The Information Diet is a book about the conscious consumption of information.
While the book touches an important point – that we should be more conscious with our consumption of information – I was rather disappointed by its content. Somehow the author completely missed to apply to his very own book what he writes about and to make it "information diet"-friendly. Too often I had the feeling something was just added to the book to fill pages...
The things we know about food have a lot to teach us about how to have a healthy relationship with information. It turns out that foods that are bad for us have analogues in the world of information. In the world of agriculture, we now have factory farms churning out junk food; and in the world of media, we now have content farms churning out junk information. Consuming whole foods that come from the ground tends to be good for you, and consuming news from close to its source tends to inform you the most.
We know we're products of the food we eat. Why wouldn't we also be products of the information we consume?
You cannot simply flood the market with broccoli and hope that people stop eating french fries.
It's unlikely that we have a maximum capacity for knowledge.
What if we started managing our information consumption like we managed our food consumption?
There are certain kinds of information we're hard wired to love: affirmation is something we all enjoy receiving, and the confirmation of our beliefs helps us form stronger communities. The spread of fear and its companion, hate, are clearly survival instincts, but more benign acts like gossip also help us spread word about things that could be a danger to us.
Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they're right?
Poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance – ignorance that comes not from a lack of information, but from overconsumption of it, and sicknesses and delusions that don't affect the underinformed but the hyperinformed and the well educated.
Driven by a desire for more profits, and for wider audiences, our media companies look to produce information as cheaply as possible. As a result, they provide affirmation and sensationalism over balanced information. And in return, we need to start formulating an information diet – what to consume and what to avoid – in this new world of information abundance.
Information consumption is as active an experience as eating, and in order for us to live healthy lives, we must move our information consumption habits from the passive background of channel surfing into the foreground of conscious selection.
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.
Lessons from Obesity
For thousands of years, obesity was usually a disease affecting only the most affluent. Food – especially the delicious, calorie-dense stuff – was simply too expensive for the average person to obtain. Few could afford to be fat, and thus being so was often considered a way to display one's prosperity.
If you want to know why Americans are getting fat, ask a fat person. It's because for most of us, food – especially food that's bad for us – is delicious.
Information, Power, and Survival
Technical progress always comes with its critics. The greater the speed and power of this progress, the greater the criticism.
Blaming a medium or its creators for changing our minds and habits is like blaming food for making us fat. While it's certainly true that all new developments create the need for new warnings, conspiracy theories wrongly take free will and choice out of the equation.
Personalization isn't an evil algorithm telling us what our corporate overlords want us to hear; rather, it's a reflection of our own behavior.
The problem isn't the filter bubble, the problem is that people don't know that their actions have opaque consequences.
Information is not requiring you to consume it.
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.
We have to start taking responsibility ourselves for the information that we consume. That means taking a hard look at how our information is being supplied, how it affects us, and what we can do to reduce its negative effects and enhance its positive ones.
Giving people what they want is far more profitable than giving them the facts.
People like hearing their beliefs confirmed more than they like hearing the facts.
Media companies want to provide you with the most profitable information possible that will keep you tuned in, and the result is airwaves filled with fear and affirmation.
We Are What We Seek
Heuristics have a dark side: they cause us to have unconscious biases towards things we're familiar with, and choose to do the same thing we've always done rather than do something new that may be more efficient.
One such nefarious heuristic is called confirmation bias. It's the psychological hypothesis that once we begin to believe something, we unconsciously begin seeking out information to reinforce that belief, often in the absence of facts. In fact, our biases can grow to be so strong that facts to the contrary will actually strengthen our wrong beliefs.
Things like confirmation bias make us seek out information that we agree with. But it's also the case that once we're entrenched in a belief, the facts will not change our minds.
Every time we learn something, it results in a physiological change in the brain. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity.
Welcome to Information Obesity
Through the tests of 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's a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
When we tell ourselves, and listen to, only what we want to hear, we can end up so far from reality that we start making poor decisions.
The more informed someone is, the more hardened their beliefs become; whether they're correct is an entirely different matter.
The friends we choose and the places we go all give us a new kind of bubble within which to consume information.
The friends we select, and the communities in which we work, play, and love serve as filters for us. It's too high of a cognitive and ego burden to surround ourselves with people that we disagree with.
Personalization is just a mirror that reflects our behavior back to us, and while some might argue that the best way to make our reflections look better is to change the shape of the mirror, the fairest way to do it is to change what it's reflecting.
We build filters around us with every friend we make, and every time we click.
The Symptoms of Information Obesity
Information consumption makes you sedentary, and sometimes, it ruins your sense of time. Being sedentary is bad for your health.
The new world of abundant information is one filled with distraction.
Whenever we sit at our computers, we're tuning in to a new "ecosystem of interruption technologies".
Attention is something that requires cognitive energy, and it's something that we must build up. You don't help your attention span by giving in to the temptation of every distraction that comes across your eyeballs. As information becomes more and more tailored, it becomes harder and harder for us to resist pursuing it.
There is a finite number of people that we can possibly care about, and while that number varies from person to person, it doesn't come close to the numbers that sit by our names on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Our ability to manage news from friends in social networks, and to use it to enhance meaningful relationships, is limited. By succumbing to our biases and falling into homogeneous groups, we eliminate the social inputs that bring us news we disagree with. Strong bias for some non-conscious consumers means cutting off meaningful relationships with people we care about but may disagree with.
