The information diet

Clay Johnson makes a case for conscious information consumption in his new book, drawing analogies with our food habits and options. We are in danger of being drowned in information; strategies for finding the value amongst all the crud have never been more important

Clay Johnson's upcoming new book 'The Information Diet'  is very timely: I'm sure many people have made new year resolutions to be more disciplined about their online activities but aren't sure how to control their urge for digital gratification. Now we're all back at work in the new year practical strategies to use time more effectively are important if they are to endure.

I was delighted when O'Reilly Publishing offered me a review copy last month, as I intended to spend the last couple of weeks of 2011 largely offline and think through how to be more efficient in the use of my digital consumption and interactions this year. Johnson was an early founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Internet strategy and technology firm Blue State Digital, who created the highly successful branding and fund raising apparatus for the Obama Biden presidential campaign and for other Democratic political candidates.

Although Johnson left Blue State in early 2008 he is clearly a political animal, providing a DC insiders view of the two American political party machines manipulation and flooding of online mediums in the book. During his time in politics he learned that '...the media class around the United States Federal Government and national news has little interest in providing you with the public service of informing you - They are interested in selling advertisements.'

'Information Diet' is an accessible, US-centric read and covers a broad canvas of ideas and historical contexts before focusing on what Johnson believes and recommends constitutes a healthy information diet. This viewpoint is very much what you'd expect from the cosy liberal coterie around O'Reilly (Tim, not Bill the Fox News personality...) and worthy organizations such as Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation are discussed along with Tim O'Reilly's 'work on stuff that matters' principle. If this maps to your political views you'll feel very validated, but don't let this perspective put you off if your political perspectives are different - Johnson is even handed. Karl Rove gets kudos at one point, and the discussion is much more about the impact political apparatus and propaganda pushes have on you than about the partisan content.

Although 'The Information Diet' is 'a case for conscious consumption' the food/information analogy is a little suspect. On the topic of online content farms and link bait Johnson is very strong

The parallels between how our media has changed and how agriculture changed are obvious if you look closely: what happened to farmers is happening to journalists. What happened to our diets is happening to our news. And like with our food, there’s not much we can do about it; the draw of living with abundant supply is too strong, and too beneficial, to fight. Instead, we’ve got to understand how to cope in a world with different rules.

He also does a great job of articulating our neophiliac tendencies as we graze online (A neophiliac is a personality type characterized by a strong affinity for novelty).

...At the heart of brain stimulus reinforcement is a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Dopamine makes us seek, which causes us to receive more dopamine, which causes us to seek more. That jolt you feel when you get a new email in your inbox, or hear the sound of your cell phone’s ding? That’s dopamine, and it puts you in a frenzy. This used to be helpful: our dopamine systems helped us, as a species, to find resources, acquire knowledge, and innovate. But in an age of abundance, there are new consequences.

Dopamine receptors often put us in a loop. With all the inputs available to us today—all the various places where notifications come about: our email boxes, our text messages, our various social network feeds, and blogs to read—our brains throw us into a runaway loop in which we’re not able to focus on a given task at hand. Rather, we keep pursuing new dopamine reinforcement from the deluge of notifications headed our way.

In terms of actionable understanding of 'how to cope in a world with different rules' for information consumption the book is strong on ideas (find concise primary information; avoid affirming and reinforcing your existing prejudices and getting distracted by entertainment, for examples) but a little light on tactics.

To be fair how we discipline our information consumption is very contextual to our individual needs around work and research, and 'The Information Diet' does discuss focus and better time management.. but the actual protein in Johnson's 'infovegan' content sandwich is a little sparse ...and being entreated to participate in the online community and meetups around the book with your time saving tips is a little counter intuitive.

Johnson has collected a lot of software for a healthy information diet on the book website which aim to help you recapture time. Just installing these and never using them is going to do anything of course ...from the website:

....Be warned though, while installing software and configuring settings for a healthy information diet are important, if not foundational to setting up an information diet for yourself, they’re not the whole picture. Just like cleaning out your kitchen and throwing out the junk-food is helpful if you want to lose weight — it’s not adequate if, after you do that, you just eat fast-food every meal. A healthy information diet isn’t about installing software, it’s about changing habits.

I'm including some of Johnson's ideas and software recommendations in my routine for the next few weeks and keeping a close eye on the way I use digital mediums. Filtering information for efficiency is a very big deal this year and it's all to easy to get intrigued by a link and go through a time wormhole, emerging hours later with your to do list for the day untouched...

Overall I recommend the book - despite being a little disorganized it's a good read on several levels for the individual and has plenty of thought provoking ideas and concepts to ruminate over: we are being overrun by information options and increasingly need all the help we can to get our time back under control.


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