Overindulging at the data trough

In his book "The Information Diet," Clay Johnson confronts the endless stream of information that characterizes our daily lives.

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.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.