Let’s be quite clear about this at the outset. Infopathology is a word that I just made up. It might exist already; if so, I am using it not in that sense but my own, so don’t get bent out of shape if I appear to be mutilating the English language. Really, I’m just lazy, and probably didn’t do enough research to come up with an actual usage.

What is it?

We’ve all done this. Those of us that identify strongly with an earlier time are frequent practitioners. Those of us who are fascinated by phenomenology are masters of the art. Infopathology is, in short, the profession or pastime of exploring the evolution of a particular piece of information. It can be directed, specific to the point of a single word, in which case you’re really talking about the subfield of etymology. It is most appropriate, however, to use the term to describe the act of pursuing the origins of a particular meme or informational phenomenon rather than a word or abstract.

My most recent dip into infopathology involved the watching, on a whim, of all six hours of a videotape that I’d made between 1985 and 1986 that contains nowt but MTV videos, whichever ones I happened to like and got to the ‘record’ button in time to grab. With the distance imposed on me by time, the distant origins of so many things could be seen swirling in the Age of Greed. Even clues as to the resurgence of the 1970s and (gulp) 1950s could be seen. The arc of greed to self-indulgence to backlash to group action to grunge to ecofreak to dotcom to New Economy to President Big Willie to the Shrub...it all, somehow, made more sense. I could see the trends that would produce the modern fascination with Everywhore, the pressures and patterns that indicated the widening split between the military and the polity; the raudive voices of political speeches given during the Bush/Gore campaign audible in the static and electronic chaos of that six-hour media timecapsule.

Tracing those patterns, or seeking them out in order to explain a current media trend or issue, felt to me just as a pathologist might in medicine. Can we explain the weakened heart by looking at older injuries, or older blood chemistries found in the bone structure? If we spread the patient’s history out before us in full, can the patterns and structure of the ailment be seen subtly infused across the files?

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash undertakes an experiment in infopathology. It lists, deconstructs, and obsessively extrapolates an enormous number of current oddities or trends or even completely normal habits of American culture, and from them produces a hyper-extended LA complete with supporting world for our consumption. The explanations of the evolution that the culture underwent in order to reach this point are not explained in full, but are described in broad brush strokes for the reader to explore.

Of course, that story is also about true, literal informational pathology. The Protagonists are attempting to discover the ‘infection vector’ of a virus affecting humans and computers alike; one of an informational nature rather than a biologic one. The history of this phenomenon, painstakingly constructed by Stephenson for our entertainment and cogitation, is the pathology of the world that he leaves us with.

Snow Crash couples infopathology with a closely related study: Epimemeology.

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