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.)
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)
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