The Information Diet

A Case for Conscious Consumption

by Clay A. Johnson

Hardcover, 160 pages, O'Reilly Media , List Price: $22.99 | purchase

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Title
The Information Diet
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A Case for Conscious Consumption
Author
Clay A. Johnson

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Excerpt: The Information Diet

1: Introduction

"When you're young, you look at television and think, There's a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that's not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That's a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It's the truth."

— Steve Jobs[i]

When I saw the cardboard sign — which displayed what had to be the craziest seven words I'd seen in a long time — I knew I had to quit my job.

I was working for the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency operation in Washington, DC. The premise of the organization was simple: if we give people access to government data, they will demand better, they will vote differently, and the quality of politicians getting elected will improve. But these seven words, held above the head of what looked to be a 40-something-year-old male in front of the White House, broke my heart and made me realize how futile that mission was by itself.

The sign said: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd spent the past 10 years in Washington, DC, trying to make a difference. Lots of folks said that my call to politics was like a monk's call to the priesthood: that I was meant for it. It started in 2000, when I did get a call, but it wasn't from God or even from Washington, DC — it was from my mother.

She told me the doctors had found a lump in her breast, and that the diagnosis was breast cancer. Because my father had retired, but my mother was ineligible for Medicare and was independently insured, her monthly insurance premiums were going to go from 300 dollars a month to 3,000 dollars a month. My father would have to come out of retirement and go work as a psychiatrist for the state of Georgia so that my mother could undergo therapy and have affordable access to healthcare.

I, the bright-eyed twenty-something, thought I'd do something about it, and a couple years and a war in Iraq later, I found myself driving up to Burlington, VT to go work for Governor Howard Dean. I'd never voted before, but Dean was a medical doctor, and had made reasonable moves on healthcare in his home state. He was the only person running for president who, at the time, seemed like he could get my mother's health insurance premiums down, and make it so my dad could retire again.

That started my career in politics. After the Dean Campaign ended, I was still convinced that electing Democrats would help get my mom's health insurance premium down, so I went on to found a company called Blue State Digital with three of my friends from the Dean Campaign. Our plan was to take the lessons and technology we'd learned and turn them into a business that helped the Democrats raise money and win votes over the Internet. My naive belief at the time was that if we could simply elect more Democrats to Congress and to the White House, my mom's health insurance problem would get fixed.

The story is almost a cliché from there. The company was very successful. I was making far more money than I'd ever made before. But it became obvious (about four years later) that I wasn't solving the problem that I'd set out to solve. After electing a majority of Democrats to the house in 2006 and still seeing no movement on healthcare, I decided that electing Democrats to fix the problem wasn't doing a whole lot of good. There must have been some other impediment I needed to address.

Lobbyists! Of course, it was the lobbyists — those dark evil characters in the backs of high-end, smoke-filled cigar bars in Washington, bribing our members of Congress to vote against the will of the American people. Surely it was them.

I left the company after watching Barack Obama, soon to become the nation's best-known client of Blue State Digital, win the Iowa Caucuses in the winter of 2008. My new job at the Sunlight Foundation was directing a new squad of technologists. Our mission was to liberate and analyze government data, and to make it easier for people to make more informed decisions about elections. If we could show America with hard facts that their Congress was being bought off, surely that would spur them to action.

After two years on the job at Sunlight — a full eight years since my mom was diagnosed and two radical mastectomies later — I watched the newly-elected President Barack Obama bring up healthcare. It should have been a great moment, the realization of my hopes for nearly a decade. Instead I watched the nation go into a bitter and angry debate about the role of our government. Ironically, this was about the same time that my mom became eligible for Medicare.

The news media was saturated with every kind of graph and chart about our healthcare costs, wait times, the efficiency of government, how Canada does it, how old people handle healthcare, and what kinds of medicines would and would not be available to Americans should we pass some form of healthcare overhaul. At Sunlight, we did our best to stick to the facts. We built "Sunlight Live," which allowed people to watch the healthcare debates online; next to each member of Congress when they spoke appeared the amount of money they had received from the healthcare industry.

