Liminality and the Altruistic Infovore
This long-form piece in the Atlantic by Ed Yong, Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing, is excellent on a number of levels. I want to focus on just one that I found personally helpful: the context and motivation behind the way I have been reacting to the crisis.
First let’s stipulate that our condition in this pandemic is liminal: life is uncertain, ambiguous, not what it was before and not yet what it will become. This in-the-middleness will go on for a while. I have just been coming to grips with the likelihood that sheltering-at-home could last months not weeks. And the time to a vaccine? It could easily be 5 years, and it could be never. So, we live in liminality in what feels like an acute crisis, but is not; it is going to be with us for the medium term at the very least.
Here are two passages from Yong’s Atlantic article that bring us into the spirit of the thing. First up, an insight from Carl Bergstrom, epidemiologist and sociologist of science at the University of Washington:
Next is wisdom from Renée DiResta at Stanford and Kate Starbird at the University of Washington, who study how information flows online, especially during a crisis. (The emphasis is mine.)
For at least 25 years I have been an infovore: possessed of a powerful urge to collect and curate information and distribute it to people who I thought might make use of it. I began doing this in 1994 while working for a software company, starting what would evolve into a newsletter and blog on the subject of the internet.
So when the pandemic was suddenly upon us in March, my first inclination was to capture the experience in a blog, and also to share whatever authoritative information I came across that might be helpful to others. Some of that sharing happened here and some on Facebook, but the bulk if it went to a private email list I have maintained since the days of my internet newsletter.
Some of the members of that list have infovore tendencies to match my own.
Here are the counts of monthly email messages exchanged on the list in recent months:
2019-nov: 429 2019-dec: 412 2020-jan: 461 2020-feb: 499 2020-mar: 1294 2020-apr: 799
So I learn from the academics Ed Yong interviewed that my recent altruistic compulsive collecting and sharing of COVID-19 information springs from a quite normal reaction to a sudden but not acute crisis, amplified by my inherent and long-standing infovore tendencies. Good to know.
Perhaps I can relax a little now.
On a similar subject, The Correspondent has a piece titled Don’t forget: disasters and crises bring out the best in people.
Thank you as always for your notes on an examined life!
In my own liminal isolation I have found myself cleaning the kitchen several times a day (up from just once a day). “Doing something about issues I can control, where I see tangible effects.” Next plan: finish a few projects that are less Sisyphean than kitchen cleaning. And remembering to feel grateful for what I am learning from this.
Hi Jules, thanks as ever for being Faithful Reader. I too have a few larger projects I hope (with whatever degree of reason) to tackle. But I’m cognizant of The Onion’s cautionary note: Man Not Sure Why He Thought Most Psychologically Taxing Situation Of His Life Would Be The Thing To Make Him Productive.
This post really resonates with me!! (A fellow altruistic infovore?) I was holding off on commenting until I had time to read the whole article in the Atlantic, but work keeps getting in the way… so THANK YOU for this post.
That Onion article is GREAT. The line from the Atlantic article that I appreciated was this:
“In a pandemic, the strongest attractor of trust shouldn’t be confidence, but the recognition of one’s limits, the tendency to point at expertise beyond one’s own, and the willingness to work as part of a whole.”
For tonight I’ll end by celebrating the way this blog documents living as part of a whole (neighborhood, city, and more).
Huge trust in your intelligence & big heart. ❤
❤ Kathryn, did you make it home? Uneventful trip I hope?