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.


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