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Where so many see information overload, Pablo Boczkowski finds abundance

Q&A with School of Communication professor about his three loves; Argentina, research and his children, and the ways they are connected
Communication studies professor Pablo Boczkowski and his daughters Emma and Sofia

Pablo J. Boczkowski is Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, where he heads the School of Communication’s Center for Latinx Digital Media. A pioneer in global communication studies whose work crosses borders, centering people, their cultures, habits and rituals, Boczkowski also co-leads the Center for the Study of Media and Society in Argentina, his native home and the inspiration for much of his scholarship.

The most recent and most 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 wrapping up sophomore year in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and Emma, 17, will be a senior at Evanston Township High School next year. Proceeds from the book support The Marsha P. Johnson Prize, the first of its kind at the School of Communication (SoC), which was created to recognize students who demonstrate leadership and/or advance conversation around LGBTQ+ through their scholarly work, teaching or 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, research and his children, and the ways 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 optimum level of information that any person or group of people can process to make a particular decision, and that any additional piece of information beyond that constitutes a burden and, therefore, has negative consequences. Applied to the digital world, this idea assumes two false premises. The first is the focus on decision making: that most people use the information they get through personal 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 lives in general rather than make decisions.

Second, while it’s true that quite often people feel surrounded, and sometimes even overwhelmed, by information, there is no optimal level of information that applies across the board, and having lots of it does not necessarily have negative implications. On the contrary, sometimes this is a welcomed addition to daily life. To help make sense of how individuals experience our world of information plenty, in the book I propose a switch from information overload to abundance, a more descriptive term not laden with the implications of a discourse of deficit and in which the value of having more or less information is something that emerges from the context in which 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 generally, and the U.S., in particular.

First, unlike the Global North, where the majority of research on issues of information overload has been undertaken, Argentina is mired in economic hardship. Despite widespread poverty, access to and use of information devices and services have been very high. As I write in the book, “a situation of greater material scarcity helps shed light on when, how and why people might value information so much that they are willing to spend a sizable portion of their income on it.”

Second, Argentina has historically had a very strong associational culture in which friendship is sort of an art form. “Thus,” as I write in the book, “the Argentine context helps foreground and make visible the importance of a [social connectivity] that recedes into the background and loses some visibility in societies marked by more individualistic and utilitarian associational cultures.”

Third are issues of trust in mediated information, particularly in relation to fake news, misinformation and disinformation in modern democratic life. Distrust in news on traditional, digital and social media has been rising around the world, and Argentines are among the most distrustful. As I write in the book, “to cope with this situation, many Argentines have become highly skeptical and… developed critical practices of reception and sociability to try and ascertain 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 in perspective the hypodermic needle nightmares commonly associated with contemporary information abundance.”

You write in the book’s acknowledgments: “There I was, a single dad with an Argentine perspective and a 20th-century sensibility, trying to parent two teenage girls in the American heartland who epitomize a 21st-century outlook on life. Of all the positional and cultural differences that marked this process, our respective experiences of the world of information were one of the most daunting to me because how much of their emotional and everyday lives is at stake in the digital environment. Listening to them and learning from their worldviews provided the foundation of 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 adolescence of your daughters, Sofia and Emma. How did the experience of undertaking this project help you make sense of their world?

The book project took almost five years, which overlapped with raising two teenage girls. During this period, I was genuinely puzzled by how they navigated the world of information, mostly through digital media. Their perspectives and practices were very different from mine. So, I asked them lots of questions about what they did in this respect, what things meant to them, etc. and occasionally run some emerging ideas from the book’s analysis by them. Over time, as I write in the acknowledgments, I realized that this ended up building a bridge between their worldviews and mine, which was a wonderful and unexpected outcome of the book process!

Q: Your recent study about newspapers stubbornly sticking around in five very different countries despite the overwhelming shift to digital is a unique and nuanced exploration of media consumption as ritual on a large scale. What sets your work apart?

My research program over the past decade and a half has taken a global, comparative turn, exploring the dynamics of media consumption and technology use in different parts of the world. I believe that all scholarship in the social sciences has to be contextualized instead of assuming that what happens in one particular context applies to all others — which is the default stance of much scholarship in and about the Global North, especially the United States.

By doing comparative work you can tease out what might be unique about a given phenomenon in one country and what might be shared across countries, and account for both the presence and absence of shared patterns. While most comparative research on media consumption and technology use employs quantitative techniques (as I did in my earlier book project “The News Gap,” MIT Press, 2013), the bulk of my more recent work has relied on qualitative methodologies. The paper that you mention drew 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 at this scale, is very rare and sets my research program apart from most of the relevant scholarship available. It requires a lot of coordination, patience and curiosity for other cultures. Doing this work collaboratively with terrific colleagues who have become dear friends makes it not only possible professionally, but also very rewarding personally.

Q: What's the one thing you hope readers will take from the book?

The agency that all of us who are users of the technologies behind the current phase of information abundance have in shaping how we use these devices, interpret the content that we access through them, and collectively affect our society. Despite the dominant dystopic, even apocalyptic, discourse often associated with these technologies, we have a great deal of power in determining our destiny, and it is important that we embrace this stance and all together build more equitable and sustainable futures.

Q: In recent weeks Argentina has been devastated by a second wave of COVID-19, pushing the remote country to the top of the list for the highest per capita death toll. As an expert of misinformation and public opinion, can you speak to what is happening in Argentina?

One thing I can say from a research standpoint is that this is not a case of anti-vaccination sentiment or reluctance to vaccinate. We measured vaccine hesitancy in October 2019 as part of a larger study on misinformation, and the preliminary analyses indicate that it was extremely low, and this has remained the case since the start of the pandemic, based on a survey undertaken by a colleague at Universidad de San Andres two months ago.

In other words, if the country had the same level of access to vaccines as the U.S. has and began vaccination campaigns at the same time as we did here in the U.S., it is likely that the vaccination process would have prevented this dire state of affairs. Because access to vaccines seems to be tied to patterns of global economic inequalities, the current state of affairs reminds us once more about the need to work together across nations to combat enduring inequities between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. This need becomes particularly pressing during major crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.