Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I often think of Peter Lyman's research when I hear the phrase "TMI" or "too much information" in response to someone's overly graphic description of embodied experience, as in the girlfriend who says "I really have to pee" or the colleague who describes noiselessly passing gas in some social situation or the fellow traveller who feels compelled to explain a dietary restriction more fully. The acronym describes a strange concatenation of the grossly physical with the analytically virtual. I was surprised recently to have to explain what the letters meant to my teenager and intrigued to see that he immediately found many uses for the term.

This week's obituary for Lyman in The Los Angeles Times only dealt with a small fraction of Lyman's research, which could be encapsulated in the sound bite "information overload." As one of his collaborators Mimi Ito pointed out in her own touching obituary, Lyman's seminal work on "How Much Information?" actually addressed a number of competing interests to be negotiated in the era of big data that entailed really coming to terms with the orders of magnitude involved in our contemporary digital culture of distributed networks and exponentially expanding storage. Ito also pointed out a necessary labor required by new practices of mourning among scholars of digital culture: updating the Wikipedia entry of the deceased for posterity.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lyman formally, although our paths may have crossed in the same Berkeley think tank on higher education. However, his work has been incredibly important for my own research on the rhetoric of the virtual state, particularly his essay "Information Superhighways, Virtual Communities, and Digital Libraries: Information Society Metaphors as Political Rhetoric," which I would strongly recommend as a solid overview of the recent history of public rhetoric about the Internet. It's a governmental rhetoric of public works that I argue has been sadly supplanted by our current legislative rhetoric about criminality associated with everyday digital activities, such as file-sharing, the use of social networking sites, and videogame play.

Update: This eulogy from danah boyd is also worthwhile reading.

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