Friday, May 29, 2015

Meditations of an Infomaniac, Part 2 of 2


In early 2012 I thought I had discovered the perfect title for my new project, which was to be a diary of my information habits. I wrote up several pages of notes under the title “Confessions of an Infomaniac.” Several weeks later I Googled the phrase, and to my chagrin found the title had already been taken by Elizabeth M. Ferrarini in 1984.

I instantly ordered a cheap copy of the book, and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived. I was so taken by the cover that I posted a Photoshopped version of it on Facebook with my own name in place of hers. It was well liked by my friends, but I felt some remorse to have erased the name of an author, even if only in the spirit of an informal repurposing.

Ferrarini published one more book in 1985, Infomania: The Guide to Essential Services. Infomania, according to Ferrarini, is a “state of mind” characterized by “an inordinately intense desire for the most up-to-date information available to computer users in the age of the electronic database.” Already in the auspicious year 1984, it was possible to describe infomania as a condition related to networked personal computers. Ferrarini’s vision is sublime and all-encompassing: “the world is full of infomaniacs. Each day, in homes, huts, castles, caves, corporations, and penthouses throughout the world, tens of thousands of computers access electronic services. The reasons for these accesses are as varied as the personalities behind the computers. But one thing is clear about all of us who are accessing these electronic services—we have infomania.”

The ingenious innovation of Confessions of an Infomaniac is its combination of a harlequin plot and a technical manual. Ferrarini uses her “electronic mail” to find just the right “electronic male.” The terms “email” or “e-mail” do not appear in the book; instead Ferrarini uses the term “electronic letter.”

Ferrarini’s work is ahead of its time, and not far off in its hyperbole. Her books presage the collapse of boundaries between the home and the workplace, and between the computer and the bedroom—and they foretell a new era of e-romance. Despite her alarmist asides about suffering from too much information, Ferrarini is enthusiastic about the endless romantic potential afforded by online dating services. Ferrarini even registered a trademark for the word “infomania” in 1985, intending presumably to start some kind of consulting business, but the trademark was cancelled in 1992 due to going unused by its owner.

In late 2012 I tried to find Ferrarini by Googling her; I found a brief obituary—she had died in October.


Metaphors for information overload tend to fall into two categories: those that suggest addiction or lack of self-control, such as infomania, datamania, infobesity, databesity, dataholism, infostress, dataddiction, infovorism, datadithering, data dread, infoxication; and those that suggest natural disaster: datanami, datageddon, dataclypse, data deluge, data smog, infoglut, information saturation, data swamp, drowning in data.

As someone who’s spent years poring over every book on information overload and information diets that I can find, I’m skeptical that effortful self-control will do much to address the sense of being overwhelmed by information. I’m also skeptical about too much information bringing about the apocalypse.

A larger problem is time poverty. A data diet is a luxury most knowledge workers can’t afford. As I detail in my book, Americans have been worried about the adverse effects of new communications technologies since the late nineteenth century.

At the other extreme is data poverty: 2.2 million incarcerated Americans are on forced data diets. A 2011 UN report declared Internet access a fundamental human right that should be accorded to all, including prisoners.

Everything we do as humans involves taking in data. I understand information overload broadly as a range of phenomena relating to the limits of cognition, perception, and memory (both personal and collective), typically associated with technological change. Many of the major aesthetic debates of the twentieth century—over, for instance, perception, style, technological reproducibility, cultural memory, and canonicity—take on new valences in the context of information overload.

As I write in my book:


While poetry may seem the most non-technological of literary genres, I show that poets were often obsessed by the changing nature of information and its dissemination in the twentieth century. The news that there is more news than we can process is not so new: while avant-garde poetry may not figure prominently in the global information glut, the global information glut figures prominently in avant-garde poetry. However marginal it may seem, poetry will long outlast our current media platforms. To quote William Carlos Williams:

                              Look at
               what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
               despised poems.
                              It is difficult
               to get the news from poems
                              yet men die miserably every day
                                             for lack
of what is found there.
                Hear me out . . .


Meditations of an Infomaniac, Part 1


Paul Stephens is author of The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. He has taught at Bard College, Emory University, and Columbia University. He edits the journal Convolution and lives in New York City.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Meditations of an Infomaniac, Part 1 of 2


My iPhone slips from my hand and lands on the subway tracks. I glance down the tunnel and don’t see a train. I’m carrying a heavy bag containing a Macbook Pro, an iPad and a dozen or so books. The digital signboard says the next Manhattan-bound train will arrive in one minute. I put my bag down on the platform and hop onto the tracks. Within ten seconds I’ve grabbed the phone and am back up on the platform. I’m wearing white pants (I never wear white pants), which are now covered in grime.

Everyone on the platform is staring at me.

A guy walks by and says, “I never would have done that.”

In two minutes or so, I board the next train. 55 people were killed on NYC subway tracks last year. I’ve seen this statistic dozens of times on my commute.