The overconsumption of specialized knowledge can make it so that the only thing you're capable of holding a conversation about is the thing that you've been so deeply into, and thus as your consumption of information around a particular subject becomes more homogenized, if you're not deliberate and careful, your social group too becomes a reflection of that homogenization.
The Information Diet
Biscuits in broccoli's clothing.
It's good to disconnect – everybody needs a good vacation. But unplugging, "Internet sabbaticals", "social media vacations", and "email bankruptcies" are all ways to avoid the real problem: our own bad habits.
An information diet is not about consuming less; it's about consuming right.
Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation.
The further away from the source – the more secondhand or thirdhand operators there are – the less truth there is.
All too often, we consume information at the top of the trophic pyramid of truth, and as such, we're getting only the information that has been selected for us by a network of operators interested not in telling us the truth, but in giving us what sells. We have to move towards the base of the pyramid if we want to see what's really going on.
As we wade through ever-rising seas of abundant information, a new skill is necessary to stay near the bottom of the pyramid: the ability to process, sort, and filter vast quantities of information, or data literacy.
The Internet is not only the best way to fill your mind with nonsense, it's also the best way to get source-level information.
Data literacy consists of four major 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.
Search literacy also means the ability to find the data you're looking for outside of a search engine, and to constantly be on the lookout for these repositories.
Search alone won't help if we're unable to find the most reliable and accurate sources of information, or we're unable to draw accurate conclusions from the data we've found. We also must be able to think critically about the information we've received, and use the best tools we can to process the information effectively.
We must judge good sources through filters such as: what is the intent of the author? Is it to inform you, or is it to make a point? How does the information make you feel? Is your intent in consuming this information to confirm your beliefs or find the truth? Are you capable of viewing the information objectively?
Data literacy also means the ability to communicate and exchange information with others. Knowing how to publish information and the ability to take feedback are both critical skills necessary for data literacy.
Content creation and publication are a critical part of literacy because they help us to understand better what we say, both through the internal reflection it takes to make our findings comprehensible to others, and through the public feedback we get from putting our content in front of others.
The last component of data literacy is synthesis. Once we retrieve information, filter it, and publish it, we must be able to synthesize the ideas and concepts of others back into our ideas.
If we are training our brains to shorten our attention spans and tune in to the cacophony of distractions around us, then we must certainly be able to train it to do the opposite, and strengthen it the other way around.
You want to move yourself from a reactive model of computing, where you're constantly being tugged and pulled in every direction and responding to every notification that comes across your screen, into a conscious model, where you're in complete control of what you're paying attention to.
Focus on building your attention span, but don't forget to give yourself some breaks. Just make sure they're set to certain limits. Spending all day focused entirely on your work is bound to be exhausting.
A Healthy Sense of Humor
Chances are, if we can't laugh at something, we can't think rationally about it.
The first way a sense of humor helps is that is makes the truth more palatable. It bypasses our gut reaction for fight and flight, and makes it comfortable to hear what's going on in a more digestible fashion.
We shouldn't conflate laughter with having a sense of humor. Laughing is important, sure, but being able to see the humor in all things – especially yourself – is even more important.
Much of what makes us laugh are things that are unexpected.
How to Consume
What is it that we should consume? What kinds of information go into a healthy information diet?
We have to focus on developing healthy habits for information consumption.
By allowing ourselves only a finite amount of time in which to consume information, we can consume more deliberately.
I recommend trying to slowly adjust to an information consumption time of no more than six hours per day. For some of us – the knowledge worker especially – this sounds impossible. But look at it this way: the professional's job is to produce, and if you're spending less than half of your work day on the production of information, you're likely not being as productive as you could be.
While it's important to stay abreast of national and world affairs, most of us give too much weight to information that's not actionable and relevant to our daily lives.
Instead of grazing on global and national news, and information about people you don't know and who don't care about you, shift your information consumption to local news and people who do care about you.
Like geographically local information, socially local information – information about the people closest to us – is actionable, relevant, and important to our connections with other human beings.
A healthy information diet contains as few advertisements as possible.
A healthy information diet means seeking out diversity, both in topic area and in perspective.
It's through having your ideas challenged (and through the synthesis, analysis, and reflection of those challenges) that your ideas get better.
It's also important to seek out diverse topics of information, as the synthesis of information from different fields helps us create better ideas. It also helps keep us from losing our social breadth – so we have more to talk about than the specialized knowledge of our particular fields.
There's nothing wrong with eating at the same place every day, but sometimes you need to branch out and see what else is out there.
Worry about consuming consciously, and making information – and our information providers – work for you, rather than the other way around. Form healthy habits, and the right balance will follow from it.
If we begin to demand an end to factory-farmed content, and instead demonstrate a willingness to pay for more content like investigative journalism and a strong, independent public press, we'll not only force the market to follow our lead, we'll build a better, stronger, and healthier democracy.
If we make a healthy information diet as normal and obvious as something like a healthy food diet, then those that aren't consuming healthily will begin to feel social pressure.
The Participation Gap
The participation gap is the gap between people and the mechanics of power in their governmental bodies. Its cause is our desire to focus on large, emotionally resonant issues over practical problems that can be solved, and the disconnect between what people want out of their government and what it can actually do.
The critical supply ingredient to a healthy information diet is transparency.
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 receive as a result of transparency in a conscious, deliberate way.
The developers build the lenses that the rest of us look through to get our information.