Overindulging at the data trough

In his new book, “The Information Diet,” Clay Johnson argues that we consume too much information. It comes to us over cable TV news channels, from the Internet’s countless news sites and blogs, and in conversations with friends at work, in the neighborhood, and on Facebook or Twitter.

Johnson says we’ve become a nation of information gluttons, but that vast amount of information is making us dumber. Our attention spans are shorter, and our understanding of issues is colored by the ideology of our information sources, which are happy to continue serving us content that confirms what we already believe.

He recommends putting ourselves on an information diet so that we consume less, consume wisely and challenge our beliefs by seeking out sources with which we don’t always agree.

Johnson is the founder of Big Window Labs and former director of Sunlight Labs, and he was recently named a White House innovation fellow. Subtitled “A Case for Conscious Consumption,” his book checks in at a slim 150 pages, showing that he is doing his part to trim consumption. Here is an excerpt.

There is no such thing as information overload

Once we begin to accept that information technology is neutral and cannot possibly rewire our brains without our consent or cooperation, something else becomes really clear: There’s no such thing as information overload.

It’s the best “first world problem” there is. “Oh, my inbox is so full” and “I just can’t keep up with all the tweets and status updates and e-mails” are common utterances of the digital elite. Though we constantly complain of it — of all the news and e-mails and status updates and tweets and the television shows that we feel compelled to watch — the truth is that information is not requiring you to consume it. It can’t: Information is no more autonomous than fried chicken, and it has no ability to force you to do anything as long as you are aware of how it affects you. There have always been more human knowledge and experience than any one human could absorb. It’s not the total amount of information but your information habit that is pushing you to whatever extreme you find uncomfortable.

Even so, we not only blame the information for our problems, we’re arrogant about it. More disturbing than our personification of information is the presumption that the concept of information overload is a new one, specific to our time.

In 1755, French philosopher Denis Diderot noted: “As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.”

Diderot was on target with the continuous growth of books, but he also made a common mistake in predicting the future. He presumed that technology would stay complacent. In this short verse, he didn’t anticipate that with an increasing number of books, new ways to classify and organize them would arise.

A century after Diderot wrote, we had the Dewey Decimal system to help us search for those bits of truth “hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.” Two and a half centuries later, the pages are bound not to book bindings but to electronic formats. It has never been faster and easier than with Amazon to find and buy a book in either a print or electronic version. And Google would be delighted if every word of every book were searchable — on Google.

To say, therefore, that the Internet causes our misinformation ignores history. In the modern arms race between fact and fiction, it’s always been a close fight: We’re no better at being stupid or misinformed than our grandparents were. It’s the ultimate ironic form of generational narcissism. History is filled with entire cultures ending up misinformed and misled by ill-willed politicians and deluded masses.

Diderot was onto something, but he was lured into the trap of blaming the information technology itself.

The field of health rarely has this problem: One never says that a lung cancer victim dies of “cigarette overload” unless a cigarette truck falls on him. Why, then, do we blame the information for our ills? Our early nutritionist [William] Banting provides some prescient advice. He writes [in his book “Letter on Corpulence,” published in 1863]: “I am thoroughly convinced that it is quality alone which requires notice and not quantity. This has been emphatically denied by some writers in the public papers, but I can confidently assert, upon the indisputable evidence of many of my correspondents as well as my own, that they are mistaken.”

Banting’s letter gives us an idea of what the real problem is. It’s not information overload, it’s information overconsumption that’s the problem. Information overload means somehow managing the intake of vast quantities of information in new and more efficient ways. Information overconsumption means we need to find new ways to be selective about our intake. It is very difficult, for example, to overconsume vegetables.

In addition, the information overload community tends to rely on technical filters — the equivalent of trying to lose weight by rearranging the shelves in your refrigerator. Tools tend to amplify existing behavior. The mistaken concept of information overload distracts us from paying attention to behavioral changes.

The Information Overload Research Group, a consortium of “researchers, practitioners and technologists,” is a group set up to help “reduce information overload.” Its website offers a research section with 26 research papers on the topic, primarily focused on dealing with electronic mail and technology used to manage distractions and interruptions. If they mention user behavior at all, they’re focused on a person’s relationship with a computer and the tools within it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a good spam filter as much as the next person, but what we need are new ways of thinking and of coping. Just as Banting triggered a wave of concern about diet as we shifted from a land of food scarcity to abundance, we have to start taking responsibility ourselves for the information that we consume. That means taking a hard look at how our information is being supplied, how it affects us, and what we can do to reduce its negative effects and enhance its positive ones.

A new kind of ignorance

Johnson writes about a new kind of ignorance that arises from having too much, rather than too little, information. It consists of:

  • Culturally induced doubt — A “modern form of manufactured ignorance” created by providing seemingly factual data in support of a desired conclusion. Think of the tobacco companies’ efforts to convince people that smoking was not dangerous.
  • Epistemic closure — A phenomenon that arises when people get the bulk of their information from sources that support their existing political views. Information from outside the news consumer’s chosen array of sources are dismissed out of hand because he or she assumes it carries an unwanted bias.
  • Filter failure — A skewing of one’s information exposure by choosing to associate only with friends or relatives with whom one largely agrees. This tendency is amplified by social media sites such as Facebook, which will, over time, shape one’s news feed to exclude political items one disagrees with (based on noticing which items the user clicks on). Even Facebook users who have friends with whom they often disagree might find posts from those friends appearing less frequently as the Facebook algorithms tailor their news feeds.

Excerpted from “The Information Diet” by Clay Johnson, published by O'Reilly Media Inc. Copyright 2011 Clay Johnson. All rights reserved.

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