media have to do, I think, is adapt to consumer practices. Do not offer things to people that are based on an image of the reader that has nothing to do with reality. Studies show that, for young people, the average length on a computer screen is 12 seconds. How much information can be transmitted in 12 seconds? So, how much is it worth writing long stories that no one is going to read? The people we interview for this research rarely finish reading an article. If they read, they will read the first paragraph, or the headline and the sub-headline.

LJR: In that sense, does the abundance of information mean that people are more well-informed?

PB: They are differently informed. I think that today people know less about more things. Before they knew more about less things. Because now you don't have to look for information, the information is in the environment that surrounds us. There is a bit on WhatsApp, Facebook ... of course, you don't know much about everything, but you have an idea of more things.

LJR: As a doctor of psychology, how do you see the impact of information abundance for individuals, in terms of training, cognitive ability and emotional effects?

PB: To understand the current context a bit, you need to look at history first. This is not the first time in human history in which there is concern about the impacts of the increase in available information on individuals and on society. There are records of it in Greece and Ancient Rome...

LJR: [Laughter] How interesting...

PB: Yes, yes, I start the book with Seneca. He has a phrase that the abundance of books is a distraction. There is a very strong debate in ancient Rome between Seneca and Plínio, who said the opposite: that there is always something good that one can get out of each book. And for Seneca it was: 'no, too many books.’ It is a debate that recurs at different times, which is not continuous, because it has to do with moments in which there are technological and social changes, which make much more information available. The same happened in the Middle Ages and especially very strongly starting with the Enlightenment. And always the same, with outstanding philosophers involved.

Historical research shows that societies generate a series of practices, routines and mechanisms to deal with the important increase of information. There is a historian at Harvard, Ann M. Blair, who has a wonderful book about how society in the Middle Ages dealt with large numbers of manuscripts. And then what happens when the printing press comes and that multiplies enormously. Because before the printing press, there were very few who had access to the texts, they were a great elite. When the texts are printed, which now seems cool to us that everyone has access to books, but at that time a lot of people said 'no, that is going to make society terrible.’

What Ann M. Blair shows is that most of the information management systems that still exist today arose at the time as a social response to the great increase in information. The university as we know it today, the idea of disciplines, was a response from the German educational system to deal with the large increase in information. And one could say that the great scientific advances, which we enjoy today, have to do with the role of academic disciplines, biology, chemistry, physics, which although they existed before, were not developed as they are today. day.

LJR: It is a discourse that has existed for many years then …

PB: For more than 2,000 years, society has been concerned with this issue at different historical moments. It is very common that when they are going through a break, a qualitative leap in the amount of information, as that destabilizes a lot and leads to a feeling of vertigo, the original response is to say: that is bad, you have to lower it. What I call default discourse of deficit. What I propose is an alternative, an emergent evaluation. Where the abundance of information does not necessarily lead to everything being good, but rather thinking that whether it is good or bad will depend on the characteristics of a person or social group.

For example, it is very interesting to see that one associates the use of the cell phone, of WhatsApp, with younger people. But older people who live alone say, in interviews, that they have their cell phone with them at all times, even when they go to the bathroom. And they do it to feel more secure, because they know that if something happens to them, they push a button. [...] The same thing happens with media outlets. There are many topics that, historically, the media has not covered. For example, gender violence, which in Latin America is an epidemic. The most prestigious media outlets in general have not covered these issues and when they do, they cover it as an episode, as an incident, without a systemic or structural anchor in the misogyny of everyday life. If one looks at social movements like "Ni una menos" in Argentina, a large part of the activists organize and communicate through social networks, through information abundance, because they cannot send their message through the great media. So you ask me: Is that very bad? Maybe it's very good.

LJR: And what is different in the current moment of the abundance of information? 

PB: The abundance of information today, unlike in previous centuries, has lowered access barriers not only for the consumption of information, but for the production of information. Today media outlets are in the hands of the few, but this abundance that we have now, in which we all have networks and cell phones, is what makes it more possible for us to be senders of messages, not just receivers. And that changes the game a lot.

Now, of course, it is very difficult to do what I call getting off the phone, it is true. There is a lot of doomscrolling, a lot of binge watching, and people in interviews say that they have a hard time detaching themselves and that is bad for them. So it's not that everything is good and emancipatory.

What you see is that many people have strategies to detach themselves, when they go to the psychologist, to mass, when they meet their partner at night after all day at work. That doesn't mean that social networks and the mobile devices companies don't have a ton of resources dedicated to making their products very hard to put aside, but that is the case with all products. The same with a text by García Márquez, and it doesn't seem bad to me that he is a great writer. There are some novels that are very difficult to stop reading and no one complains that this is addictive. What I do in the book is question that and not try to have a dystopian discourse, it is not a discourse that everything is wonderful.