David Perell on the Paradox of Abundance

David Perell recently published a long read article on the new age of democratized digital media we are entering. Although he gives a history of the last century of media, his ultimate message centers around how we should be consuming information in the digital era. The most important concept he shares is the Paradox of Abundance. Briefly, we have access to more information than ever before. Because there is so much information out there, information purveyors are in a desperate zero-sum competition for eyeballs. They respond by creating urgency and emotional hooks around articles and information that aren’t actually very important. This confronts consumers with a tsunami of clickbait and emotional appeals, which either sends us running from false crisis to false crisis, or makes us check out from media altogether. This means that people who can focus on truly useful and enlightening content are richer than ever before, while the median user is worse off, tugged in all directions by emotionally captivating but ultimately non-enriching content.

This feels most real to me whenever I log onto Twitter. The transcendent moments on Twitter are truly transcendent. Rarely do I spend 20 minutes on Twitter without encountering some new perspective or piece of information that I hadn’t considered before. But the tsunami can be overpowering: I often spend far longer than I had planned following trails of seemingly alarming scandals or political trends. Twitter’s algorithm accelerates this, bubbling the most alarming, shocking, or polarizing content to the top of the feed. My Feedly experience could not be more different: Since I mostly follow only academic blogs or writers I deeply respect, my feed is a bit more boring but also has a much higher signal-to-noise ratio. It’s also less addictive.

Perell draws an analogy to eating right that feels particularly apt. Ultimately this may be the sort of thing our culture needs to adapt to. Just as abundance in food resulted in the evolution of cultural norms around eating right, we may need to develop cultural norms around “informing” right. My feedly is more like a quinoa bowl, whereas a twitter binge can leave me feeling like I just ate a bagful of tootsie rolls. He even mentions writing as analogous to cooking at home, another regularizing function that can improve diet.

There is one question Perell leaves unanswered: What is it all about? Is there an individual duty around online engagement as a sort of civic service? Or would we all just be better off unplugging and reading books? Either way, it is clear that information abundance is here to stay, and passive consumption of whatever passes across our screens is no longer an acceptable strategy.