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The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption [Hardcover]

Clay A. Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 21 2012 1449304680 978-1449304683 1

The modern human animal spends upwards of 11 hours out of every 24 in a state of constant consumption. Not eating, but gorging on information ceaselessly spewed from the screens and speakers we hold dear. Just as we have grown morbidly obese on sugar, fat, and flour—so, too, have we become gluttons for texts, instant messages, emails, RSS feeds, downloads, videos, status updates, and tweets.

We're all battling a storm of distractions, buffeted with notifications and tempted by tasty tidbits of information. And just as too much junk food can lead to obesity, too much junk information can lead to cluelessness. The Information Diet shows you how to thrive in this information glut—what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective. In the process, author Clay Johnson explains the role information has played throughout history, and why following his prescribed diet is essential for everyone who strives to be smart, productive, and sane.

In The Information Diet, you will:

  • Discover why eminent scholars are worried about our state of attention and general intelligence
  • Examine how today’s media—Big Info—give us exactly what we want: content that confirms our beliefs
  • Learn to take steps to develop data literacy, attention fitness, and a healthy sense of humor
  • Become engaged in the economics of information by learning how to reward good information providers
  • Just like a normal, healthy food diet, The Information Diet is not about consuming less—it’s about finding a healthy balance that works for you

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    Product Description

    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.


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    Most helpful customer reviews
    2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars Curb your information consumption May 8 2012
    By Simon
    Format:Hardcover
    The Information Diet by Clay Johnson is exactly the type of book I needed to read after my new year's resolutions. I knew that I needed to curb the amount of information that I was consuming on a daily basis but I needed some strategies in order to accomplish it. Reading The Information Diet put me in touch with the tools and techniques I needed to make this change. I've been using RescueTime to track how my day is spent and make changes. After a couple of weeks of using the tool I realize that I'm less productive in the mornings than I am in the afternoon. This is not a surprise to me as I am Night Owl and not a Morning Lark. However, I'm making looking to make a change in my behaviour so I start everyday as a producer and not a consumer. This means the last thing I do before leaving work each day will be to setup a task I can tackle the following morning before I read my email or answer any StackOverflow questions.

    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.
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    Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
    Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  61 reviews
    101 of 109 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars Cute metaphor but misleading and incomplete Jan. 22 2012
    By Ilya Grigorik - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
    "Information Diet" is a clever metaphor, and there are some interesting parallels, but ultimately the author stretches it too thin.

    The first great observation made by the author is that the problem we face today is not "information overload" but "information overconsumption". The information doesn't automatically enter our minds, instead we deliberately engage in behaviors that deliver it to us - in other words, we are not victims, instead we inflict "information overload" on ourselves via our day-to-day habits. Second, information just like calories can be "refined" to peak curiosity: shocking headlines, tabloids, notifications of all kinds, and so on. These "empty calories" are easy to consume, but deliver little in terms of useful information.

    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.
    39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars Take care of your information consumption Jan. 5 2012
    By Zoltan Varju - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Kindle Edition
    According to Johnson there is no such thing as information overload. Rather, we consume junk information produced by contetnt farms. He proposes conscious consumption of information which is not about consuming less, but developing a balanced and healthy habit just like when you go on diet. Although, I don't agree with every word of it, I really enjoyed reading the book as it is full of stories and clear descriptions of various scientific studies.

    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.
    202 of 258 people found the following review helpful
    2.0 out of 5 stars A smart idea for an article, perhaps for Huffington Post Dec 26 2011
    By M. E. Taylor - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Kindle Edition
    I was interested in the book, and the central metaphor--that we are awash in cheap and unhealthy information in a way not unlike the glut of cheap and harmful food calories--is an intriguing conceit. However, that simile gets expanded so epically that the book's focus gets diffused. Why am I reading about factory farming and the overuse of corn in our diet for page after page? It's not even remotely because the author is adding anything new to the discussion. It's just rehashed and oversimplified summarizing of books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma. And here's the problem: not only has everyone heard all of this criticism of our American diet endlessly before, but the only reason it gets rehearsed for far too long here is because of the author's central conceit, which, as analogies go, is too obvious to require it anyway. As soon as he says that the central analogy is that we consume information like we do food, with all the attendant problems, he hardly needs to repeat for us all the problems with obesity and empty calories.

    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.
    8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars Make this the first thing you omit from your information diet Aug. 23 2012
    By 5-Star Consumer - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Hardcover
    As another reviewer stated, the book reads like a really long essay. Its bloated, slow reading, and doesn't progress at all. There is no "aha" moment and no opportunity to gain a deeper understanding or appreciation for the subject matter. The author continually returns to the metaphor of physical diet which he absolutely beats to death. There were several times where I had to actually think about what book I was reading because he went on for entire chapters about the history of food and obesity in the United States. Complete waste of time and energy.

    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: [...]
    21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting take on limiting your info consumption Dec 19 2011
    By Ivo Flipse - Published on Amazon.com
    Format:Kindle Edition
    The main point of the book is to consider your intake of information similar to your food diet. Which is quite apt: one of the ways to stay healthy is to not overconsume. Well the same applies to information, because we tend to consume information sitting down, which isn't healthy when done for long stretches of time and we tend to live inside an echo chamber of information that affirms our ideas, which makes it hard for us to stay objective. The author therefore proposes we follow an Infovegan diet, which mirrors a diet by Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

    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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