Future Tense

The Conundrum of Information Scarcity in a Time of Information Overload

Illustration of a person running toward a frame
Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

An expert on information science responds to Leigh Alexander’s “The Void.”

In grad school, I remember reading about—or at least, I think I remember reading about—a new browser plug-in designed to capture your internet click trails for later re-searching. The promo materials visualized this as a beautiful network of interconnected websites, making it possible to refind any page, article, recipe, meme etc. I am easily distracted and spend approximately 18 hours a day on the internet, so this sounded like a dream come true: Never again would I waste time retracing my digital steps to find something vaguely remembered reading but neglected to bookmark! I signed up to beta test this tool immediately. Or at least I think I did. I never heard anything about this widget again, and my attempts to remember its name have all been in vain. I’ve searched through my email, browser history, Twitter likes: nothing. I may have imagined this thing. Looking for it made me feel like a character in a Borges story: wandering the library stacks in search for the one book that will tell me what stacks I’ve already been in.

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It’s perhaps understandable then, that I felt a kinship with Hedy, the protagonist of Leigh Alexander’s “The Void,” as she struggled to search her own memory and navigate her information space. She and her partner, Rose, are surrounded by algorithmically constructed environments built on huge substrates of data, yet Hedy in particular struggles to find the knowledge that she needs. Similarly, she and Rose are surrounded by sophisticated technology and highly engineered environments but also a relationship and kitchen that are both crumbling. “Experience design”—here, the construction of virtual, ambient environments (and in other contexts, the broader design of products to make them in line with user behavior and culture)—can only go so far. It can’t fix the couple’s steadily leaking sink, or Hedy’s unemployment, or the growing tension between her and Rose. And it certainly can’t help Hedy’s search for a maybe-real-or-maybe-a-dream painting.

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Though “The Void” takes place in an unspecified future, these struggles with information scarcity in the face of information overload likely ring true for many readers. The “void” at the center of the story isn’t explicitly explained, but I took it to represent a feeling of existential overwhelm that comes from information overload. Who among us hasn’t felt creeping dread, “an antimatter of the heart,” in Alexander’s words, as we contemplate to navigating overly crowded, sometimes hostile, information spaces? Though Hedy’s experience of the void is tied to spam phone calls and unwanted notifications—which is certainly relatable!— it reminded me of the profound exhaustion of mundane-but-painful tasks like comparison-shopping the best travel dates for the absolute lowest airplane fares with the least painful flight schedule, of retracing my Google steps to refind a faintly remembered but lost article, or, most recently and viscerally, futilely researching what kind of mask is really most effective in protecting the wearer from COVID-19 and other pathogens. More information isn’t always a good thing, particularly when it’s an overload of unwanted (even predatory) (mis)information.

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Often, the challenges in navigating this mess are chalked up to a need for further information literacy: the ability to find needed information, to understand how information is produced, to tell reliable information from bad, and to use information to produce new knowledge. There is certainly an aspect of this in Hedy’s search. We might even interpret the void as her inability to navigate this information space, or her fear of being unable to navigate it. However, Hedy also struggles to find the right language to use to search various databases. She describes her painting as “a portrait, but abstract at the same time,” “huge,” “the most beautiful painting” and “divine joy … a forbidden, darkly textured canvas.” Contrast that with the language Rose coaches her into using in her search:

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Sistine Madonna.

Madonna Sixtina.

Dali Madonna.

Dali Sistine Madonna.

And eventually:

Ear Madonna.

The literacy needed here is less about evaluating information resources and more about knowing the specific language of academic shorthand and various search algorithms. I tried Google image searches of each of these terms, and only the latter two came up with the sought after “Ear Madonna” results within the first page. And definitely nothing close to the “Ear Madonna” comes up when searching “divine joy … a forbidden, darkly textured canvas.” I doubt I would have been able to find the right painting from Hedy’s description of the painting. This isn’t a dig against Hedy’s search vocabulary; rather, it’s a critique of the shortcomings of many databases (whether art museum image collections or Google image). These systems often rely on keywords curated to (or created by) a particular community and therefore will always be biased toward the people with the “right” vocabulary in searching them. Worse, these keywords can sometimes even be offensive, resulting in real and lasting harm to communities marginalized by the creators of our information systems.

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When Hedy finally does find the right image, she hits another roadblock familiar to the internet researcher: a paywall, preventing access to a resource without a subscription. These are an annoyance when browsing your preferred news source (side note: You should probably subscribe to your favorite news source; support local journalism) but absolutely paralyzing as a researcher browsing an academic catalog. Yet the vast majority of scholarly resources are locked behind paywalls. Academic libraries must pay for hefty subscriptions to publishing companies in order to access these collections of journals. Yes, publishing and providing access to research findings cost money and should be appropriately compensated. But many of these publishing houses (*cough* Elsevier *cough*) have been critiqued for their massive profit margins. The end result of this setup: Institutions that can’t afford these massive fees don’t have the same access and subscriptions as do large, well-resourced institutions. Some scholars can’t even access the papers that they themselves wrote and reviewed because their institutions don’t have subscriptions to the journals the final papers were published in. And of course, people without academic affiliations can’t access them at all.

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Recently, institutions and academics have been pushing against this fee-based structure, and moving toward more equitable “open access” modes of scholarly publishing. In an attempt to push for more equitable contracts, some universities—including top research institutions like UC–Berkeley—are rejecting the massive contracts charged by traditional publishing companies outright. Open access journals like PLOS have sought to reengineer the publishing economy by charging fees at the point of publication, rather at the point of access, so that anyone can read the results of scholarly research. And others, like those behind Unpaywall and Arxiv.org, seek to provide scholars and the general public alike with ways of accessing papers in a free and legal manner. (Those at Scihub are less concerned about the legality.) (I would never advocate for the breaking of copyright law, however.)

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Would Hedy have been more likely to find the “Ear Madonna” if she’d had an Unpaywall widget installed in her browser? Would she feel less paralyzed by the Void if she had more experience framing queries for art museum databases? I’m not so sure. The promise of open access to revolutionize this kind of independent research is largely unrealized. Though increasingly, nonacademics have used open research for their own medical advocacy or research, the vocabulary problem remains: The academic speech used to index data systems can act as a barrier for those who don’t know it. I’m encouraged, though, by some information professionals’ and memory institutions’ attempts to break that barrier through unconventional ways facilitating access to collections. What if Hedy had been able to order her search results by image complexity, as you can in the Cooper Hewitt’s digital collection? Or by color, as you can in Geoff Hinchcliffe’s Tate Explorer, which pairs a color wheel with a timeline of paintings from the Tate Modern? Or what if she’d had access to a version of the Send Me SFMOMA app, which sent users digitized images from the collection in response to word or emoji? Or what if the collection had been curated with subject headings with her and other nonacademic users in mind, as self-described “radical librarian” Sandy Berman has long advocated for?

These approaches to information search and retrieval center the nonacademic user’s experience of a data collection—and by doing so, make the void much less scary.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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