The Information Diet: Not Just A Book, A Movement For Conscious Consumption of Information | Beth's Blog

The Information Diet: Not Just A Book, A Movement For Conscious Consumption of Information


I’ve been curating resources and teaching workshops on the topic of information coping skills for a couple of years.   I first became interested in the topic after reading  David Shenk’s “Data Smog” in 1998 using the metaphor of environmental problems to talk about the dangers of having too much online information, primarily email.  This was in the era before Facebook and there was far less information available compared today.  (My favorite practical principle from Shenk was “Give A Hoot, Don’t Email Pollute” when talking about the need for developing will power in consuming and sharing digital information.)

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So when I heard about Clay Johnson’s  The Information Diet:  The Case for Conscious Consumption that uses the metaphor of the obesity epidemic and sustainable food production to frame and discuss how the problem impacts us today, 14 years later,  I immediately put the book on my plate!      As the author explains in the introduction,   what we know about food has a lot of teach us about how to have a healthy relationship with information.        He gives the history and context of the obesity problem and points out the similarities to information consumption problem.

The problem of “information overload” is nothing new and has been around for centuries.   All you have to do read Ann M. Blair’s  ” Too Much To Know:  Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age” and you’ll get a historical perspective of the problem.   Johnson reframes the problem in a modern age as “information consumption” suggesting the problem isn’t the amount of information we have at our disposal, but our mindless consumption of it.

In the six well-researched chapters in part 1, he takes through the economics of information and the biological consequences of our information consumption.    He references the leading thinkers,writers, and researchers in this area – from Linda Stone (email apenea), Roy Bautmeister/John Tierney (Will Power), and Nicolas Carr, (Internet Shallows).   Given he his background as founder of Blue State Digital and working with the Dean Campaign and Sunlight Foundation, he tells the story through the lens of political campaigns and movement building on the social web as well as a personal narrative. I love the chapter on “The Symptoms of Information Obesity” where he shares a persona based on his wife, Rosalyn Lemieux, that illustrates how too much information can warp our sense of time and other ways it can be toxic to our lives.

The second part of the book takes us from theory into practice where he offers his recommendations for the Information Diet.  Rather than take the philosophy of information overload community and productivity books that are aimed at helping  you get “everything done” and in the process help you continue to consume too much information, he provides some principles for taming our information gluttony.   If you’ve been through weight watchers, you’ll immediately make a connection to some of the techniques he suggests. For example,  keeping a journal of what you consume and taking incremental steps towards reducing it so it becomes a lifestyle change.  Here, he draws from the work of Howard Rheingold when talking about data literacy and attention fitness as well as others and lays out an information diet that is intended to help us change in our daily habits.     He doesn’t recommend quick fixes like “unplugging” which is the metaphorical equivalent to a crash diet because it doesn’t work.

His chapter on “Data Literacy” describes what  sounds a lot of good content curation skills minus the social sharing part.  The steps of intelligent seeking of information by having good filters and knowing your sources and making sense of the information or synthesis.  This is good, basic digital literacy principles that have been taught by educators and librarians taught in the early 2000’s and continue today.  I think the social sharing part is important because that is part of consumption habits and it takes having restraint – not mindlessly clicking a button.

His specific tips are geared for folks (like me) who because of their occupation, have a lot of screen time and are geeks.   His methods make use of some of the online software that helps you keep track of time.   Personally, I also believe in adding in other methods such as time for reflection and slowing down like those recommended by Bregman’s 18 Minutes Book.     His chapter on what to consume, gives us a suggested information intake that reduces the 11 hours a day we spend consuming information to 6 hours per day.    It might look something like this:

7-8 am:  Information consumption time (newspaper, social media feeds, etc)
11-12: Email
4-5: Email
8-10pm: Entertainment time – television, social media
10-11 pm:  Book Reading

He suggests filling in the reclaimed hours producing, rather than consuming.    This is what Harold Jarche has called “sense-making” as part of an elegant framework of seek-sense-share that has helped me curb my over consumption habits.    Johnson also engaging in other activities that sharpen the mind – like paper journal, writing, photography, or other synthesis activities that get you away from that stream.  I know for myself that a return to keeping visual journals on paper and drawing with magic markers has been incredibly useful in this area.

