Tips for going on The Information Diet

First aired on Q (16/1/12)

Suffering from information overload? According to Clay A. Johnson, whose company, Blue State Digital, managed the social media aspect of U.S. President Barack Obama's election campaign in 2008, the problem lies with the consumer's choices, not with the plethora of information out there. In his new book, The Information Diet, the media expert argues there's an epidemic of "information obesity," and his prescription is the news equivalent of healthy eating.


In a recent interview on Q, Johnson told host Jian Ghomeshi that he came up with eating as an analogy for our consumption of information because there's a natural connection. "The central premise of The Information Diet is, who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed, or who wants to be told the truth when they can be told that they're right?" He compared it to "who wants to eat vegetables when they can eat cookies?"

We're not necessarily uninformed, but Johnson identifies a new kind of ignorance: of only consuming news that confirms our biases. He experienced it himself as a campaign worker for Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean in 2004. "Here in Washington, I call it the capital of the nonsense industrial complex. The amount of devotion you have to give to your candidate requires you to be delusional," Johnson said.

Even after they were losing in the polls, Johnson said, they were only paying attention to the good things in the media about their candidate, and ignoring the negative. He went on to cite networks like Fox News, which have seen how profitable it is to deliver information that confirms the viewers' beliefs. "Telling people they're right makes a heck of a lot more money than giving people the news."

His advice? "Take a conscious look at what you're consuming." Johnson sees attention as something like a form of currency, a scarce resource that's in demand. "Start guarding it like that, and realizing that by giving your attention to anything, whether it's Google or Facebook or Fox News or even this radio program, you're actually spending currency with that organization."

In his book, Johnson advocates what he calls "info-veganism." Veganism "is really about the subtraction of a lot of things from your diet," he explained. "But more than that, veganism is about consuming low on the food chain. Foods that are less processed." Thus, info-veganism is "avoiding highly processed information and getting as close to the source of information as you can. So if you're talking about government, rather than hearing people's opinions on a bill or a resolution, go straight to that bill or resolution."

Johnson also feels it's important to expose yourself to news sources that challenge your own views, and that local news should be part of the mix. "Global news is important, but so is local because that information is really actionable and relevant to you in a way that global, and even national, information isn't."

Adopting a healthy information diet has its rewards, he contends. "You have deeper, better social relationships, you are more stress-free, you're less angry, you're less tense about what's going on with stuff that may not matter to you. And you have more time...when you're not losing half of your day to your email box."

"Everyone's already on an information diet," Johnson added. "The question is, is that information diet healthy for you and is it providing a good outcome for you? I think for most people it's not. "

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The Information Diet

by Clay A. Johnson

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From the publisher:

"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..."

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