The Information Diet

August 30, 2012

You are what your brain eats.

Back in 1954, psychologist James Olds found that if he allowed a rat to pull a lever and administer a shock to its own lateral hypothalamus, a shock that produced intense pleasure, the rat would keep pressing the lever, over and over again, until it died. (51)

Clay Johnson founded Blue State Digital, the firm that managed the online arm of the Obama 2008 campaign. He saw a lot of problems in the world and believed that putting the right people in office could help solve them. So he did. And then we proceeded to have a puzzling national debate about whether or not the president is an American citizen. So, sensing an evident lack of good information, Johnson went to work for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that enables government transparency by making public data easier to access. If we make the facts available, he must have thought, the public will become better informed and make better decisions. And then one day in Washington he saw a man on the street with a sign. It read:

“Get your government hands off my Medicare.”1

It wasn’t long before Johnson left the Sunlight Foundation, never doubting its importance but disillusioned with the idea that transparency is enough. In truth, we live in a world with unprecedented access to information, and yet everywhere people are in the grip of ignorance. It is this paradox that led the author to write The Information Diet.

I should note that this is primarily a book about the brain, not politics. Many of Johnson’s examples come from politics, but only because politics is his background. Equally symptomatic of the problem he’s investigating is how his wife becomes a different person when checking email, and the way websites like BuzzFeed mine our dopamine channels for ad-revenue.

The Problem

Johnson’s hypothesis is that the way most of us consume information is unhealthy, making us less rational, less functional citizens, and easy targets for manipulation. We are, he argues, addicted to information–consuming it primarily for its emotional, rather than epistemic effects. Allow me to illustrate this personally:

A while ago, while browsing Facebook, I saw one of my friends had posted a link to this story on Jezebel: Prominent Republican Fundraiser Allegedly Also Quite Gifted at Rape. As someone who identifies mostly with the left, I felt pleasantly affirmed when I saw it (“I knew it! Republicans are bad people!”). It was a good feeling and I wanted more of it, so I clicked through and read the entire story. It was, ultimately, a waste of a few minutes, since there’s little of factual merit in the story that I couldn’t gather from just the title. I also did a cognitive disservice to some of my Right-leaning friends and family–since “neurons that fire together wire together,” reading that story forged a neural bond in my brain between “rape” and “Republicans” from which no good can come. Finally, by clicking that link to Jezebel’s ad-supported website, I made them some money, perpetuating the entire system that led to this interaction.

If this sounds like an experience you’ve ever had, then this book was written for you. The author’s goal–plainly stated in the subtitle, “A Case for Conscious Consumption”–is to get us to think about how we consume information and how these habits affect us.

Lessons from Obesity

Johnson compares the problem to the obesity epidemic in the U.S.2, likening our food consumption habits with our informational ones. The similarities are thus:

Besides these similarities to obesity, there are a host of other factors unique to information which push us toward unhealthy consumption:

Having seen all these aggravating factors for information obesity, you may be wondering whether you’ve got it. Read on:

Symptoms of Information Obesity

I fit more of these symptoms than I’m pleased to admit. Fortunately, Johnson proposes five guidelines for a more healthy information intake.

The Solution: An Information Diet

1. Data Literacy

2. Attention Fitness

Attention fitness is the willpower to expend as much attention as a situation requires, and resist distraction. Studies show there are psychological benefits to mindless surfing, but Johnson recommends compartmentalizing time spent this way. Limit checking email/Twitter/Facebook a few times a day, at set times, and never while working, freeing your mind to focus.

3. Maintain a Sense of humor

Johnson tells a story of a warm and funny exchange he had with Karl Rove, as opposed a political rival as could be. Rove offered to sign a photograph so Johnson could “show [his] liberal friends that he met the great Satan himself”, 97. If we can’t see the humanity in people with whom we disagree (and even talk and laugh with them), then we’re in way too deep for our own good.

4. How to Consume

Like Pollan’s, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” guideline for what to eat, we should consume information (as opposed to opinion), not too much, and from a wide range of sources, especially local ones. Johnson makes much of conscious consumption, implying that most of our information consumption habits are unconscious.

Consume locally: you probably can’t do anything material about national politics or international affairs, but you can make a difference in your community if you bother to find out what’s going on. We should consume information proportionally to our ability to act upon it.

Consume consciously: Cancel your cable bill and watch things on demand through iTunes and Netflix. Not only will you save money and avoid commercials, but by having to actively select what to watch, you’ll watch less and better programming than by mindlessly channel surfing.

Avoid ads: install an ad blocker in your browser; use Instapaper or Readability to extract the content from ad-laden web pages; don’t sign up for email lists. Basically, treat your attention like it’s worth something, because it is.

Consume diversely: seek diversity in topics and perspectives consumed. Follow respectable ideological rivals on Facebook or Twitter. Make a list of your biases, and be on guard when what you’re reading relies too much on them.

5. Infobesity, like Obesity, is a Social Disease

Finally, get your friends on board. Just as it’s harder to eat healthy if your friends are always indulging, it’s hard to maintain healthy information habits if friends are always sending you linkbait. So get them on the wagon, and if necessary, even chew them out for posting sensationalist, one-sided information, even when you agree with it. Just as smoking is slowly becoming socially unsavory, so should poisoning your brain with rubbish be.

  1. Not wanting to seem partisan, Johnson gives an example of staggering ignorance from the other side of the aisle, this one of a women standing outside a V.A. hospital with a sign reading “Enlist here to die for Halliburton.” 

  2. According to CDC data, in 1990 no state had an obesity rate above 14%. But by 2010, no state had an obesity rate below 20%, with most above 25%. 

  3. According to the author, just four companies produce 81% of cows, 73% of sheep, 57% of pigs, and 50% of chickens in America.