A Healthy Information Diet: The Case for Conscious Consumption

"You are a mashup of what you let into your life," artist Austin Kleon recently proclaimed. This encapsulates the founding philosophy behind Brain Pickings -- a filtration mechanism that lets into your life things that are interesting, meaningful, creatively and intellectually stimulating, memorable. Naturally, I was thrilled for the release of Clay Johnson's The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption -- an intelligent manifesto for optimizing the 11 hours we spend consuming information on any given day (a number that, for some of us, might be frighteningly higher) in a way that serves our intellectual, creative, and psychological well-being.

Johnson -- best known for directing Sunlight Labs at government transparency operation Sunlight Foundation -- draws a parallel between the industrialization of food, which at once allowed for ever-greater efficiency and reined in an obesity epidemic, and the industrialization of information, arguing that blaming the abundance of information itself is as absurd as blaming the abundance of food for obesity. Instead, he proposes a solution that lies in engineering a healthy relationship with information by adopting smarter habits and becoming as selective about the information we consume as we are about the food we eat. In the process, he covers the history of information, the science of attention, the healthy economics of media, and a wealth in between.

In any democratic nation with the freedom of speech, information can never be as strongly regulated by the public as our food, water, and air. Yet information is just as vital to our survival as the other three things we consume. That's why personal responsibility in an age of mostly free information is vital to individual and social health. If we want our communities and our democracies to thrive, we need a healthier information diet.

(For a piece of timely irony, consider the fact that the book came out at a time when the U.S. government is considering a policy that not only attempts to regulate access to information, but does so for the purpose of force-feeding the public Hollywood's entertainment lard.)

Johnson begins with a familiar quote from Steve Jobs:

When you're young, you look at television and think, There's a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that's not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That's a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It's the truth.

He builds on the analogy between food and information by arguing that just like we know we're products of the food we eat, we must understand just how much we're products of the information we consume -- and consume accordingly. Yet the sheer amount of information available to us -- 800,000 petabytes (a million gigabytes per petabyte) in the storage universe and 3.6 zettabytes (a million petabytes per zettabyte) consumed by American homes per day, expected to increase 44-fold by 2020 -- is mind-boggling.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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