Clay A. Johnson. The Information Diet. A Case for Conscious Consumption. O’Reilly,Sebastopol 2012
Using a very enlightening comparison with a food diet, Clay A. Johnson tries to convince his readers of the need for a healthy information diet. The book is divided into three parts. In the Introduction, the author explains how the present-day situation of information consumption arose. In the second and probably most interesting and useful section, The Information Diet, he proposes a series of positive habits for information consumption. The last section of the book, Social Obesity, is a call to action.
Part I: Introduction
The book is evidently shaped by the American mentality, apparent in the examples (mostly of American politics) and the perspective, which is very direct and perhaps even naïve in some cases. This vision emerges in the radicalism of the examples and the scaremongering surrounding dangers, especially with regard to health (e.g. obesity). The book would improve in quality and interest if examples from other fields and geographical locations were included. At the same time, it is generally an easy and enjoyable read. It suffices to quote a reference from the author about himself: “The most dangerous places in American is between me and a chicken wing”, (p.15).
The premise of the book is that we are all products of the information we consume, and excess consumption has serious and negative personal and social consequences. It is not enough to have good information; one must learn how to be selective in his/her own consumption.
A topic that permeates the entire book is the reminder and call to personal freedom and responsibility. The responsibility of healthy consumption lies on the person.The author dismisses conspiracy theories about the media that, in his opinion, are moved only by economic interests. He claims that it is the will of the individual- of the public and of the audience- that ultimately determines the decisions of information producers. In this sense, he recognizes that one of the main problems associated with new communication technologies is the personalization of information, with the ensuing impoverishment of the consumer. However he sees this possibility as a new opportunity to reflect upon one’s information intake habits.
On many occasions, he offers practical advice, most of which is common sense. For example, regarding the amount of informative inputs we receive (email, text, computer notifications…), the author reminds readers that they are not obliged to consume all of them. The problem is not in the information overload, rather in the information overconsumption. A great analogy is made using tobacco: we don’t die of an overdose of cigarettes, unless a truckload falls on top of us; we die from smoking them in excess.
Johnson, who comes from a background in liberal political activism, makes an interesting effort to draw a balance and shows himself as critical towards political information, and in general, towards the consumption of information that seeks only to reaffirm one’s own convictions. Among the main problems, states the author, is the “information obesity”, largely due to various mechanisms such as: “agnotology”- dissemination of doubt through the production of incorrect data that appears accurate-, “epistemic closure”- rejection of ideas that conflict with one’s own ideas-, and “filter failure”- exclusive consumption of information filtered by our social circles.
The author offers many practical tips, such as the need to not waste exaggerated amounts of time on email and rather dedicate that time to the others. Without downplaying the importance of these tips, many respond to common sense and the personal maturity of the average profession. As such, perhaps too many pages were dedicated to this kind of advice. An interesting reference, however, comes from the Canadian writer and blogger Cory Doctorow, who defines the world today, full of distractions (email, Facebook, Twitter, phone calls, sms, etc.), as an "ecosystem of interruption technologies" (p.68).
Part II: The Information Diet
In the second section, Johnson discusses how to acquire habits for a healthy information diet, reminding readers that a diet is not a fast (to not eat or to eat less), rather a change in consumer habits (eating right). The author uses the example of the vegan, a radical type of vegetarian, as a comparison used to propose a style of information consumption that he calls “infovegan”. Just as the vegan takes the choice to eliminate all foods related to animals from their diet, the infovegan does so analogously as “a moral decision” (p.77). This diet demands a conscious and planned intake, with specific skills, particularly “data literacy”. It is in this chapter entitled Data Literacy where, in our opinion, the most innovative and interesting ideas in the book emerge. According to the author, “data literacy” in the field of information implies knowledge of four elements: seeking it, filtering and processing it, producing and synthesizing it. Johnson’s proposals in the first two elements are quite simple (using Google well, considering the aim of the information programmers, or our rectitude of intention in consuming). The last two elements are however, quite profound. For example, he affirms that the creation of content (text, audio, video etc.) is a process that helps us reflect upon our own ideas and better understand what we want to say and how to say it better. He adds that the filter which produces feedback is a tool to improve our own ideas.
Despite some rather banal proposals in training one's will (such as measuring our attention and productivity using software, eliminating electronic distractions such as pop-ups or sounds…), the author insists on the need to be pragmatic and propose reasonable goals that are suitable to one’s own objectives.
No less valuable is his invitation to a healthy sense of humor. Its absence can be indicative of an excessive attachment to information and one’s own convictions. For Johnson, a sense of humor is not only laughter, but the capacity to see the comical in everything, especially in ourselves. In the end, he once again shows that it is not a question of method, instruments, or schedules; a good information diet is a question of the person’s attitude, hierarchy of values, order, and will.
Johnson proposes a set of criteria for developing healthy habits for information consumption. The first element is the measurement of the quantity of information that we consume, based on the fact that the average information consumption surpasses 11 hours daily. Given this data, Johnson makes a very rational proposal: we must avoid consuming more than 6 hour a day since, if our objective is to produce and we are spending over half of our day consuming (and less than half producing) information, we are not being as effective as we should be.
As an alternative to lower time consumption, the author suggests dedicating this time to producing, in a way that each one sees fit. “The production of info sharpens the mind and clarifies your thought”, (p.107) also increasing your social time (with friends and family…), your time for reflection, etc.
Another recommended approach is a reduced intake of international or national news (that would be irrelevant to daily life) and an increased intake of local news; another is to reducing intake of publicity. A more noteworthy proposal is to consume contents with topics and perspectives that vary from our own convictions. Only when our ideas are challenged, and through reflection of those challenges, do our ideas improve. The author ends his proposal for an information diet by returning to a general rule for food -proposed by Michael Pollan- that is simple and flexible: “Eat. Not too much. Mostly plants”, (p.116).
Part III: Social Obesity
The final part of this book is a call to action. The intake of information has a very important social dimension for which the author considers necessary to first change the economy of production. He proposes that in order to do so, the consumer must demand quality information. His conviction (perhaps a bit naïve) is that the market will respond to the demands and not the other way around. Among various solutions, he selects tree: increase the digital literacy of our communities, promote consumption of local news, and economically sustain good providers of information while boycotting media that offer low quality information.
To explain the call to action or “conspiracy”, the author points to the problems in participation in the current democratic societies. In his opinion, the problem of scalability of current democracies (in which political representatives cannot interact with those whom they represent) should cultivate a more active participation in public life among their citizens (not only during elections). In this sense, he takes up the slogan of democratic candidate Howard Dean from early 2003, “You have the power”. He adds that citizens do not need to trust only in the government to solve their problems.
Despite much talk about the moral question, attitude, will power, a quite pragmatic and even a bit mechanistic vision comes forth in the epilogue. In Johnson’s opinion, the real power in the world today lies in the hands of the information programmers. They are the ones who fabricate the lens through which we receive information. He thus invites programmers to take their role in society seriously. The rather mechanical and technical vision leads to the belief that for those who are not engineers, the most vital training after basic literacy is digital literacy and STEM Education: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. He concludes, “those skills, combined with the ability to communicate, give us the greatest ability to see the truth” (p.145). It is not necessary to say that we do not share this vision as it fails to explain what happens when programmers do not have positive ideas (or ideas at all) in mind.