SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Obesity is - forgive the expression - a huge problem in America. Not just obesity that leads to clogged arteries, straining hearts, split pants and fat-inflicted diseases, but an obesity of information that clogs our eyes and our inboxes; a lot of unhealthy information that's deep-fried in our own pre-conceptions. Clay Johnson, an open-source, Internet activist, and founder of Blue State Digital, which provided the online strategy for the 2008 Obama campaign, has a new, non-partisan book which recommends some ways to slim and stretch our minds: "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." Clay Johnson joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
CLAY JOHNSON: It's great to be here.
SIMON: And begin with the analogy, please, that you make between how Americans produce and eat food and how we consume information.
JOHNSON: Well, you know, our bodies are wired to love salt, fat and sugar. We love it because it tastes good. But you know our minds are really wired to be affirmed and be told that we're right. And that's the central premise of the information diet. It's really who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they're right. Who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed?
SIMON: You say some of this thinking began to develop when you worked for Howard Dean's presidential campaign.
JOHNSON: Sure. I noticed there that because of our media diets, we were consuming everything that was great about Howard Dean. Even after that scream incident in Iowa, we still thought we could win and that we would make it. And, you know, we went on to New Hampshire and South Carolina thinking that, you know, victory was just around the corner. And that's what made me started thinking, eh, there's something going on here with our media diets, where even the most highly informed of us can be ignorant.
SIMON: You say, which is a wonderful phrase, cliques have consequences.
JOHNSON: That's right. Just because your boss doesn't see you looking at that Kim Kardashian post doesn't mean that it's not without consequence. When you click on it you're making it so that it's more visible to other people. That means an information diet is something that's of ethical consequence to you and others.
SIMON: And explain to us, with your expertise in this world, how people in a sense tip their hand as to what they're searching and how it just winds up amplifying.
JOHNSON: Well, when you go to the Huffington Post or many major media outlets right now, what they do is they'll come up with maybe 20 or 30, or maybe just two, with different headlines for a particular story. And when you click on that, that's a vote for one of those headlines - the headline that you clicked on. Over time, the headline with the most clicks wins and goes on the front page.
The other interesting thing is a lot of AOL properties and other content farms are what they're called, who are trying to sort of commoditize the production of content - wake up in the morning and look on Google's search trends. Google makes it publicly available; what are the top things that people are searching every moment, so editorial decisions get made based on this information. It's really this idea of voting for - and very small almost nontransparent subconscious ways for content that isn't very good for people.
SIMON: Well, that's - and to return to the food analogy, you say that you don't want to necessarily blame the online communities or services any more than you want to blame Kentucky Fried Chicken for every instance of obesity because nobody is forced to go in there and buy a bucket of chicken.
JOHNSON: Right. Obesity is a complicated problem, right? And obviously, you know, obesity has to do with access. And obesity has to do with economic conditions. But it sometimes also has to do with overeating. And the same thing happens with information. I think a lot of people don't have great access to information and good information, that's for sure. But also in the world of the Internet, we have almost universal access to everything that we need. And that means that we have to make empowered decisions and informed decisions about what it is that we're consuming.
SIMON: You actually recommended information diet that is kind of the equivalent to Michael Pollan's famous food diet, which is: eat food not too much, mostly plants.
JOHNSON: That's right. It's, you know, seek not too much, mostly facts. Right? Eat low on these sorts of information food chain and stick close to sources. If it's an article on a bill in Congress or even, you know, a statehouse somewhere, going deep and actually trying to read the bill itself is really, I think, advantageous.
And it takes a little bit of time to pick up. Bills are not, you know, House resolutions are not the most entertaining things to read for most people. But getting to know what our legislative language is helps us, I think, become better citizens.
SIMON: But what if people like the junk and food diet?
JOHNSON: Well, what if people like Cheetos, right? The question is can we make enough people go, hey, you know what? And I'm done. I'm done with this sort of sensationalism of media. I'm done being taken advantage of by media companies so that I can have ads sold to me, and do sort of what Wal-Mart is doing with whole foods. Right?
So, Wal-Mart started realizing that it was losing high-end customers and going, gosh, you know, we've got to start carrying fresh fruits and vegetables in Wal-Mart stores, too. And now, now Wal-Mart is cutting its salt, fat and sugar content. And I think that that same thing can happen with information. If we want to make media better then we've got to start consuming better media.
SIMON: Clay Johnson, his new book, "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." Thanks so much.
JOHNSON: It was great to be here.
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