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The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption Hardcover – Jan 21 2012
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About 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. He was awarded the Google/O'Reilly Open Source Organizer of the year in 2009, was one of Federal Computer Week's Fed 100 in 2010.
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.
Top Customer Reviews
Besides making me more productive the book was a very enjoyable read. Particularly the section dealing with how news agencies prey on our confirmation bias in order to get us to keep consuming their brand of news.
The book is also very digestible as it compares the consumption of information to our consumption of food. Johnson is able to make comparables between the consumption of bad food and it's effects on our bodies and the consumption of bad information and it's effects on our minds.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
However, this is where the author's analogy begins to disintegrate. Yes, all information has a consumption chain: raw data, facts, trends, expert analysis, headlines and tabloids. However, to say that a "healthy information diet" is one that gets all, or most of its data at the source ("raw"), is simply misleading. Yes, experts add their own "seasoning" through their analysis, but unlike a refined carbon chain, which is only broken down the further it is processed, information and knowledge has this curious potential property of being enriched with further analysis! Not always, mind you - potential, is the key word.
In fact, the very reason I bought this book (and likely, you are considering as well) is that I implicitly assumed that the author has spent the time and effort to process, assimilate, and think through all the implications of his metaphor. In other words, we expect a "highly processed" work, distilled to its very essence - nothing but the good stuff. Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case. Instead, we are treated to several chapters on food processing with a weak connection to our "information diet", and a few examples of CNN vs. Fox in the news. Disappointing.
With the fear of stretching the metaphor too thin, how about answering the following questions:
- what are, or should be, the nutrients in our information diet? Politics vs. technology vs. hundreds of other topics.
- how does one not over-consume and optimize each category?
- how does one seek out new sources and fields that you may not be easily exposed to?
And the list goes on... Unfortunately "Information Diet" answers none of it.
In the first part, Johnson gives a vivid explanation of the obesity metaphor and describes the symptoms of information obesity. The second part contains practical advices about improving data literacy and how to consume information and attention fittness in chapter 8 which is the weak point of the book. The method describe there is very similar to the Pomodoro techinque, and although there are plenty of great books on how to manage your tasks and stay focused (GTD, Personal Kanban, Pomodoro) and the author mentions a lot of studies in the book somehow he forgot to search in this area. The last part is my personal favorite. If we really want to act against information obesity, changing our habits is just the first steps. Johnson calls us for some sort of activism by demanding access to government data, forming local interest groups and start discussing what we can do to change the present situation.
I'd recommend the book to anyone who's interested in media (so virtually everybody). But be warned, this book is not about the practical side of handling the problems of information, but a pamphlet and call for change.
So the first irony is that the book is fat. It could be a lot leaner. It feels like sections have been added to pad it up to a slim little volume you could call a book, when everything interesting here could be said in a magazine article. Too many empty calories, alas.
The second problem, and one I would hope most readers would care about, though I have my doubts, is the painfully obvious bias the author exhibits when he divides up information into "health food" and "junk food." Kudos to the author for at least acknowledging that he's a liberal who has worked in Democratic politics for years, but that still doesn't excuse the exquisitely obvious way that he divides up the landscape. For pages, I literally dreaded his first mention of Fox News (a station, I must note, that I never watch), for I knew it was coming, and I knew exactly what he would say about it. I won't bore the reader with the details--if you're honest, you know exactly what the most predictable leftist take on conservative media would be. Yet when you have high hopes for a book, to cringe, literally, as it becomes obvious what kind of flatulent, flat-footed bias will be passed off as objectivity... well, it was disheartening.
I could add that, while I don't like any television news stations, what made the predictable Fox-bashing seem more horrible was the way it was couched in a defense of CNN as "the facts." For you see, Fox (and later MSNBC, cynically following Roger Ailes' model) is serving up the "cheese fries in gravy" equivalent of information sustenance, whereas CNN is just "the truth" and "the facts"-- a well-balanced, healthy diet of Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper. And THAT'S why CNN's ratings are so low. It's the information equivalent of broccoli.
Maybe if CNN confirms YOUR bias, it can seem to you like just the "truth" and the "facts." But the idea that it is merely objective is, to put it mildly, absurd.
And so there is your second irony. The author says the problem with information consumption is that people only will watch or read what they want to hear, what confirms their bias. Especially those Fox-watching neo-cons, of course. Whereas those of us who get the objective "truth 'n' facts" from Anderson Cooper, et al., at CNN are open-minded people who can handle the truth. Any mainstream progressive who reads that claim will be flattered and have his biases confirmed.
There are lots of other silly things wrong with this book, such as when the author claims that the printing press ushered in the renaissance (a neat trick for Gutenberg to bring about Petrarch and Pico della Mirandola). But to sell a fatty book that's padded with excess and unnecessary verbiage as if it's an information diet, and to flatter readers that, unlike people who want to be flattered, they're truth-seekers--these things make the book especially disappointing.
Maybe it gets better after the first third. That's how much I could take before I decided to cut my losses and read something more nutritious.
If I were to distill the book down into one sentence it would be:
An information diet isn't about consuming less, its about consuming the right things.
Start by not consuming this book.
P.S. If you're having a hard time culling the information overload you experience on the internet, the author's website lists a couple of software tools that might help: [...]
As a Google Reader junkie, I know how addictive an endless stream of information can be. Clay Johnson gives several tips for battling this so you end up with a maximum of 6 hour consumption of information. First off, turn off your notifiers for things as email and social media. Second, install something like RescueTime to get an insight in how you spend (or waste) your time and set goals on how to improve these stats.
The book ends with a rally to be more considerate about where you get your information from (more locally produced), try to act on things that can make a change NOW and ...
Although I already tried doing most things the author recommends in the book, they somehow never were enough to kill my information addiction (heck, I read this book didn't I?). However, I feel like this book has reemphasized the need to change and gave some actional goals to try and limit my intake to more reasonable levels.
If you're an information junkie like me and are interested in some change in perspective, then this may certainly be a book for you.
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