Book Review: The Information Diet

Review of: The Information Diet, by Clay A. Johnson (O’Reilly, 2012).


Information Metaphors

Metaphors are than just rhetorical flourishes that make poetry sound prettier. On the contrary: linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson show us in their book Metaphors We Live By that metaphors we view the world through the lenses of metaphor. Metaphors underlie our basic conceptual understanding. They contend that:

…metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

When talking about how humans interact with information, a comparison with food and eating has been used in many cases.

The most notable example is Marcia Bates’ notion of “berrypicking” in information seeking. In her landmark article, “The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the online Search Interface” (Online Review, 1989), she likens finding information to picking berries in the woods. The metaphor is clear:

The berries are scattered on the bushes; they do not come in bunches. One must pick them one at a time.

Her conclusion is that search systems need to be flexible to accommodate berry picking behavior, characterized by evolving information needs and changing seeking strategies.

Similar to the berrypicking model, Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card’s theory of information foraging analyzes patterns in human information seeking. Their information metaphor is also clear:

We use the term “foraging” both to conjure up the metaphor of organisms browsing for sustenance and to indicate a connection to the more technical optimal foraging theory found in biology and anthropology. Animals adapt their behavior and their structure through evolution to survive and reproduce to their circumstance. Essentially animals adapt, among other reasons, to increase their rate of energy intake. To do this they evolve different methods: a wolf hunts (“forages”) for prey, but a spider builds a web and allows the prey to come to it.

Extending the metaphor, we can then speak of “information ecologies” and refer to seekers as “informavores.” The comparisons go on and on.

Based on information foraging theory, Jared Spool and his colleagues have popularized the notion of the scent of information. “Scent” refers to how well links and navigation match a visitor’s information need and how well they predict the content on the destination page. The metaphor is again provocative: information gives off a “scent” that “information foragers” follow to reach their intended destination.

All of these examples use metaphors to help us understand “information,” a conceptually fuzzy concept to begin with. The comparisons with food and eating make human information behavior more tangible.

A Diet of Information

In The Information Diet (O’Reilly, 2012), author Clay Johnson further extends the metaphorical relationship between information and food. Unlike the examples listed above, which primarily look at information seeking, Johnson focuses on how humans use information and the impact that has — both on individuals and on society.

In a nutshell, our current information diets are rather unhealthy, and they are getting worse. Johnson outlines his premise in the introduction:

What if a person’s native or learned abilities to process information sensibly could be warped by feeding junk into the mental machine? As we say in technology: garbage in, garbage out. We know we’re products of the food we eat. Why wouldn’t we also be products of the information we consume?

Johnson then compares obesity to poor information habits. The main cause in the rise of obesity in America is that fattening foods are cheaper and more abundant. Similarly, our information diets are making us info-obese: cheap, poorly-formed information is all around us.

Making the situation worse are things such as “content farms.” Massive content-producing facilities hire writers to churn out volumes of junk information at alarming rates. Sites like churnalism.com seek to uncover factually incorrect and blindly copied information.

But the modern information diet remains unhealthy, which has real social consequences. It distorts our sense of the world around us. Again, the author makes further comparisons, this time between production of food and the production of information:

The parallels between how our media has changed and how agriculture changed are obvious if you look closely: what happened to farmers is happening to journalists. What happened to our diets is happening to our news. And like with our food, there’s not much we can do about it: the draw of living with abundant supply is too strong, and too beneficial to fight. Instead, we’ve got to understand how to cope in a world with different rules.

So the problem isn’t one of information overload or rapidly spreading information technology. In fact, Johnson outright states that there is no such thing as information overload. Instead, we have to view the issue as one of information health. And just like addressing obesity, we need a different attitude toward an overabundance of cheap information. It’s our orientation to information that’s key.

Get With The Program

Johnson calls on all of us to have more responsibility with our information diets. He urges us to become “infovegans.” Thankfully, he gives concrete advice on what to do:

  1. Audit your info consumption. Take active inventory of the types of information you consume and you basic information behaviors.
  2. Consume locally. Sticking closer to the facts is a healthy part of an information diet. This can refer to physically closer information (like in your city), but also to information that you’ve become an expert on.
  3. Reduce ads. Unsubscribe to newsletters you don’t read, and use services like Instapaper and Readability to remove unwanted ads from your content.
  4. Seek diversity. Filtering out information that goes against your beliefs can lead to fanaticism in the worse case. Instead, challenge your opinions by seeking out a diversity of information, including content that poses contrary arguments.
  5. Balance different types of information. Relying on populist entertainment-based information on TV is unhealthy. Instead, consume a variety of information — professional, cultural, local, and raw information — from a variety of sources.
  6. Fine tune and revise info diet. Changing your information diet takes a conscious effort and dedicated training to achieve. Just like a weight-loss diet, you’ll have to fine tune your habits and consumption behavior.

The stakes are high. It’s not just about reducing personal stress or information anxiety. As Johnson points out:

The genocides in Rwanda were fed by hate speech on the radio. Hitler’s embrace of the new media of film empowered Nazism. Humanity’s darkest moments are the ones in which masses of people had the worst information diets…Rather, than focusing on issues, we’ve tribalized into a million little rights and wrongs. In Washington, our completely polarized electorate is distracted from serious, solvable problems because those problems aren’t salient or interesting enough for them to pay attention. What make for good politics doesn’t make for good democracy.

For sure, the flow of information and democracy have always been historically linked. John Adams recognized this connection 250 years ago and made the plea:

Let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing.

Of course, at the time Adams probably didn’t foresee the problems of having too much poorly-written information. His was one of lack of access. Still, our attitude and relationship with information is central to both our personal and social well-being, as well as to having a healthy democracy.

Conclusion

The Information Diet is a fascinating book with engaging discussions and examples. Johnson’s writing is clear and lucid. The arguments are so well laid out they feel familiar and almost obvious on first read. It’s also supported with lots of relevant research and is thoroughly investigated. I recommend it for anyone who regularly consumes information — which means just about everybody!

In the end, remember: you are what you aggregate. 

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Success at MURAL

One comment

  1. Jackie Paulson

    Bravo! I will have to buy this book for sure.

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