In his new book The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (O'Reilly, January 18), Clay Johnson calls attention to how much time we spend consuming information and, drawing parallels to how we consume food, points to the dangers of overconsumption and the consumption of overly-processed information. He sat down with PW to talk about the passive gratification of affirmation, and how to design a new, healthier information diet.
PW: The book’s central goal seems to be providing solutions to the question of (from your introduction): “What if a person’s native or learned abilities to process information sensibly could be warped by feeding junk into the mental machine?” What, specifically, is this “junk” What are the different kinds of junk? What are the most dangerous kinds of junk?
CJ: It's important to think of "junk information" not in terms of right and wrong, but in terms of healthy and unhealthy. The same thing goes for information as it does for food. If you avoid the overly processed stuff. When you have to take in processed stuff, know where it comes from and what it's made out of. If you do this for food, it would be hard for you to be on an unhealthy diet. When you do this for information, it's hard for you to have a poor information diet.
You say in the book that we spend 11+ hours a day consuming information. What are the dangers of this?
The first danger is the most obvious one: we don't consume information on treadmills. We're usually sedentary when we're in front of a screen, piece of paper, or even listening to the radio. Being sedentary for long periods of time is deadly. Not just mildly deadly either: sitting for long periods of time is right up there with smoking as a leading cause of death. Do a google search for "Sedentary Death Syndrome" and you'll see what I mean: information overconsumption is about as bad for you as food overconsumption.
The other danger: who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed? Who wants to be told the truth when they can be told they're right? We seek out information that confirms our beliefs because we're wired to be that way. But what if you're just wrong on something? With so much choice in media, no matter what crazy thought is in your head, there's a minor media outlet waiting to confirm your belief: from the flat earth society, to the people who believed that God's rapture would end the world in May of 2011, to the people who believe the Mayans will end the world at the end of this year. Sometimes the more you consume, the less you know.
Finally, there's lost time. Over consumption of information is time that you could be spending doing something else that's more productive. If you're consuming very much, and producing very little, there's something wrong happening.
What are the ethical and social consequences of our information consumption?
Clicks have consequences. Everything that we do online is measured and tracked in huge data warehouses so that we can be shown content and advertisement that gets our attention. Our clicks are now votes that get fed back in to an organic ecosystem that informs editors what to write. So, while your boss might not see you clicking on that story about Kim Kardashian on the Huffington Post, your click may increase the probability that she may see it and read it herself. Same goes for your searches: every day the folks over at AOL troll Google's search data to figure out what they should be writing about, and they write nearly exclusively about what people are searching for. This means that every click, tap, and search has an ethical consequence. Your consumption of junk is a signal that other people like you might enjoy the same junk that you do.
Can you explain a little more about your idea of managing our information consumption like we manage our food consumption?
If it's the case that our information consumption has a physiological consequence for ourselves and an ethical impact on others, we must deliberately consume information in the same way we do food. Yet that's not how most of us consume information. Even the highly informed online knowledge worker finds themselves constantly bombarded by emails, tweets, and other notifications that make us *react* to information heading our way, rather than seeking the information that we need to stay healthy. If we compared it to food, what many of us have done for ourselves is get a fresh milkshake tap installed in our sink in the form of cable television, subscribed to a daily fried chicken delivery system in the form of our various blogs and social network activity, and carry around a bottomless pack of chocolate candy in our pockets in the form of our smartphones.
The thing is, there's nothing inherently wrong with the occasional milkshake, chicken wing, or chocolate. But we need to be deliberate about our consumption of those things and monitor our intake. The same goes for information: Change your relationship to your information intake: make the information that you're taking in something you deliberately seeking, not something that's constantly pushed at you.
How should we decide which information to consume and which information to avoid? How can we design our information diet?
Everybody's information diet is different. For most of us, changing your food diet is unlikely to get you fired or get you a promotion at work. Our information diets though must be different based on the jobs that we have and the lives that we live. An accountant in April is required to have a much different information diet than a college student in July. So there are no specific categorical recommendations in terms of time and quantity in the Information Diet. Rather, it's about setting up a healthy environment for you to consume information, and developing the skills that you need in order to make sense of it all.
I have a few recommendations that are universal to everyone though:
The first is to start local: both geographically local and socially local. Start really paying attention to what's going on in your neighborhood and in your city. There's a renaissance of local news happening. Anybody that lives in a town that Everyblock.com covers ought to be checking Everyblock on a daily basis: it's a website that uses data from your town to tell you what's going on on your block and in your neighborhood. Check out your small, local papers too -- they tend to give you a lot of information that impacts your daily life, rather than stuff you're unlikely to do anything about.
The second is to avoid highly processed stuff, and get to the source of what's happening. Read a bill in Congress alongside what the journalists and activists say about it, or check out the data on your favorite presidential candidate on a website like OpenSecrets.org rather than listening to the debates. You'll get closer to the truth of what's going on if you get closer to the source material.
The third is to take control of your computing environment. Spend some time installing browser extensions that block notifications and other online hassles. Your attention is your most valuable currency online -- if you do nothing to manage the bombardment of requests for your attention from companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, you're going to run out of that currency really quickly. I've collected a bunch of these tools for you to make it easy to set up your computing environment over at http://resources.informationdiet.com.