The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption Hardcover – 21 Jan 2012
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About the Author
Clay Johnson is best known as the founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama's online campaign for the presidency in 2008. After leaving Blue State, Johnson was the director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, where he built an army of 2000 developers and designers to build open source tools to give people greater access to government data. He was awarded the Google/O'Reilly Open Source Organizer of the year in 2009, was one of Federal Computer Week's Fed 100 in 2010.
The range of Johnson's experience with software development, politics, entrepreneurism, and working with non-profits gives him a unique perspective on media and culture. His life is dedicated to giving people greater access to the truth about what's going on in their communities, their cities, and their governments.
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Throughout the book the author draws some very interesting and meaningful analogies between the food industry and the data industry. I think the analogy works well.
Driven by a desire for more profits, and a desire to feed more people, manufacturers figured out how to make food really cheap; and the stuff that's the worst for us tends to be the cheapest to make. As a result, a healthy diet--knowing what to consume and what to avoid--has gone from being a luxury to mandatory for our longevity.
"Much as a poor diet gives us a variety of diseases, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance--ignorance that comes not from a lack of information, but from over-consumption of it, and sicknesses and delusions that don't affect the under-informed but the hyper-informed and the well educated."
Clay makes a passionate case for controlling our desires to consume anything and instead to make controlled choices about the information we digest. You can see how the analogy to food and diet works so well through the book.
"Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits."
Clay makes some very interesting points about it all being a personal choice. It is indeed a personal choice to consume information but it's not always so easy to change the habit.
"Blaming a medium or its creators for changing our minds and habits is like blaming food for making us fat."
"Though we constantly complain of it--of all the news, and emails, and status updates, and tweets, and the television shows that we feel compelled to watch--the truth is that information is not requiring you to consume it."
Clay talks about how we need to restrict our information to that which challenges our thinking, not re-enforces or gives us affirmation. He turns this slightly to also talk about how we are being dumbed down because we are reading what we want, rather than the truth. The networks, providers and social channels of information are in turn feeding this selectivity. Hence we are only being exposed to what we typically already agree with. This is leading to ignorance.
"Giving people what they want is far more profitable than giving them the facts."
Towards the middle of the book Clay talks a lot about the science behind our thinking and consumption of information looking at Heuristics and cognitive bias. These sections lose the more accessible nature of the rest of the book, but are crucial to giving the full insights.
In concluding the book Clay talks about attention and how best to consume information.
There's a political theme that rides through to the whole of the book which at times felt like it took over the main message (assuming the main message was about information). Clay mentions a lot of the work he did in politics and his view of political information. The end chapters of the book though feel more heavily politically tinged than the rest of the book and took me by surprise. It didn't feel like the book needed the political ending, but I guess maybe this was one of the purposed of the book - to get people to think about politics more critically.
The last chapters almost read like a call to arms to change politics (American politics) which didn't seem fitting with the rest of the book.
I was disappointed not to have more hints and tips on how to consume healthier diets of information but maybe that was not the intent of the author.
It's a good insight in to information, how we consume it, how it consumes us and what we can do to change. The political call to arms aside the book is an accessible and interesting read. You'll learn lots from reading this book and that to me is the sign of a good non-fiction book.
Clay Johnson tackles these issues by drawing the parallel with modern day (specifically American) food consumption and obesity. A novel insight from an information scientist? Or a useful attempt to simplify complex issues by describing them in a way we can all understand?
Clay achieves both, and more. In fact the early part of the book told me more that I expected to learn about modern agriculture and american attitudes to food. But he is in fact from a political background.The insights of this book stem from his experience in a world where information is regularly used to achieve an end, or in circumstances where more than one competing interpretation of the facts is common.
The political discussions in the book yield one or two barnstorming relevations:
did you know the term `intellectual' originated as an insult?
did you know the Murdoch businesses, and specifically Fox News, actually have a quantifiable formula that explains their superior profit from news compared to their rivals?
The psychological discussions in the book are a little more shaky, with emphasis on selected studies and theories of the `the shape of my brain reflects the words that I read' variety. perhaps selected because they provide the instant gratification sought by the foodie. But there again, Johnson is not primarily a psychologist nor an information scientist.
The final parts of the book recommend some favorite news sites ( always a topical risk in a book ) and some strategies for consuming information. One of which is to seek out not just the information you already know. Good advice. My tip to Johnson would be to seek out the writings of Claue Shannon from 1948 onwards, and look at the subsequent `Information Theory' science that emerged. It covers these issues of information and communication quality, entropy, predictability, and potential to surprise in a way that would nicely complement the angles of this book.
Love the open letter section, headed `Dear Programmer'.
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I was hoping the content would be more in the way of practical techniques and tools to analyze and improve my information consumption, however the book is light in this area.
I did come away with some practical learnings that I was able to apply, and I don't regret the read (its easy and fast), but I think my expectations were higher than what was actually delivered. Perhaps I got over-hyped reading about it in WIRED (that was what lead me to download it to my Kindle Fire).
I suggest just speaking to someone who read it -- you'll get a cliff-notes version that will give you the salient points without the cost or time spend.
Johnson's model of using information as being akin to a true diet is prescient. The comparisons between obesity in physical form and the problems we have socially making decisions is outlandish at first blush, but more insightful with every page you read. At times, the comparison gets so detailed that it gets a little overwhelming and sometimes sidetracks the narrative a bit. This is a small issue.
In the end, the book comes with some rather obvious recommendations that almost need to be said, but are likely difficult to follow. Like food, information is social and that is where many of the problems and solutions lie. This is a harder, more complicated area to cover in recommendations without getting into silly motherhood statements and wide, sweeping, unrealistic policy ideas. But nonetheless, this book will get you thinking about what you feed your eyes, ears and brain next time you go online, read a billboard, see a TV show or listen to the radio.
It's worth mentioning it is indeed a very long essay (as some complain), still, a very well written essay: the text flows effortlessly, the ideas have the necessary citations and the conclusions are very linear and clear.
After having read it, I have to say that I liked the book, and I found both Clay's argumentation and the data he used to back up his main thesis, quite interesting. However it was a bit unbearable for me to read about US politics. Perhaps this is because I don't enjoy politics much, and mostly by the fact I don't live in the US.
Nevertheless, the ideas behind all of this politic argumentation, are somewhat general, and can apply to my native country, where there exist also a kind of dichotomy of two parties (the most powerful ones), and in the same way it's possible to identify the tree flavors of ignorance that leads to information obesity: agnotology, epistemic closure, and filter failure, in the voters.
Summarizing, I enjoyed the book, and besides the politic dying of it, I would recommend its reading since it's full of interesting ideas, and it's a rather good work... I'll surely re-read it again (although just the second part of the book), since I'd like to review his view of data literacy, and other interesting thoughts.