Book Review
Title: "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption"
Author: Clay A. Johnson
Publisher: O’Reilly Media, 2012; 160 pages; $22.99

I’m borderline obsessed with fitness and wellness. So, when I met a gentleman at a downtown Austin, Texas, drugstore while attending the SXSW Interactive conference and he mentioned that he’d written a diet book, my interest was piqued.

My interest went from piqued to captivated when he explained that this "diet" book had nothing to do with food, but had everything to do with content — information — and our gluttony thereof, especially in the online realm.

So, shortly after I returned from the information binge that is SXSW, I sat down to consume — in moderate portions — "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption," by my pal from CVS, Clay Johnson.

At the outset, Johnson sketches out his own personal history as a legislative activist and then as a successful health-technology startup founder, and relates some bizarre observations he had over the years, including observations of people protesting with signs illuminating very warped interpretations of information. Not warped as in conservative to his liberal, but warped as in factually twisted.

Some of these experiences began Johnson’s exploration of the idea — revolutionary to him at the time — that more transparency and more access to information did not necessarily translate directly to people being better-informed or smarter citizens.

Rather, Johnson ultimately realized and posits as the thesis of "The Information Diet," it is necessary in this age of information inundation to apply a few simple rules to our content consumption. So starts "The Information Diet," with Johnson’s intention that we will all:

  • Make efforts to consume the right information.
  • Develop healthy content consumption habits.
  • End up happier for it.

Here are a few takeaways from "The Information Diet" that help us fulfill these three aims:

1. Information overload does not exist. Johnson exhorts readers to avoid the fallacy of trying to blame information itself, or the media of television and the Internet, for feeling overloaded and overwhelmed with emails, voice mails, tweets and TV shows to watch, pointing out that "information is not requiring you to consume it."

It has always been the case that more information exists than we can comfortably take in, Johnson argues; the Internet did not create that problem. As with other substances that are harmful in excess, it is critical to understand that is is our own habits that pose the danger to us. Thus, only we can control how we manage our habits and, in turn, how we feel.

The idea that there is some sort of conspiracy to dumb down the populace, one kitty video at a time, is preposterous, Johnson argues (painting, in the process, a humorous verbal image of Mark Zuckerberg plotting the ruination of mankind using Facebook friendships).

He analogizes these conspiracy theories to long-ago protests that the printing press would bring about the end of religion.

While allowing that "new technologies do create anthropological changes in society" and often give rise to the need for new warnings, Johnson ultimately concludes that free will and choice trump any power contained within the medium itself.

Those who feel that silly slide shows and skewed Web article headlines are making us stupid fail to understand that Web publishers continue to run with that content precisely because people continue to vote for it by clicking on it and reading it, Johnson points out.

2. Learn to detect the symptoms of information obesity. Johnson tracks the history of obesity from the time food was scarce and expensive to today, where calories are plentiful and cheap.

He draws vivid and effective parallels to textual information, which was once the province of the handful of people rich enough to own books, but is now available to the handful of billions who own computers and have Internet access.

Johnson goes on to explore the modern-day mental and physical health crisis he deems "information obesity," which has skyrocketed and even intersected with physical obesity, as increasing numbers of Americans sit behind their desks and televisions for increasing hours each day.

Johnson urges readers to recognize that they might have a problem if they detect any of these symptoms in themselves or their loved ones:

  • Email apnea: the unconscious but widespread problem of holding your breath when you receive a text message or while you wait for your email to open.
  • Poor sense of time: entirely losing track of time while you’re surfing the Web, texting or emailing. This can be particularly problematic if and when you start missing appointments or allowing entire evenings to pass by while you partake of your digital substances.
  • Attention fatigue: Have you noticed that it’s tough for you to focus on projects for more than 10 or 20 minutes? You might be suffering from attention fatigue as a result of overconsumption of uber-short-form information that is ubiquitous on the Web.

3. Get data-literate. Besides these symptoms, Johnson gives several other vivid examples of cases for going on an information diet.

But throughout the book, he also reminds readers of his ultimate goal, which is not to give you a simple, ineffective cure, "miracle diet" style, but rather, to help us all be more conscious consumers of information for the long run. Consider it a lifestyle change.

Some critical behaviors Johnson says are a must for a lifestyle of nutritious, conscious literacy include:

  • Search. Become an advanced searcher, using more than just the basic Web indexes, and Johnson says a world of smart information will open up to you, like Google’s freely available (but underutilized) databases of scientific papers, patents and laws.
  • Filter. Using the example of how fictitious trivia from the website have frequently made it into the (ostensibly) factual listings on Wikipedia, Johnson provides readers with a detailed list of filters and tools they should apply to all information and opinion they read on the Web, all of which boil down to rigorous applications of critical-thinking skills.
  • Create. Creating your own content, expressing yourself digitally and taking in feedback on platforms like blogs are "critical components of a healthy information diet," says Johnson, who points out that before publishing "The Information Diet" in hard copy, he posted chunks of it online with the express intention of engaging in dialogue with others as he fine-tuned the book.
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