During that long, bitter, and angry debate, I took a stroll down to the White House. And that's when I saw that sign, those jarring seven words, held high:

"Keep Your Government Hands Off my Medicare."

It's amazing how the little things can give you perspective. But then I spoke to him about the sign. He seemed rather well educated — sure, he was angry, but he was not dumb, just concerned about the amount of money being spent by the current administration. He talked to me about topics that I, as a professional in Washington for 10 years, hadn't really thought about since my political science classes in college. This man did not suffer from a lack of information. Yet he had failed to consider the irony of holding a sign above his head asking government to keep its hands off a government-run program. To him, it made perfect sense.

Then something else happened. I live near Walter Reed Hospital, a hospital that treats injured veterans. On my jogs around my block, Marines — likely injured from our military operations — often breeze by me with one leg and one prosthetic. Although it certainly wounds my self-esteem as a runner, it's a miracle. Yet at the front of the gates to the hospital on Georgia Avenue one evening, I spotted another sign: "Enlist Here To Die for Halliburton."

I imagined that sign-maker, Haliburton Woman, to be the polar opposite of the Medicare Man: educated, a consumer of news, and intelligently conversant about current events. But equally wrong. I mean, even on the surface: nobody enlists for the United States Army at the Army hospital.

How could is be possible that educated, intelligent people have somehow become capable of believing in a distorted reality? At that moment, an idea popped into my head. What if a person's native or learned abilities to process information sensibly could be warped by feeding junk into the mental machine? As we say in technology: garbage in, garbage out.

We know we're products of the food we eat. Why wouldn't we also be products of the information we consume?

In the case of the activists — one against Obama's healthcare plan, the other against our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — these people certainly seemed informed. But it's as though they caught some kind of disease that made it so they couldn't think clearly.

If unhealthy information consumption creates bad information habits the way unhealthy eating creates food addictions, then what good is transparency? So I left the Sunlight Foundation. It wasn't the universal answer I was looking for. You cannot simply flood the market with broccoli and hope that people stop eating french fries. If large numbers of people only seek out information that confirms their beliefs, then flooding the market with data from and about the government will really not work as well as the theorists predict; the data ends up being twisting by the left- and right-wing noise machines, and turned into more fodder to keep American spinning.

Today, you're likely to spend upwards of 11 hours consuming information — reading books like this, checking out your friends' Facebook pages, reading the newspaper, watching television, listening to the radio or your portable music player. For many of us who work in front of a computer all day, it's even more: we spend all day reading and writing in front of a screen.

The sheer amount of information available to us is unhinged. According to storage company EMC, there is presently 800,000 petabytes (each petabyte representing a million gigabytes) in the storage universe, and according to the University of California in San Diego, American homes consume nearly 3.6 zettabytes of information per day. It's expected to grow, too: EMC expects a 44-fold increase in data storage by 2020.

So we've come up with this term to deal with it: information overload. (If you search for "information overload" on Amazon.com, you'll get 9,093 results — roughly eight and a half times more than the number of results that a search for "irony" returns.)

For a new professional class, achieving "inbox zero" (dealing with every email inside of your inbox) is akin to running a 10k or getting a promotion at work. We've also developed a near bogey-man type mythology around our information abundance. In 2011, Nicholas Carr was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Shallows: How the Internet is Rewiring Our Brains (W.W. Norton).

Using Google's n-gram viewer — a service Google provides that allows you to count how many times a phrase appears in its giant corpus of books over 150 years — you can see that the term became popular just after 1960, and surged 50% by 1980 and 2000.

