Reading notes: Information Diet by Clay Johnson

I just finished reading Clay Johnson’s book called The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. The author provides for a light and interesting read, somewhere between a personal account, a self-help book and a deeper analysis of information consumption. I highly recommend it to anyone working on information literacy.

My favorite quote comes at p.120: “Hummanity’s darkest moments are the ones in which masses of people had the worst information diets.”

Johnson uses a driving analogy between the food we eat (i.e. our diet) and the information we consume. He quickly dismisses the phrase “information overload” as misleading – as with obesity, we are responsible for the information we consume :

It’s not information overload, it’s information overconsumption that’s the problem. Information overload means somehow managing the intake of vast quantities of information in new and more efficient ways. Information overconsumption means we need to find new ways to be selective about our intake. It is very difficult, for example, to overconsume vegetables. (p.26)

The author then points out, in chapter 3 (“Big Info”) that the major corporations in charge of producing news have slowly but surely affirmed their strategy to “give people what they want: entertainment and affirmation” (p.31) rather than balanced facts. Entertainment is self-explanatory but affirmation means providing reinforcement for pre-existing beliefs – neither ofwhich qualify as balanced fact-based news.

Still in chapter 3, Johnson covers “content farms” who aim to (1) drive traffic to a site, (2) maximize ad-revenue, (3) on low turn-around time with (4) a modicum of editorial quality (p.35). This leads new model is possible because of a software system called BlogSmith which looks at search queries in real time and identifies breaking, seasonal or evergreen topics. “It’s journalism, commoditized.” (p.36) He also decries in 2008 there were 69300 news analysts versus 275000 public relations specialists, creating a system where the professionals responsible for our news suffer from their own kind of obesity that leads to churnalism (p.40) – the tendency to plagiarize press releases and calling it news.

Based on this prognosis, Johnson dives in the social psychology behind our unhealthy information consumption habits in his forth chapter. “[D]elusion comes from psychological phenomena like heuristics, conformation bias, and cognitive dissonance.” (p.45) A heuristic is a rule of thumb, confirmation bias is the tendency to overvalue information that confirms our point of view (all the while disregarding what attacks it) and we hate cognitive dissonance – according to Wikipedia – “discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously.” Johnson even links searching to a dopamine inducing process: “We’re information consumption machines that evolved in a world where information about survival was scarce.” (p.51)

Johnson’ 5th chapter covers the central theme of his book: information obesity. “Through trial and error, our media companies have figured out what we want, and are giving it to us. It turns out, the more they give it to us, the more we want it. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop. […] The result is a public that’s being torn apart, only comfortable hearing the reality that’s unique to their particular tribe. […] It’s a new kind of ignorance epidemic: information obesity.” (p.54)

“The new ignorance has three flavors – all of which lead us to information obesity: agnotology, epistemic closure and filter failure” (p.58) efering to Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University, Johnson defines agnotology “as the study of culturally induced doubt, particularly through the production of seemingly factual data. It’s a modern form of manufactured ignorance.” (p.58) Similarly, epistemic closure is, quoting Julian Sanchez of the CATO Institute,

“Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of had because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.”(p.59)

Johnson states “Epistemic closure is a tool that empowers agnotological ignorance. As certain information is produced, all other sources of information are dismissed as unreliable or worse, conspiratorial” (p.60). Finally, filter bubbles refers to Eli Pariser’s eponymous book (The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You) and emerge from “the network of personalization technology that figures out what you want and keeps feeding you that at the expense of what you don’t want.” (p.61)

The first part of Johnson’s book closes with the symptoms of information obesity (chapter 6): apnea (how notifications of new email of text messages on your cell phone change your vital signs); a poor sense of time; attention fatigue; loss of social breadth; distorted sense of reality and brand loyalty.

The second part of Johnson’s book covers his “information diet” – and has the definite (and slightly annoying) tone of a self-help book.

Johnson’s 7th chapter covers data literacy – which has “four main components – you need to know how to search, you need to know how to filter and process, you need to know how to produce, and you need to know how to synthesize” (p. 80) For searching, he points out the value of government information. For filtering, he quoted from a Knight commission report called Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.

Attention Fitness is the crux of Johnson’s 8th chapter. Willpower can be improved but only by measuring our current state and providing for an information consumption plan or budget. One must eliminate interruption technologies and focus on giving us some productive time while planning to spend time of social media a few minutes on the hour. This training can take time, increasing the amount of productive work in relation to distractive tasks – all the while keeping moments to pause or exercise.

Of course, having a strong sense of humor keeps us sane and allows us to consider all options – particularly the least probable or anticipated, as Johnson explains in his 9th chapter, quoting from Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, MIT Press.

Johnson’s 10th chapter provides details on how to consume and proposes an audacious (but tongue-in-cheek) scheme to provide “nutritional” labels in information products – very much as we have for food. In reality, one should consume consciously, that is by controlling our information intake and its source. Keeping a clean habit includes such important advice as to cut one’s subscription to cable television in order to purchase items à la carte. Keeping a journal is also a good idea – as it provides measurable feedback. Other bits of advice include consuming local (p.108), low-ad (p.111), diverse – mainly Khan Academy, TED Talks and Kickstarter (p.113-5) and balanced (p.115) sources.

Johnson’s conclusion (Part III – Social Obesity) attempts to depict the how his scheme might impact the political and social climate in the USA. Of interest in Chapter 11 (the participation Gap) is his take on transparency’s dark side:

“You can simply claim to be transparent, and create a halo of honesty about you, without actually being honest.
Two factors empower this dark side of transparency. […] The first is the deluge of information and facts disguised as entertainment. Even the most open and transparent systems must compete with buckets of information that are more interesting. The second is our poor information diets – that we choose information we want to hear over information that reveals the truth makes the competition all the more difficult.(p.132)

Johnson continues:

“[T]he thruth is that citizen-focused transparency initiatives have a miserable track record of fighting corruption. And citizens have a miserable track record of using those initiatives to make rational decisions about the people they elect.
Transparency isn’t a replacement for integrity and honesty; it’s an infrastructural tool that allows for those attributes to occur – but only if the public is willing [to] act upon the information that they recieve as a result of transparency in a conscious, deliberate way.” (p. 134)

and :

“The greatest political ideas have come from the constant search for synthesis and pragmatism, and the foundation of democracy is constant public participation. (p. 137)

Our information consumption habits thus shape the economics of information production – that is how we can shape the future of available information at the societal level.

Johnson closes with a letter to programmers and software developers – the “new” scribes that rule our information world, with a call to get involved in local and social issues with their skills – to fix real problems.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: My information diet « outfind.ca

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