Clearly, I need my data fix. I’m an infomaniac. Just about everyone is. After finishing an academic book on information overload, I was an expert on the subject. But I had avoided getting too personal. What does infomania mean to me, an infomaniac among infomaniacs?


Was Adam in Eden the first failed data dieter? His boss requested only one thing: that he not access the remote server. Given only one task not to carry out, Adam brought multitasking and all our woe into the world.

My own experience with data dieting was hardly less fraught. In honor of National Screen-Free Week, I went offline from May 4 to May 10.

Or I did my best to stay offline, which wasn’t easy.

National Screen-Free Week was started in 1994 by the organization TV-Free America, and was originally called "TV-Turnoff Week." Aimed primarily at children and promoted by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Adbusters, the concept seems simple enough.

I began to panic almost as soon as I powered down my smartphone, tablet and laptop. I exaggerate, of course. In fact, I started to absorb myself in the luxury of physical media almost immediately, and to make up for my screen intake with books and records.

I had intended to keep a detailed diary of my analog information habits, but found the task not only insurmountably time-consuming, but also problematic when it came to my privacy. One’s data intake is a very intimate form of biography. In his Soliloquy, Kenneth Goldsmith (whom I write about in my book) did something like the inverse: he recorded and transcribed every word he spoke for a week, without preserving the words of anyone else. The resulting book runs to nearly 500 pages. In his book Bib, Tan Lin (whom I also write about) attempted to record metadata information about every single thing he read over the course of two years. Simply the titles and URLs run to 150 large-format pages.

I was able to reduce my screen time drastically over the course of the week, and I wrote profusely in my notebook. I started to feel a bit like Karl Ove Knausgaard about how minutely I was recording details, and that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t have much luck with the typewriter I borrowed. I often asked my wife to Google simple information like directions. Waking up in the morning, I found myself reflexively reaching for my iPad. Given several imminent deadlines, I did have to send a number of emails over the course of the week (in advance of my diet, I decided I didn’t want to adversely affect anyone else by being offline).

One clear takeaway from the diet was that going offline is a luxury. Information is unequally distributed, as is privacy. But there’s no putting the data apple back on the tree. I’m tempted here to make a pun on the name of the world’s largest corporation, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll move on to another task and another of my open windows.


Look for Stephens's essay "Meditations of an Infomaniac, Part 2" tomorrow.


Paul Stephens is author of The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing. He has taught at Bard College, Emory University, and Columbia University. He edits the journal Convolution and lives in New York City.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

NYT: The Same-Sex Couple Who Got a Marriage License in 1971

Minneapolis couple Jack Baker and Michael McConnell were profiled on the front page of today's Sunday New York Times as the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license, in 1970. Read their fascinating story here.

The University of Minnesota Press will publish their memoir in January 2016.

MINNEAPOLIS — Long before the fight over same-sex marriage began in earnest, long before gay couples began lining up for marriage licenses, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell decided to wed.

The year was 1967. Homosexuality was still classified as a disorder, sodomy was illegal in nearly every state, and most gay men and lesbians lived in fearful secrecy.

But from the age of 14, eyeing young men in his father’s barbershop, Mr. McConnell dreamed of living “happily ever after” with a partner.

So when Mr. Baker proposed moving in together, Mr. McConnell challenged him. “If we’re going to do this,” he replied, “you have to find a way for us to get married.”

Mr. Baker remembers his initial reaction: “I had never heard of such a thing.”

He enrolled in law school to try to make it happen.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bruce H. Kramer on finding a place of balance and harmony while living with the "dis ease" of ALS.

Bruce H. Kramer, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2010, speaks with
Cathy Wurzer about the power of reaching out in a still from this video.

Bruce H. Kramer, a former dean at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in December 2010. Roughly four years and three months later, Kramer's journey with ALS ended and he passed away on March 23, 2015. During that period of time, Kramer documented his thoughts, musings, and experiences living with ALS in a blog, the Dis Ease Diary, that he started about three months into his diagnosis. Kramer also recorded an ongoing occasional series of honest and heartfelt segments about living with ALS with Minnesota Public Radio's Cathy Wurzer.

Wurzer and Kramer grew to develop a deep friendship through the course of their broadcast conversations. They also co-wrote a book, We Know How This Ends: Living while Dying, in which Kramer offers an unflinchingly honest account of his progression with the disease, and Wurzer frames his writing with observations of her own.

In this excerpt, Kramer reflects upon the persuasive power of photographs to knock one's consciousness into self-acceptance.


Excerpt from the chapter "The Widening Gyre" from We Know How This Ends by Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.

