Review: The Information Diet

By Dan Wilcock

Here’s a book that most of us could use. Clay Johnson’s book The Information Diet (2012, O’Reilly Media) takes a non-pretentious look at what would be painfully obvious were we not so engrossed: we’ve become information obese. Our brains are constantly fattened for the kill. We need to be a lot more choosy about the quantity and quality of what we put into our heads.

Johnson is an IT guy. He founded Blue State Digital, the digital strategy company that helped Obama first win the presidency in 2008, and has since gone on to found a variety of ventures at the intersection of policy and software development. He writes with a smart, non-pedantic style. Yet he isn’t immune to hyperbole:

The Internet is the single biggest creator of ignorance mankind has ever created, as well as the single biggest eliminator of that ignorance.

Perhaps he’s right about this. Depends on how you define “biggest,” but it’s a bold claim nonetheless. That being said, boldness is a good strong suit to have if you’re going to take on the media matrix in which our minds swim. Rage Against the Machine once critiqued this matrix as follows:

No escape from the mass mind rape
Play it again Jack and then rewind the tape
Play it again and again and again
Until ya mind is locked in

Believin’ all the lies that they are tellin’ ya
Buyin’ all the products that they are sellin’ ya
They say jump, ya say how high
Ya brain dead
Ya gotta fuckin’ bullet in your head (source Metro Lyrics)

Johnson basically concurs with Zack De La Rocha, but without the stridency:

Our attention is the currency that marketers lust for, and it’s about time we started guarding it, consciously, like we guard our bank accounts.

Being an IT guy, Johnson favors a programming approach. Perhaps for most people already addicted to social media and their favorite pundits it’s more like re-programming. He suggests that people move beyond “a reactive model of computing, where you’re constantly being tugged and pulled in every direction and responding to every notification that comes across your screen, into a conscious model, where you’re in complete control of what you’re paying attention to.”

Music to my ears. The human can manage information, not the other way around. So simple it’s kind of dumb, but what’s really dumb is that far too many of us are not awake to this reality. Johnson argues that we have four powerful mental muscles we can flex: searching, filtering, creating, and synthesizing.

Johnson’s framework and the how-to advice that flow from it are the book’s best aspects. Less developed is the larger societal context in which he tries to fit these skills in the book’s final pages. After leaving Blue State, Johnson directed Sunlight Labs, part of the pro-government-transparency Sunlight Foundation, and I think he’s still too close to that foundation’s mission to be objective about it. It may be the case that this mission is what drove him to write the book in the first place (he often recommends going to original source information such as government databases), but for me the book’s general lessons are more valuable–and more universally applicable–than the limited issue of whether Government data gets posted.

All in all though, a very worthwhile book by a socially conscious technologist. More like this, please.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s