In the autumn of 2015, a record-breaking number of students attended the course on useless information, organised by the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. The idea behind the course has since become a radio show, a trademark and a yearbook.
What motivates the interest and demand for useless information?
“We got the idea for the course from a conversation we had at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies,” explain linguist Janne Saarikivi and sound artist Taina Riikonen.
They planned the programme together, and all invited lecturers wanted to come.
“Actually, as the course was ongoing, we received offers from lecturers around Finland, and requests to bring the event to other cities,” Riikonen and Saarikivi reminisce.
“People understand that we should do the kinds of things we are genuinely interested in, as opposed to things someone else says are necessary,” Saarikivi continues.
“These days students are stressed about having to get through their studies as quickly as possible. There’s a palpable need for room to study and explore,” Riikonen states.
In broader terms, Saarikivi says this reflects a change in the University’s understanding of itself.
“Students used to be encouraged to study as freely and broadly as possible. Now a technocratic rhetoric has replaced the former focus on broad-based learning. The tension between the two sparked our interest in useless information.”
Is research useful or useless?
Riikonen and Saarikivi are concerned about the fact that the University is increasingly basing the evaluation of its research on whether it generates economic growth.
The government is strongly encouraging this, but Saarikivi feels this way of thinking is untenable.
“Research must be founded on interrogating concepts, not taking them for granted as obvious and unquestioned goals.”
A key question is whether the successes of science and art are even measurable using a scale based on financial returns.
“People have even started talking about art in terms of enhancing productivity through experiences of wellness. I’m looking forward to when we start talking about religion in the same way. For example, will we decide whether to fund churches based on how much they contribute to economic growth?” Saarikivi asks.
Long live learning!
Do Riikonen and Saarikivi consider themselves dissidents or defenders of academia?
“We believe the University should rebel against the unreasonable budget cuts. Taking to the barricades may also mean that researchers continue to work on their thinking and writing.”
“Radical practice for ‘useless information’ means that people spend their time taxonomically classifying butterflies, studying Sanskrit verb morphology or Bronze-age bone flutes.”
Useless information has even been trademarked. Riikonen and Saarikivi have registered a trademark for useless information, valid until 2026. In addition, a dedicated database, dubbed “Turta”, is being developed for useless academic knowledge and skills.
“We’re also planning a conference for useless information and work, and to publish a useless information annual. However, our yearbook would not be published yearly, we’d make one whenever we would have enough material. We’re planning on featuring pages edited out of actual research publications for the first issue,” Saarikivi explains.
The activities are organised by the Association of Useless Information, which was established as part of a project for crowdsourcing and digitalising useless information, funded by the Kone Foundation.
Riikonen and Saarikivi are turning useless information into products to carnivalise the process, and to express their concern over academic ideals being pushed aside by efficiency, agility, innovativeness and a focus on economic productiveness:
“We will not sit by silently and watch this happen. We want to reinstate the old academic virtues of learning, culture and truth.”