The concept of information overload doesn't work, however, because, as much as we'd like to equate our brains with iPods or hard drives, human beings are biological creatures, not mechanical ones. Our brains are as finite in capacity as our waistlines. While people may eat themselves into a heart attack, they don't actually die of over-consumption: we don't see many people taking their last bite at a fried chicken restaurant, overstepping their maximum capacity, and exploding. Nobody has a maximum amount of storage for fat, and it's unlikely we have a maximum capacity for knowledge.

Yet we seem to want to solve the problem mechanically. Turn it the other way around and you see how absurd it is — trying to deal with our relationship with information as though we, ourselves, are digital would be like trying to upgrade your computer by sitting it in fertilizer. We're looking at the problem through the wrong lens.

Instead of the lens of efficiency and productivity, maybe we should start looking at this through the lens we use to view everything else we biologically consume: health.

What if we started managing our information consumption like we managed our food consumption? The world of food consumption and the world of information consumption aren't that far apart: both the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience show us that information can have physiological affects on our bodies, as well as fairly severe and uncontrollable consequences on our decision-making capability.

When viewed through this lens, the information abundance problem appears more dire. Coping with the problem isn't a matter of getting things done anymore; it's a matter of health and survival. Information and power are inherently related, and our ability to process, interpret, and spread information in such complex forms. Our ability to process and communicate information is as much an evolutionary advantage as our opposable thumbs.

There are kinds of food we're hard wired to love: salt, sugars, and fats, over the course of the history of our species, have helped us get through some long winters, and plow through some extreme migrations. There are also certain kinds of information we're hard wired to love: affirmation is something we all enjoy receiving, and the confirmation of our beliefs help 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 the word about things that could be a danger to us.

In the world of food, we've seen massive efficiencies leveraged by massive corporations that have driven the cost of a calorie down so low that now obesity is more of a threat than famine is. Those same kinds of efficiencies are now transforming our information supply: we've learned how to produce and distribute information in a nearly free manner.

The parallels between what's happened to our food and what's happened to our information are striking. 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.

Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar — the stuff that people crave — media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they're right!

Because of the inherent social nature of information, the consequences of these new efficiencies are far more dramatic than even the consequence of physical obesity. Our information habits go beyond affecting the individual. They have serious social consequences.

Like 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.

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. As a result, we need to start formulating an information diet — what to consume and what to avoid — in this new world of information abundance.

The first step is realizing that there is a choice involved. As much as our television, radios, and movie theaters would have us believe otherwise, information consumption is as active an experience as eating is, 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 first part of this book is intended to give you a good idea of how we got to where we are — to explore the economics of information, and the biological consequences of our information consumption.

The second part of the book is an attempt to design an information diet — describing the healthy habits of a good information consumer, and providing pointers on how to consume that information.

The third part of this book is a call to action: if our information consumption has social consequence, then it's not only about ourselves, but also about ethics. Just like the food we eat has an ethical consequence to it, so do the choices we make around information. In order to create better access to information, better quality sources, and healthier lifestyles, suppliers must change and suppliers will only change with proven demand. If things are to truly change, then we've got to break the insidious cycle that we ordinary people create with our demand and media companies create with more supply.

This book also is the outcome of my experience as a political operative and transparency advocate in Washington, DC. It discusses politics, and while I do draw from my experiences as a consultant to democratic campaigns and causes, I attempt to be even-handed with my discussion. My goal is not to convince you to be a liberal, or a conservative, but rather to close the gap between you and your government by giving you some insight about what is really going on in Washington.

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. The result I wish for you, dear reader, is just what you'd expect from any kind of balanced diet: a healthier and happier lifestyle.

The more I researched the parallels between how our food consumption and our information consumption, the more strongly I believed that this isn't just a fancy metaphor. It's real. Conscious consumption of information is possible. We can (and some already do) pay as much attention to the information we put into our heads as we do to the food we put into our bodies. And like a healthy food diet, a healthy information diet has health consequences that not only can reduce stress but also may help us live longer, happier lives.


[i] Steve Jobs

Excerpted from The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson. Copyright 2011 O'Reilly Media, Inc. All right reserved.