The Information Diet: A Book Review

Although I had purchased this eBook about a year ago, I had only recently finished reading it. It had the Catch 22 factor - exhorting one to consume more information while warning one about the deluge of READ ME and self-improvement books, magazines and articles — the problem in the first place. This the dark side of the age of information overload — where amongst all the hype and infotainment do you find something of value. This book gives good advice as to how to control our information consumption — i.e. how to go on a diet.

About the author
Before going further it is useful to know something about the author in order to get a perspective as to where he is coming from and maybe also where he is going.

“The author Clay Johnson is best known as the founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama's online campaign for the presidency in 2008. After leaving Blue State, Johnson was the director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation, where he built an army of 2000 developers and designers to build open source tools to give people greater access to government data.
The range of Johnson's experience with software development, politics, entrepreneurism, and working with non-profits gives him a unique perspective on media and culture. His life is dedicated to giving people greater access to the truth about what's going on in their communities, their cities, and their governments.”

The first part of his book compares the obesity epidemic with our information over consumption. “We are what we eat” - becomes we are what information we consume. In summary:

“While our collective sweet tooth used to serve us well, in the land of abundance it’s killing us. As it turns out, the same thing has happened with information. The economics of news have changed and shifted, and we’ve moved from a land of scarcity into a land of abundance. And though we are wired to consume — it’s been a key to our survival — our sweet tooth for information is no longer serving us well. Surprisingly, it too is killing us.”

He compares ‘junk food’ to churnalism:

“In an effort to cut costs, journalists often become more filters than reporters, succumbing to the torrents of spin heading their way, and passing on what’s said by the scores of PR consultants. Rather than report the news, they simply copy what’s in a press release and paste it into their stories. It’s a kind of commercially advantageous and permissible plagiarism called churnalism.”

We don’t seek information to inform ourselves, like comfort food, we consume what we already agree with. We find ourselves both addicted to more information and vulnerable to misinformation for the sake of our egos.

Fear of Missing Out
Fear of Missing Out

“Finally, it means a moral choice for information consumption: opting out of a system that’s at least morally questionable, for a different way — a way that chooses to shun factory farmed information, politically charged affirmations — and choosing to support organizations interested in providing information consumers with source-level information and reporting that contains more truth than point-of-view.”

How do we get a healthy information diet? This will vary from individual to individual and may change as one changes one’s life circumstances. He does advise visiting the website of the book: and to consume consciously. He suggests three resources that may be useful:

The second part of his book is about transparency in communities, cities, local and state governments — greater access to what is going on. But he cautions about the dark side of transparency.

“Even the most open and transparent systems must compete with buckets of information that are more interesting. The second is our poor information diets — that we choose information we want to hear over information that reveals the truth makes the competition all the more difficult.”

In some ways the two messages — information consumption and transparency of governance could have been written as two separate books, one for each topic. The Information Diet is a must-read book but it feels more like I had eaten a 10-course meal.

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