Making Meaning in an Age of Data: A Conversation with Heather Houser

Infowhelm book cover

How should we make sense of all the information that’s coming at us from all sides? This is the question that Heather Houser’s new book Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in the Age of Data addresses by insisting on the importance of storytelling and other artistic interventions in making data meaningful. In this conversation, we discuss how the concept of “infowhelm” might help us think about contemporary events, such as the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, the role art plays in making meaning of environmental crises, and how we might anticipate what’s coming.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Min Hyoung Song: Your new book focuses on this really interesting concept that you coin called “infowhelm,” which refers to the ways that our knowledge of environmental problems, especially climate change, depends on an enormous amount of quantitative data. Your book explores how all this information needs stories and other artistic interventions to become meaningful. Writers and artists don’t just translate what scientists are discovering for a general public, but they engage in conversation with scientists and their findings to help to produce new meanings.

Man with glasses and a mask
Min Hyoung Song, Professor of English and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at Boston College.

But before we get to the book’s particulars, I want to start by thinking about current events. We’ve got the COVID-19 pandemic. We have mass Black Lives Matter protests happening. We also have enormous economic hardships for people, as well as a political system in the United States that seems to be struggling for its life. I’m assuming that as all these events have been unfolding you’ve been thinking about the argument you made in your book. If you were still revising this book, what would you want to change or add? Or is there something that you’ve written that you feel has been really helpful in thinking about what’s happening now?

Heather Houser: Thank you for that question. It is something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about. If I were currently revising the book now, I definitely would be talking about COVID-19 information. I think one of the things that’s really crucial—I’ve written a bit about this in a short piece for New York Review of Books Daily—is just how overwhelmed we are by COVID information. It’s unfortunately a really paradigmatic case for some of the things I was talking about in the book. The data around COVID is constantly changing and it’s contested by people in power, whether a governor or a president or a business owner. So the data is uncertain. And what it means for our political system, economic system, education, and basically all aspects of our lives—that itself is uncertain. The data doesn’t come to us unmediated. It’s coming to us mediated by people in power, mediated by scientific understanding and representation, mediated by our own emotions and stresses, mediated by the racial conditions in our country. And we have to respond to it on a daily basis, as individuals and also as a collective. I think those conditions are really the conditions of infowhelm.

In the book, I talk about infowhelm in the context of climate change and issues like extinction and biodiversity. COVID-19 would be important to include because it really is an unfortunately perfect case for thinking about all of the complexities around scientific data and how they enter our lives. It’s too soon for much art to have emerged around the COVID-19 data situation, aside from visualizations and short essays, but I’m sure we will see more, soon. And I think it’ll be fascinating to see how artists do some degree of translation or communication of the scientific context but also how they mediate that information to shape our understanding of what it means for individual lives in very different conditions.

And I would say there are lot of people right now—scholars and really everybody—thinking about how antiracism does and does not appear in our work, in our communities, and in our interactions with people. This is at the forefront of my mind as well. Infowhelm has a lot of thinking around anti-colonialism and how artists are transforming those colonial forms of thought and perception and representation. But I think if I were revising this book right now I would certainly be reflecting about how antiracism could be a more prominent part of the project in terms of the archive, in terms of adding even more thinkers of from Black Studies and Black feminist epistemology.

MS: In your first book Ecosickness, which is a fantastic book, you make it a point to emphasize early on that there is a need not to decouple responsibility and agency. I understand you meaning that it’s important to be able to name those who have directly contributed to environmental problems as responsible for the mess they’ve made—that you know when we talk about, let’s say, environmental crises, it’s important for us to be able to say it’s not caused by all of us but caused by certain individuals or certain institutions. I wonder if your idea of artistic mediation signals a continued commitment to this idea of thinking about human agency and responsibility together?

HH: With all environmental issues, but especially climate change, the question of responsibility is incredibly complex because there is a degree to which a lot of those people living in affluent countries have all contributed to carbon emissions, oceanic pollution and plastics, and all the planetary changes that are taking place. However, I think the question of responsibility on a large scale has to name names. I think it’s important not to say that no individual has any responsibility or agency. But it’s also important to acknowledge the disproportionate responsibilities and contributions certain corporations, institutions, countries (and communities within them) have made.

Heather Houser, Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Infowhelm.

Artistic mediation is central to this question because of those complexities of navigating scale— keeping some focus on the individual or the local while also encompassing broader perspectives, global perspectives, and uneven burdens and damages. When we walk through our lives it can be quite easy to focus just on what we see day-to-day. We read the newspaper—and this goes back to infowhelm—and it can be alienating or disturbing or it can be othering of the problem. Even when we take in those perspectives beyond our immediate ones, it can sometimes be hard to really take them in as something that we’re a part of. Literature, film, visual media of different kinds can really help navigate those gaps between ourselves and the rest of the world. I don’t think this is necessarily about empathy. I don’t know that empathy is always the mechanism at work. But I do think artistic mediation is crucial to drawing some of those bridges between scales and between individual experiences and collective experiences and burdens.

MS: What’s so interesting about the idea of infowhelm, if I am understanding it correctly, is that it’s not just a matter of information being dumped on us so that we feel overwhelmed. It’s also that the artistic mediation has a way of weaving through that data, speaking back, and creating kind of cogent narratives that help us to navigate the overwhelming amount of data. In that idea of artistic mediation, there is the potential for some kind of agency—our ability to make sense of the data, to make it useful and to make it manageable.