The most provocative ideas of the book are in the third part – a call to action.    As Johnson points, our information consumption patterns have a social consequence – it isn’t just about our individual habits.   There is also a social change role.   We have to break the insidious cycle that we create with bad information consumption habits – we have to consider the suppliers – and especially in light of another election coming around.   The author not only wants to change our habits, but start local campaigns to encourage our social connections to change as well.   He suggests these goals:

1.   To increase digital literacy of our communities with good digital literacy skills
2.  To encourage consumption of local information
3.  To reward good information provides and to provide economic consequence for those who provide affirmation over information

He is encouraging us to self-organize around this idea through his site, Information Diet to improve digital literacy in your community by organizing meet ups.   And, above all, to act.    In order to improve digital literacy in your community, you need to start with kids.   He suggests finding and funding nonprofits that teach children digital literacy skills in school or after school programs.   He also suggests sharing what we’ve learned in terms of taming our information overdoing it.

The ultimate goal of this book is for us to improve our collective information literacy and consumption skills so we have the greatest ability to understand the truth and make our communities and society a more just world.

Now, that’s inspiring!

See also this review in the Atlantic

24 Responses

  1. Robin Mohr says:

    I’m struck by the apt comparison to food in our culture – we are surrounded by more than our ancestors ever dreamed of, and we have to be really conscious about our consumption. And yet, in other parts of the world, the same comparison holds true, not enough food, not enough information. I wonder if there are places in the world where the correlation doesn’t hold?

    The balance between consuming and producing is so important. I find that if I want to write anything, I have to turn off all the input that’s coming in (books, blogs, music) so that I can hear what I really have to say. It’s just so much easier to consume than to produce.

  2. Beth says:

    Robin: I have the same issue myself. I find making the switch can be difficult. In the book, he talks about how consuming information – that forward motion – ignites dopamine response in the brain – so it is pleasurable – and we don’t want to stop

  3. steve says:

    Hey beth before going into and getting inspired by this author, I just quickly want to ask in any part of the book does the author actually say anything about the ways of our ancestral behavior and lifestyle towards food and hows its changed with times. Thanks

  4. Otir says:

    I am very aware of these issues of the overload, as a matter of fact, I started thinking about the question because I have a son with autism, and his filtering system functions totally differently from those of a neurotypical brain, and in my opinion allows much more focusing and creativity!

    It is as if we have to learn how to “fine tune” our nervous system, and our “grand central computer”, which is our brain: input/output.

    A lot to be said. I am glad you reviewed the book, Beth, as a food for thought for me. Thanks a lot!

  5. Thanks Beth. I always love your posts. Our inability to filter all the information out there is truly making us uncomfortable (like trying to stuff everything on the buffet table onto our plates and into our tummies), and we need to embrace the mantra of ‘less is more’. Yet diets are hard. Learning how to make smart choices, and filter for quality, seems to be the key to success. It’s a discipline that needs to be learned and practiced, for sure.

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  9. Really good review and commentary, sounds like a really interesting book and just it on my list here to read.

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  13. Mimi Cook says:

    Thanks for such an eye-opening post Beth! I don’t think on a daily basis about my information consumption, but now I will. I wonder how our information consumption has changed with the growth of the internet. Between social media, email, and online news, it’s hard to get away from information. Finding time to focus can be a challenge. I saw this info graphic the other day, and printed it out to hang on my wall: It’s a good visual reminder of some ways to cut down on the information overload.

  14. Beth says:


    I love that infographic – I used in a post in September called “Are You Content Fried?”

    I liked it so much that printed out a large version of it and have it on the wall. I also use it at workshops to do a small group exercise – to identify what techniques people have tried and share techniques. In fact, will be using in the Middle East.

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  18. Diyan says:

    Hello Beth,
    I haven’t read the book, but thanks to your insightful review I got the main idea and I agree with the author. I’ve always been saying that the keys to healthy living are: education, motivation and implementation. Education on other hand depends on the right information and here emerges a very serious problem, as you’ve said: information overload. Nowadays there are really tons of information on almost every subject and we really have to develop skills of estimating the quality, interpreting and sorting out the right and credible information. As for nutrition and fitness we should always implement and test our knowledge in reality to see what is working, and what isn’t, at least this is what I’m doing.

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