Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Information Diet: Some Thoughts

I recently read "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption" by Clay Johnson, on my Kindle. Kindle allows you to immediately post to Facebook when you've finished a book, thus telling the world that you read and what you're reading. You don't necessarily need to say what you thought of the book, but I suppose it's implied that if you made it through the whole thing and chose to share it with the world, then it must be good enough. Indeed, I liked this book, or at least parts of it. It's ironic, however, to finish a book about information obesity and then immediately post about it on Facebook, so I waited a couple of weeks for my thoughts to digest, first.

Let's get that irony out of the way first. This is a book about information over-consumption, especially on the internet, and it also has its own website, blog, Facebook group and Twitter feed. The criticism by some readers along those lines is a dead horse. I checked out the website prior to reading the book and it was there that I discovered Readability. If you haven't got Readability yet, I highly recommend it to anyone who consumes internet news (and who doesn't, these days/). So I guess I'd have to acknowledge the irony of giving people the information they need to avoid information over-consumption, but really, what's the alternative?

What about the book itself? I was of two minds about it, which is probably why I took so long to record my thoughts. On the one hand, I agree that this is a problem, along the lines described by the author. Johnson draws parallels between the over-consumption of food and the over-consumption of information, which are both endemic in America today. This occupies the first few chapters, but briefly the thesis is that for most of our evolutionary history, food and information were scarce. We are therefore programmed to consume a lot of it when available. In modern times, both food and information are plentiful, and so our evolutionary programming leads us astray: we consume too much. This is especially dangerous when there is so much food high in salts and fats, and so much information that simply confirms rather than challenges our personal biases. Permeating all of this is that constant access to email, Facebook, and Twitter never allows us to truly be disconnected. Interestingly, food and email trigger the exact same neurochemical response: the release of dopamine into the brain.

One fair criticism is that Johnson spends way too much time on the obesity half of the argument, largely rehashing "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan (which I also highly recommend). I didn't disagree with what he had to say, but for a book about information over-consumption, I didn't need a refresher course on the obesity epidemic. It's an analogy, and like all analogies, it's entirely possible to take it too far.

The more interesting part of the book is devoted to a discussion about possible solutions. Here is where I started to disagree with the author. Johnson essentially advocates for a new model of getting information where we all become journalists. In his mind, the internet has not only created a overabundance of access to news: it's also given us access to a lot of what the news is based on: we can "search", "filter", "create" and "synthesize" and get the facts for ourselves. In his words, the era of "the journalist speaking truth to power is largely over".

I'll speak first about my own area of expertise (but one Johnson does talk about directly): I work in research, I have access to every important scientific journal for free, and even I read Discover and Scientific American. Out of necessity, my reading of peer-reviewed publications is limited to my own field. I rely on science journalists, not to translate science into English for me, but to give me a global view. The public at large, without any training and without access to the peer-reviewed literature (even though they're paying for it through their tax dollars), needs them even more. More to the point, advocating for the public to read scientific papers doesn't solve the basic problem: anyone hell-bent on confirming their own biases (creationism comes to mind) will be able to find "peer-reviewed" articles that do just that.

Similar arguments to that above can be made about politics, beat reporting, economics, etc.. Johnson does make an interesting case to "consume local": with so much media attention focused on national and international events, people are often unaware of what's happening in their own communities. I take this as a case to return to local newspapers, not become an amateur beat reporter.

But with so much shoddy journalism out there, and so much that caters to our own view of the world, how do we decide what to read? Here is where I think the book strongly misses the mark. The key moment for me in changing my food consumption habits was not planting my own garden, it was awareness. Awareness of how food is produced, what factory farming is, how things got to be the way they are and what we can do about it (insert additional plug for "In Defense of Food").

So what I think we need is the news about the news (acknowledge irony that I'm really calling for more transparency and thus, more information). We also need an education system that emphasizes critical thinking, not knowledge.

So what about my own biases? Johnson's opinion of Fox News came as no surprise to me: we are both liberals. He paints MSNBC with the same brush (trying to appear neither strongly liberal nor conservative is hallmark of this book, though given that Johnson is a former Howard Dean campaign worker I think it's unlikely to convince many hard-core Republicans). What I really found interesting was his dissection of Huffington Post. As a liberal, I have always found HuffPo a little hard to swallow, and his presentation of the facts of how articles get written there was certainly informative (and convinced me to avoid it). I won't go into the details here, but suffice it to say that the average time spent researching and writing an article for HuffPo is one hour.

I think the book needed more of this. For example, does having a public editor (e.g. NY Times) make journalism more reliable? How much contact is there between business and journalistic interests at various media outlets? What are the fact-checking procedures used? There are no hard answers to these questions, but the conversation needs to be had. Johnson doesn't go there, because he thinks the whole concept of journalism is old fashioned. I think if we had an inside look at how various media outlets operate, we might have the "information" we need to make up our minds about who to pay attention to, and who to tune out. For my part, knowing the process of making a McNugget definitely influences my decision to eat it.

No comments:

Post a Comment