Almost to the day that I turned fifty, I experienced a phenomenon that many of my older and wiser friends easily recognized. I would get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and wonder, Who is that old man staring back at me? Or I would be walking by a bank of windows, and I would catch a glimpse of myself and not recognize the person looking back. As I have continued to age, this experience has only continued to heighten. You might interpret my nonrecognition as narcissistic, and I guess I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Yet I believe something instructive exists in whether we fully recognize our physical selves. I had this experience recently when I downloaded pictures from a small trip we made to Chicago. There was one picture in particular that when it came up on the computer, made me stop and wonder if that was really me.

We spent our first day at Millennium Park. Chicago has a well-developed park system along the lake, but when Millennium Park was built, it was highly controversial due to its cost and location—a park on some of the most valuable land in downtown Chicago. Now, nearly ten years after its opening, it is a place of energy and fun and wonderful amenities enjoyed by thousands of people every day, even in the winter. We spent almost two hours listening to the Grant Park Orchestra rehearsing an upcoming performance of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, enjoying the bizarre sculptures, and of course, no visit is complete without hanging around the great fountain that projects pictures of faces between its two monoliths—children and adults splashing in its puddles and standing under its bubbling waters. The whole park is meant to be interactive.

That day—lovely and sunny and cool for July—invited us to linger in the park, enjoying its beauty, recording the occasion with lots of pictures. Toward the entrance of the park, we stopped for a picture: Evelyn bending down to be at my height, me in the wheelchair, crooked, Buddha-bellied, hands tired from steering. I describe this in such terms because for the first time in a long time, I was surprised at my lack of recognition that it was me in the picture. Something about the picture projected what I think of as ALS posture—a picture that my subconscious has always seen in others but not in myself. It broke through my denial, spilling waves of cognitive dissonance between the body I have, the person I am, and the way I see myself. Suddenly, I saw myself with others’ eyes, and all of those old feelings about disability and deniability came rushing back as if I realized my disabled condition for the first time all over again.

I guess I really am a TAB (temporarily able-bodied person) at heart. I just can’t help it.

It was the circling gyre all over again—a point on the path of dis ease that I thought I had put behind me—only to spiral around to a deeper (or perhaps more superficial) interpretation of that same event. I thought that I had reached some semblance of acceptance—where this physical body is what it is, and my own self-worth is not a by-product of physical capacity’s superficial interpretation. You can imagine how surprised I was, not just by the picture but by my own over-the-top reaction of shock and denial.

Usually I have my head around these things, and I am able to live within my disability with a pretty healthy attitude, but seeing that picture put me right back into the denial I had experienced when my ALS first began. And associated with such denial is an unhealthy self-esteem tied up in physical projection. I questioned whether I deserved the love and attention of my family and my friends, because, after all, I was not whole, I was not well, I was ALS personified—scoliosis, gut protruding, wheelchair bound, muscles deteriorating. Not a pretty sight.

All of this from one picture? Eventually, I was able to find balance, harmony—a place where I could accept that it is just my body, and the space that I occupy is far greater than the capability and capacity my body projects.

In working on this book, the revision of various blog entries from nearly four years ago requires close consideration of my narrative in dis ease—trolling through earlier postings, journals, and even pictures. And this has not been easy. Sitting inside any former blog entry is grief for some hidden reference, some thing I was able to do then but cannot do now. Inside every picture is an image of my old normal, even when I thought it was the new normal. Inside this book is grief for the teaching I can no longer do. Dis ease has taught me that looking to the past brings grief, and that has been my experience, exponentially multiplied as I circled back into the writing, the imagery, the progression, the old me.

Circling back is not for the faint of heart. Circling back is complex. It is hard to look at images from the past, frozen in their time, stripped of their context and feeling, and not judge them too harshly with the sharpened understanding of focused hindsight. I was doing the best I could at the time. You would do the same.

I now recognize that circling back is not really what I have been doing. Instead I have been spiraling down, deepening the experience so that what was once old normal confidence is now vulnerability, what was once an equal partnership riding on the roads must now be even more intimate in how we look out for each other. And in the ultimate spiral, as I flip through images of the effects of dis ease on my family and friends—and especially my one true love, Ev—I must spiral into understanding that my fears were both well founded and inadequate in anticipation of what was to come.


Bruce H. Kramer (1956–2015) was former dean of the College of Education, Leadership, and Counseling at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was the creator of The Dis Ease Diary (, a popular blog about life with ALS, and coauthor of Leading Ethically in Schools and Other Organizations, a realistic look at leadership ethics.

The host of Minnesota Public Radio’s flagship news program Morning Edition, Cathy Wurzer has been broadcasting conversations with Bruce H. Kramer about his ALS experiences since 2011. She is also the cohost of Almanac on Twin Cities Public Television, the longest-running weekly public affairs program in the nation.

"Security and immortality are both superstitions; the best we can do is make an adventure of our lives. In this exquisite book, Bruce H. Kramer finds adventure in the most unlikely of places: the death sentence that is ALS. We Know How This Ends is a moving tale that teaches us more about living well than any self-help book ever can."
—Dan Buettner, New York Times bestselling author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest