Informationism and Empathy

I was planning a post on the types of information I allow into my life: blogs, news, video, audio, tv, movies, and how I try to limit each of them in different ways–but I became conveniently sidetracked by a series of pages about Informationism. It couldn’t be more relevant to what I was planning on writing…

As far as I can tell, Informationism grew from the Scottish poetic tradition in the mid 90s. The small number of writers lumped into the movement seem, at least from my limited understanding, as though their work highlights the intracacies and nonsense of the observable world, tempered by a healthy existentialism.

They are, firstly, bearers of news: the information they make available in their poetry includes rather than necessarily opposes media news because part of their raison d’etre is to digest and transmit as many different types of data as they can. Little-known information, social history and all kinds of “underprivileged” facts, possibilities and ideas are recontextualised in their poetry; hierarchies are exposed. Secondly, in presenting information these poets also scrutinise that very process, sometimes they parody, often they extend it: they meddle with “enlightenment” itself. [via Richard Price] 

Richard Price. via
Richard Price. via

Here’s a sample of this format:

Tie-breaker – By Richard Price


You are an islander with skin cancer.
Outline the history of the petrochemical industry.
You are a four-year-old with asthma.
Explain the theory of traffic calming.
In a phrase of not more than ten words
justify water.
Employees, their friends and their relatives
are not eligible for this competition.
No correspondence will be entered into.
The judge’s decision is final.
(from Sense and a Minor Fever, 1993) via

How Price pairs science’s theories with those who live within their structures brings to mind the work of environmental ethicist Jeremy Bendik-Keymer. His most recent work ‘The Ecological Life‘ inherits some of the issues of information overload and alienation from nature that the informationists explored, but asks “How can we come to terms with environmental justice?” — in a globalized, scientifically self-aware society that abuses its land, air, and water.

So what might this have to do with selective information? The social submission sites, which I’ve complained about before encourage the scatterbrained oversaturation of extreme stories and fabulous realities. Taken in one bite, uber-popular stories have a numbing affect, no matter how disturbing or fantastical they may seem. I think I’ll end with my belief that news absorbed via Reddit, Digg, Delicious popular, etc. reduces our empathy with the world around us. Polar bears are dying, tweet it. Darfur kinda sucks, join a Facebook group. As Obama says, Go get involved. (though this makes me hopeful)


Obama on a Blackberry checking Digg/Getting Elected

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