Xi = ?

This is not a post about statistics or physics.  It’s not a post about BMW cars either.

For the Xi = ? equation, lets label the variables like this:- i=information sources and x=quantity, so Xi is the total number of information sources.  What the right side of the equation is, is what I’ll explore, and it’s a little bit of everything today, some economics, some communication theory, and culture–this is my way of trying to make sense of some of the concepts in the class discussion yesterday, and also an elaboration on a blog comment I wrote a few days ago.

So what happens as X increases, in other words as the number of information sources increases?

:: Xi=Ignorant or Informed? ::

In a class discussion yesterday there was talk of the agenda-setting function, and I heard a statement, “the power of the media doesn’t tell us what to think, but what to think about”.   Well as I see it since there are now more sources of media, I suspect that while people might dip into more sources of information, the diversity of the content is actually reducing.  For example let’s say someone considers themselves a conservative in the USA.  There are only so many sources of information they can absorb, with a limited amount to do so.  Whereas in the past, they’d have the Washington Post and read all of it’s op-eds, and then watch the CBS news at 6:00 pm, now they are watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh, participating in ‘vigorous, challenging debates’ on ‘freetherpublic’ and reading Erik Eriksson atRedState–X is increasing.   Or whereas before one would read People magazine and be done with their gossip quota, now they’re reading People magazine, watching the Kardashians on E!, and following Kim on facebook (and Twitter too of course). As your increasing the sources of information you draw from within the same interest/area, you reduce the amount of time and energy you have to expose yourself to other types of information.

There’s the very real possibility that people are getting dumbed down rather than enlightened—and by dumbed down I mean virtually completely ignorant of any issues outside of their pet interest or two.   Yes there’s instant and plenty of information out there, but I suspect the “instant and plenty” of information that people are seeking is information that confirms their preexisting views.  In a sense information becomes not about ‘getting informed’ but about representing existing beliefs, communication becomes what the late Social Scientist James Carey would characterize as a ‘ritual view of communication’.

:: Xi=Unifying or Dividing? ::

I have some friends on Facebook who live in Washington DC, but 90% of their feeds are in foreign languages.  It’s all in Thai or it’s all in Swahili, etc.   What this indicates is that people are not really actively diversifying or expanding their social circles.  I see a lot of discussion of, talk of, and pride in their home countries (nothing wrong with that).  Is this caused perhaps by social media allowing diaspora to communicate more frequently with others about events ‘back home’? My anecdotal observation is that this can slow acculturation and that it can cause people to hide from the dominant culture in which they reside.  Seriously some of my friends, it would be impossible to know that they live in Dallas, as opposed to Dakar.  Some of my friends 90% of the music videos they watch and/or post on facebook are of artists from their home country.  Now surely it is not a revelation that people situated in foreign cultures will instinctively seek the familiar, after all when people immigrated to the USA, there used to be little Italies, little Chinas, etc.  However, shouldn’t availability of more information about different people, cultures, etc. have a unifying effect?  The temptation is to assume that it would obviously be so, but I think it also can just as likely have the opposite effect.

(This also shows,  as  Dayan Thussu argues, that information flows are rarely one-way only but that is another post on it’s own.)

:: Xi=Cheap or Expensive? ::

Over at Hayden’s HeroesJohn Jeff argues that information is almost virtually free.   In a comment to Jeff, I question whether information really is virtually free (though he is absolutely correct to say it is easily and readily available).  In a capitalistic society, yes competition and efficiency should bring prices down.  However, if there is also a trend towards deregulation, then there is the danger of monopolies, and other aggressive and relatively unchecked profit-seeking behavior (again this is not stated as a value judgement).  This is seen in the USA where in 1980, to get the world news, one paid a bill to the cable company.  In 2010, in the USA it is not atypical to find that someone is paying a cable bill, a data bill for your smartphone, a high-speed internet bill for your computer, and a data bill for your tablet. So while the number of sources is undoubtedly increasing, it is possible that the economic costs are increasing too.

So thats it!  There is no empirical research done here, this is just my general sense of where things stand.  Availability of more more more and yet more available information or communication methods is often assumed to result a smarter more unified population enjoying cheap information and communicating cheaply.  This is a form of technological  determinism, which is not very convincing.


This post is crossposted on a student blog at which I am a contributor.


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