Abundance: On the Experience of Living in a World of Information Plenty
About the book:
Dealing with information overload is no news to us. Throughout history, humans have had to create new systems for collecting and classifying information every time a new onslaught of content caught us off guard. And every time, the same concerns have arisen: could all this new information beget cultural anxiety or even drive people mad? The digital era has rekindled this apprehension and questioned our capacity to organize, prioritize and even make sense of this new wealth of information.
In Abundance, Communication Studies Professor Pablo J. Boczkowski works through the perceptions, emotions and practices surrounding our daily access to this bottomless pit. He finds that this information wealth is directly linked to instability and constant change, a redefinition of interpersonal relationships, and the emergence of a society that values fiction over facts. Based on extensive field work and surveys, the author analyzes the cultural and structural aspects that shape our existence in a world with so much information, and weighs its consequences from a social and political point of view.
On a June evening in 2018, I was walking along Corrientes Avenue towards Plaza de Mayo, right through the heart of the City of Buenos Aires. Half a year had passed since I’d finished my research for this book, and I was knee-deep in the data analysis part of the process. Lots of ideas were bubbling up inside my head, and I felt there was a connection to be found, but still the common thread eluded me. I walked by my late father’s office and then the Centro Cultural Rojas, where thirty years ago I had taken a fascinating course on Jorge Luis Borges’s work that had changed my views on reading forever, with writer and literature professor Ricardo Piglia. It was right in the midst of this familiar territory that a sad scene caught my attention and, later on, led to the topic that ended up crystalizing in this book.
There were two young, homeless people sitting next to each other on ragged chairs, facing the sidewalk. What few belongings they had were piled behind them, lining the façade of the building to their backs. A cardboard box was placed in front of them, an improvised dinner table, and they were surrounded by even more boxes, stacked one on top of the other, outlining their semi-private space on the sidewalk. They were eating out of a plastic take-out container, with a can of Coke close at hand. Their eyes were glued to the small screen of a smartphone that cast a soft glow over an otherwise dark scene. It was a typical 21st century scene, an impoverished version of the iconic 20th century family dinner in front of the TV. Even though they were deep in extreme deprivation, these two people were connected to an abundance of information.
[…] The perceptions, emotions and practices that arise from having to deal with this abundance in our daily lives is the main topic of this book. I wonder: What is it like to live in a world where such an abundance of information is available? What is the influence that structural, macro-level factors—such as age, socioeconomic status and gender—have on the access to technology and content—from personal screens to social media, news to fiction—that make up this abundance of information? Within these broad structural patterns, how do variations in cultural dynamics (that individuals attribute to these technologies and content, and the routines that dictate their consumption) shape our daily life experience? And, finally, what does this experience, and the multiple configurations of these structural factors and cultural dynamics, mean for the media, society and politics?
[…] Known all around the world for its beef and robust malbec wine, for political figures such as Evita and Juan Domingo Perón, football aces Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, and even the Pope, Argentina has been going through some tough times for the last century. Renowned Argentine historian Luis Alberto Romero has described this period as “a distressing and turbulent national experience”, marked by a succession of military coups and economic crises.
[…] The devastating structural poverty that ravages the country is one of three factors that make Argentina a good subject for the study carried out in this book. Research about information abundance conducted in countries in the Global North has often taken for granted people’s access to the technology necessary to obtain information in the first place. On the other hand, people living in countries in the Global South, like Argentina, may struggle to gain that access. In a context plagued by serious material needs, it is easier to see exactly under which circumstances individuals consider information important enough to be willing to spend a sizable portion of their income on the means to access it.
[…] For the couple living in the streets I mentioned earlier, the purchase of a smartphone meant parting with several months of full income, not just a disposable amount. The fact that they had a phone, as well as free Wi-Fi, to access the existing abundance of information constitutes a noteworthy sociocultural event that indicates just how much that connection is desired by individuals in this society.
That takes us to the second factor that makes Argentina fertile ground for this research: the way that screens and social media have become a tool to connect us to each other. Indeed, we do use them to consume news outlets and several forms of entertainment, but a big part of the information available to us comes from the frenzied influx of content that individuals upload to social media, where they constantly react to the content their contacts upload to the network as well, making smartphone use ubiquitous. It is, essentially, a new way of socializing, growing in importance at a staggering speed. And socializing has always been central to the lives of Argentines—much more than to people living in the Global North. This is why our context highlights the ritual-like aspect of communication, as opposed to what happens in other societies, where a more individualistic and utilitarian culture prevails, and communication takes a backseat.
[…] Strong, multi-faceted associative bonds have defined Argentina’s daily life for the last few centuries. Their origin can be traced back to the relational practices that took place around social hubs such as cafés and pulperías (traditional haunts in countryside communities that functioned as grocery stores and bars) during the 19th century and early 20th century, and these bonds continued to grow along with all the recreational, artistic and civic movements that flourished during the first half of the 20th century.
[…] The third contributing factor revolves around the issue of trustworthiness in media. Big technological developments usually go hand in hand with a surge in moral panic towards the media. We can see this exemplified by what happened after the Brexit vote or US presidential elections in 2016: in an effort to make sense of these unexpected—and unforeseeable—results, many communication professionals turned on technology and digital content, both core subjects in this book. Social media was demonized and pinned as the enemy of democracy, smartphones were deemed harmfully addictive, and the news were pronounced an endangered species that must be protected.
[…] In regard to this, media scholar Siva Vaidyanathan said, “We have become data-producing farm animals, domesticated and dependent. We are the cows. Facebook clicks on us.”
To become so passive and uncritical, individuals must first trust the information they are exposed to. But is that the case? That is an excellent question to pose in Argentina. For example, the Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that only 39% of those surveyed in Argentina agreed with the following sentence, “Most of the time I trust the news in general”. Moreover, only 16% of the respondents agreed with the idea that “the media are free from political/economic influence.”
To put it simply, five out of six respondents understand that media organizations have a stake in political and economic matters. These significant levels of distrust are not a new development, but rather the end result of decades upon decades of obvious lack of impartiality shown by even the most respected news outlets: they spread a biased version of reality based on presumed political and economic gains. Many Argentines have become deeply skeptical and developed their own highly critical strategies when socializing and consuming media in an effort to try and discern what’s the real story behind what is published. In a world where, according to the 2020 Digital News Report, “overall levels of trust in the news [are] at their lowest point since we started to track these data,” Argentina presents a futuristic scenario of sorts, perfect to analyze how media are received and to put into perspective the hypodermic needle theory, usually tied to our contemporary information abundance.
Translated by Mercedes del Sol Acosta - Edited by Cecilia Della Croce