The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption

Information - you're doing it wrong.

Clay Johnson's book is about the information you take in, and the effects it has on you and society. Using the analogy of food and nutrition, he argues that the data we are consuming is the equivalent of processed food, full of fats, salt, sugar, and all other sorts of nasties.

His ire falls on the multitude of websites pushing bite-sized snippets of junk out into the world, the headlines that enrage more than enlighten, the link-bait trash that we seem powerless not to look at. But more than that, he points the finger at mainstream meadia such as Fox News and MSNBC, and, of course, at politicians of all stripes.

US-centric though the book is, it's hard to argue with many of the problems Johnson highlights in the first section. The content farm 'news' sites that dominate the biggest online media players are, indeed, pretty dire. Fox News and MSNBC realising that it was more profitable to hire big name pundits who affirm their viewer's opinions than to hire journalists to find real news was a genuine blow for public debate. The politicians that create their own world for themselves and their supporters create tribes that see everyone else as the heathen to be crushed. The urgency of email, Twitter and Facebook changes has damaged our ability to concentrate, and avoid the lure of the new.

But identifying the problems is the easy bit - if nothing else, people have been bemoaning the way news, both online and offline, has been going for years. The difficult part is figuring out what any of us can do about it.

When it comes to your own consumption, the book has some good tips. They range from cutting down your total information consumption, building the ability to concentrate, and making sure you don't get lost in the rabbithole of email or social media. However, they're not particularly new. If you're fed up with what's on tv, then cancel your cable. If you're fed up with what passes as news online, then stop reading it. Use a clock to make sure you don't spend forever on your email. Simple advice, but hardly revolutionary.

Beyond that, there are some ideas about improving the quality of what you consume after you have reduced the quantity. Johnson talks about going direct to source data, focusing on local information, and paying to access low-ad sites. He also suggests deliberately seeking out information and viewpoints that differ from your own, to avoid falling into a closed loop, and to have something to check your biases against.

I have some issues with this area. Sometimes source data obscures more than enlightens, and local facts can be meaningless without knowing historical or wider context. Johnson has an aversion to people getting in the way of you and the source, but sometimes an interpreter in the way is a good thing. Yes, an economics expert (for example) will have his or her own bias, but they also bring a much greater depth of knowledge and experience to bear on data. Their insights can be much more valuable than just a set of figures.

(Johnson mentions the trophic pyramid here, regarding the energy flow through a food chain, noting that only 10% of available energy is taken up on each step. Absolutely true, but to stress the analogy to breaking point, it also tends to have a higher energy density as you go up the chain. That's why antelopes spend all day eating, while lions can laze in the sun. I don't want to spend all day scouring data, so someone to distill it down for me can be very useful.)

An interesting section here concerns the act of producing information, rather than consuming it. I like this idea very much, as you can probably tell from the fact I'm, um, writing.

But when Johnson moves on to trying to have an effect outside of yourself, he seems on much less certain territory. The book ends on a forlorn call to try to encourage others to take up this information diet too, to try to break them out of a closed loop. This seems an unlikely outcome. To have a real effect, the very people who are happiest in their closed loop are the ones who would need to deliberately choose to take in opposing information - something which Johnson himself looks at earlier in the book, citing a study which suggests opposing information doesn't change someone's opinion, it simply reinforces it.

Moreover, Johnson's view seems both utopian and defeatist, a remarkable achievement. On the one hand, he suggests that by spreading this new information diet, the divisive nature of current US politics can be curtailed, as pragmatism increases. On the other, he advocates ignoring the big issues dominating politics (as your efforts will be crowded out by the 'information obese') and concentrating only on small, practical changes - a retreat to technocracy.

The problem with this is that technocrats don't change the world, they just make it a bit more efficient. Yes, as Johnson argues, there seems to be a scalability problem with US political representation (though as a foreigner, I can't really say) but making it easier to contact your representatives won't help them with the volume of data they need to consider.

And, ultimately, the technical details aren't as important as the issues Johnson suggests ceding to the zealots. Efficiency and technical matters will improve, simply as the expectations of the politicians change - and this will mainly be because of the tools they are used to using (which explains why this seems a terribly slow process to everyone under 50 - we're the whippersnappers).

But the big issues, the ones that come down to two sides yelling at each other, remain important. To use health care as an example, finding a more efficient way to deliver the computer system that manages insurance isn't going to solve that argument, which boils down to what it is right for a country to provide for its citizens. Regulatory issues won't be solved by finding a better way to monitor financial institutions, if one side doesn't agree with regulations in the first place.

Yes, arguments like this are messy, and can get dirty and vindictive, with misinformation or misunderstanding thrown around by all sides - but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be had, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't take part in them. To give in, walk away, and fiddle round the edges just means your views won't be heard at all.

Johnson gives an example of his own closed loop, following his time campaigning for Dean. He got into an argument with his uncle, a Fox News devotee, at Thanksgiving dinner, because both sides thought if only the other person had the 'right' facts, they'd change their view. Naturally, it devolved into a shouting match, and Johnson cites it as a time he realised providing the "facts" doesn't work, because people will have their own set of "facts", and see them through their own lens.

Unfortunately, his view seems to only have moved to the idea that if you provide the "facts" for longer, people will become pragmatic, fairer, and more willing to compromise. People don't work like that. Opinions can be held for rational or irrational reasons, and resist change. Ideas can be poorly explained. Your life experience, regardless of the information you now take in, can shape your views to the point they will not change.

People disagree, and they always will. The only thing we agree on is that voting on it is the best way to decide what we do - and that's why we have politics. It's no place for a gentleman, but it's the best system we have. That's why we all need to stay involved in it.

The Information Diet does well in identifying the problems we all sometimes feel with being overwhelmed with information, and getting lost down the various timesinks we all have. As a self-help book, aimed at improving your own consumption, it works well. But as an idea for changing the world, it falls flat.

Score: 5/10

Trev Roberts


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