HH: Yes, it’s not just about a dump of data. A lot of the art I talk about—whether it’s a science fiction novel or a realist novel or a data visualization or even photography—is often reproducing the information overload. It’s not just “humanizing” the data—that’s a word you hear a lot in the scientific context—but it’s reproducing that experience of information overload in a way that might historicize it or might find a way to navigate emotionally or experientially or according to one’s identity position.

Data comes to us mediated by people in power, mediated by scientific representation, mediated by our own emotions, mediated by the racial conditions in our country

For example, in the section on aerial imaginaries and forms of art activism that use satellite and aerial imagery, one of the things that really interested me is artists like photographer Fazal Sheikh and visual artist Laura Kurgan. They are repurposing these technologies and the data that they produce as a way to think through the histories behind those technologies. They interrogate the histories of information and the sources for information. It’s not about just showing the problem. It’s thinking about what’s not seen—what the data cannot show us, how the technologies are imbricated in various histories of surveillance and colonialism.

Infowhelm is an impetus to really think through how we got to where we are. And I use I use “we” there, although I probably shouldn’t use “we.” A lot of artists are thinking about how dominant Euro-Western forms of thought and representation have gotten us to this position of relying on these technologies to really show us what’s wrong environmentally and how they have also helped produce the environmental problems and mindsets that that we’re living with today.

MS: I have been thinking of a satellite photograph that went viral—it’s a view of the White House and what is now Black Lives Matter Plaza from above. As people have pointed out, there are a lot of problems with what the mayor of D.C. did given her own budgetary priorities in favor of the police. But when I was looking at this photograph I kept thinking of that scene in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which you write about, where someone is rearranging the cars on a Connecticut highway so its message can only be viewed from above. Elsewhere you talk about how the aerial is connected to a history of imperialism. I wonder if you could talk more about this view from above? Is it a form of surveillance? Is it a way of knowing that can be liberating?

HH: My idea of “entangled epistemology” is about how traditions of thought and representation—including the aerial and the satellite—that are very much embedded in colonialist and Enlightenment and positivist traditions continue through into contexts of  resistance or critique, which include necessarily questions of embodiment, emotion, uncertainty, and speculation.

I think the aerial and the satellite is a really crucial domain for this entanglement because it has been lionized in certain facets of environmentalism, in the US at least, as offering a new perspective and allowing us to see ourselves as planetary beings. These satellite views and aerial views are held up as a way of seeing problems, forming connections, and creating a bigger community including other forms of being. And at the same time, there’s been a lot of environmental writing critiquing the association with surveillance and ideas of totality and completeness.

I see different uses of the aerial and satellite imagery from artists like Fazal Sheikh and Laura Kurgan, activists like SkyTruth, Colson Whitehead and other novelists I write about. They’re really interested in the ways that aerial and satellite are held up as these like eye-opening, life-altering images but yet are always linked to these traditions of domination and oppression. So how can you use them without reproducing that? Are you always reproducing those traditions of domination, colonialism, extraction when you use those techniques in your work? I think that that question of whether you’re always trafficking in these traditions of oppression when you deploy technologies or perspectives that are rooted in them is really at the heart of these artists’ work and what interested me about them.

MS: Let’s wrap up our conversation by returning to current affairs. Look into your crystal ball and tell us how you see the pandemic and Black Lives Matter affecting climate change activism.

HH: One thing I’m excited about and trying to help along in my own communities is a reckoning with—and trying to think through futures for—greater antiracist work in the climate change and climate justice sphere. A lot of people have been thinking about this for many years, but it hasn’t been integrated enough into climate planning, research, curricula. There also needs to be acknowledgement of how kinds of environmentalism get coded white, Black, or for people of color. I’ve had some cynicism of late, but I’m hoping that, moving forward, integrating with and learning from and taking action around Black Lives Matter will be really crucial. It’s happening, and I hope it continues to happen.

Infowhelm is not about just showing the problem. It’s thinking about what’s not seen—how the technologies are imbricated in various histories of surveillance and colonialism.

In the beginning of the pandemic, people were drawing connections between COVID-19 and climate change: how maybe this is a moment when we see how the so-called global community tackles a systemic, existential crisis, and how there could be something to learn from this very quick response. But we’re also seeing how differently people experience the harms of a crisis like climate change and a crisis like COVID-19. Even when we think a crisis is global, it harms some people more than others—the poor, Latinx communities here in Austin, Black folks around the United States. That is something to learn from. But whether it will then lead to change in how we think about and address climate change is uncertain. Especially within the current US administration, COVID-19 is being used as a shield behind which there are a lot of terrible environmental rollbacks and policies being put in place, not to mention that climate research is being halted and funding is being cut in a lot of spheres. My crystal ball is not necessarily clear or shiny at the moment.

MS: It was really something to take the time to read your book as all of this was unfolding around me. I keep asking questions about current events because your book really helped me to think critically and in new ways about what is happening now, what is happening in the arts, and with the environment. So thank you.

Featured image: Book cover of Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in the Age of Data (Columbia UP, 2020).

Min Hyoung Song is Professor of English and Director of the Asian American Studies Program at Boston College. He is author of The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American (Duke UP, 2013) and Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (Duke UP, 2005). He is currently co-editing (with Rajini Srikanth) a four-volume series entitled Asian American Literature in Transition for Cambridge University Press, and researching a new book project on race and ecology. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Heather Houser is an Associate Professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Her books include Infowhelm: Environmental Art & Literature in an Age of Data (Columbia UP, 2020) and Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia UP, 2014). She is a co-founder of Planet Texas 2050 and an associate editor at Contemporary Literature. Website. Twitter. Contact.