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.
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:
- We can’t handle abundance: In most of the world, food and information are more available than ever, and nothing in our evolutionary history has prepared our minds or bodies to handle this abundance. On the contrary, we’ve been programmed by millions of years of scarcity to obtain as much calories and information as we can, and our brains reward us for it.
- crooked economic incentives: The entities tasked with providing most of our food are giant, impersonal corporations driven solely by profit, which means selling as much food as possible. Likewise, the entities we trust to keep us informed–the media–exist to make a profit, which means getting us to peruse their ad-laden pages and glue our eyes to their broadcasts to the greatest extent possible. What’s good for them isn’t necessarily good for us, and vice-versa.
- commoditization: Both food and information have largely become commodities, i.e. goods differentiated only by price, not quality. With food, this has been a result of industrialization; the few huge players3 in the market depend on standardization to keep their supply chains running smoothly. With information, it’s largely a result of the price bottoming out at zero. Good information can survive in the market only if we’re willing to pay for it.
- what we want isn’t always good for us: In their cutthroat competition for our attention, both food companies and the media can do no better than to give us exactly what we want. When it comes to food, we want salt, sugar, and fat–the nutrients historically most rare and valuable in the our environment. And when it comes to information, we want–and will pay for and watch and click on–emotional validation more than the truth.
Besides these similarities to obesity, there are a host of other factors unique to information which push us toward unhealthy consumption:
- the confirmation bias: All else being equal, our brains tend to favor information that confirms what we already believe over that which contradicts our beliefs.
- “The Filter Bubble”: a term coined by Eli Pariser which refers to an ingenious strategy, sinister in its effects, at play on Google, Facebook, and similar websites. These sites tailor the results we see based on what we’ve clicked on in the past, in effect presenting us with a view of reality skewed toward what their algorithms think we want to see (and toward what we’re statistically more likely to click on, earning them money). If you’ve noticed friends with opposing political leanings disappear from your life online, this is why.
- “Doubt is their product”-style manipulation: As research began coming to light about the adverse health effects of smoking, cigarette companies sought to protect their market as long as possible not by openly refuting that research, but by funding and publicizing bogus studies designed to sow doubt in the public mind. You can’t refute the truth, but you can buy a bigger megaphone.
- the backfire effect: It’s been shown in studies that when we believe something false and are then faced with the truth, we tend to instead cling even more tightly to the false belief. Outside the formal rigor of the scientific community, perhaps, evidence doesn’t reliably change peoples’ minds.
- worse than ignorance: When we consume false or useless information, it gives us the illusion that we’re well-informed when we are precisely the opposite.
- dopamine: Just as it pushed our ancestors to look for new sources of food and water, dopamine rewards us for finding new information. Unfortunately, refreshing Twitter or email and finding a bevy of new inanities also triggers a dopamine release, causing us to seek more. It’s this vicious cycle that can make us addicted to information.
Having seen all these aggravating factors for information obesity, you may be wondering whether you’ve got it. Read on:
Symptoms of Information Obesity
- reality dysmorphia: By seeking only the most affirming sources of information, we start to see the world as we’d like to, not as it is. This is why politics has become so partisan. Hardcore Republicans and Democrats simply don’t live in the same world, so it’s no wonder they can’t agree on what the problems are that we face, let alone their solutions. As Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner said of speaking with Obama, it’s sometimes like “two different people from two different planets who barely understand each other” (54).
- physical addiction: If you feel a rush of comfort when you turn on Bill O’Reilly or John Stewart (or anxiety at missing their shows), it’s probably about more than just being informed.
- lack of empathy: Our brains change in reaction to how we consume information. If we only read the most outrageous things about people with whom we disagree, then whenever we meet such people our brains are more likely to flip the “outrage” switch.
- intolerance of opposing viewpoints: This is a sign you may be more attuned to the emotional effects of news than its informational content
- epistemic closure: We get to a point where we believe things simply because their source is on “our” side, without question. If your beliefs aren’t backed by primary, rather than secondary sources (or, better yet, your own logic from first principles), then they’re not really justified.
- losing track of time: while consuming information. This is standard addictive behavior.
- attention fatigue: If you find it difficult to focus your attention for long stretches, you may be consuming too much information or be used to consuming it only superficially, or both.
- loss of social breadth: or, only being able to have a conversation within the narrow range of people who already agree with you.
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
- Search: Learn how to look for reliable information. Google Books and Google Scholar let you search published books and research to find information from primary sources. Government websites (data.gov?) make a lot available as well.
- Filter: Practice discerning reliable and accurate sources of information. Train yourself to question the intent of its source, and develop a sensitivity to emotional manipulation.
- Create: practice formulating your own (ideally written) opinion on primary source information, and resist the tendency to merely parrot opinions from even trusted sources.
- Synthesize: seek and strive to understand ideas wildly different from your own, and bring them to bear on yours. You may not agree with them, but you should be able to explain why not.
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.
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.” ↩
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%. ↩
According to the author, just four companies produce 81% of cows, 73% of sheep, 57% of pigs, and 50% of chickens in America. ↩