Surviving Election 2012: An Information Diet for a Sculpted, Toned Mind

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How better media consumption habits, online and off, can make you a better reader, writer, and thinker

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The first hangover I remember getting was the morning after the Iowa caucuses of 2004. It was cold and snowy in Burlington, Vermont -- a foreign land for a native Georgia Boy--- where I was Howard Dean's lead programmer. We were supposed to win that night, but instead we drank. A lot.

When I entered our offices that morning after, there was a bluster of excitement. Nicco, the campaign's webmaster, came up to me and said "Can you believe it? We're back! That speech last night was awesome. Howard finally let loose!" He was referring to what you now know as the Governor's legendary scream that all but ended his chances at becoming America's president in 2004. Later that afternoon, the interns had a field day playing a version of Outkast's "Hey Yah!" with Governor Dean's scream dubbed over the chorus.

Despite the sinking polling numbers, and the state-after-state losses, we spent the rest of the campaign setting up things like "WDFA," the campaign's online radio station, hoping that that would be the thing that would win us New Hampshire. Or a "Postcards for Dean" web application -- a make-your-own-e-card thing where people could add their own picture and send their support for Howard to their friends. Certainly that would win us Wisconsin! We were further convinced, with every loss, that victory was around the corner.

Here, eight years later, I don't think Howard was all that crazy. But his campaign staff was certainly delusional. And if I had to go back and look at how we caught the disease called delusion, I'd have to point to our information diets. Every morning, the whole staff would wake up to finely selected news clippings about how we were going to win. We spent our afternoons writing and reading blog posts and emails about how we were winning, and in the evenings, we'd watch the West Wing: a fantasy about what would happen once we won.

So of course we were delusional. In essence, we were not so different from the devout of Harold Camping's Family Radio crew who told us that the world would end in rapture last May. Too much affirmation of what we wanted to be true pulled us further and further from reality, and two weeks prior to the Iowa caucuses, when our pollster told us John Kerry would win Iowa, we thought he was the crazy one. We weren't even capable of changing our minds -- even after we'd already lost.

While this year's campaign staffers have been in the trenches now for quite some time, today's Iowa caucuses mark the kickoff of the Great American Delusion Showcase we seem to catch every four years -- the time we get swept up in a national ideological sports competition where the only losers, time and time again, tend to be the voters themselves growing ever more distant from the actual mechanics of their government. It's the delusion where we fantasize that our duties to our democracy begin and end on election day, and that if we vote in some new guy or gal, our problems will somehow be solved.

The problem stems from choice and selection. The democratization of media has made it so we can all be Howard Dean campaign staffers, or followers of Harold Camping. Anything we want to be true we can find online -- and who would choose to be informed when they can choose to be affirmed? You can see it start with our cable media, as Fox and MSNBC are scrambling to find new ways to affirm the beliefs of the right and left respectively, all the way down to the corners of the web, where you can find out why September 11th was a conspiracy, how vaccinations are responsible for autism, why our first black president must not be an American, and how the rapture is still coming soon. No matter the crazy thought in your head, there's a minor media outlet starting up just to serve you: the long-tail of affirmation.

The trick is that this kind of delusion not only misinforms us, it also makes us less apt to make important changes in Washington. Our deep desire to have our teams win make it so that the only ideology that does is the one that perpetuates a Congress that we can pretty much all agree isn't particularly great.

This isn't unlike what's happened with food: our ability to concoct delicious food monstrosities that cater towards our basic evolutionary needs. Who wants to eat broccoli when they can have chocolate covered bacon? Only the health conscious consumer, that's who.

That's why we need an information diet. In the world of media -- and especially in the world of political news, we need to start making the same healthy decisions with our information as we do our food. Conscious media consumption and information selectivity are every bit as important and vital to our individual health as a healthy food diet is. Our ability to make good decisions, to focus, and to have meaningful social relationships hinge on our ability to select healthy information over junk information.

Our consumption of information has a much more immediate impact than even our consumption of food. Every link we click, every website we view, every term we search -- they're all being immediately fed back into a new publishing machine that's geared up to give us more of what we say we want. It's the secret, unspoken pact between consumer and producer.

So when you click on that article about Kim Kardashian over on the right-hand sidebar of that other website, your boss may not see you reading it, but you've made it more probable that she will read it. Your click is a vote, and with that vote, you're not just saying to your media companies that you want to read it, but other people like you want to read it too. Clicks have a significant, and immediate social consequence. As our obesity epidemic challenges our healthcare system, our poor information diets are challenging the fabric of our democracy.

So what's there to do? How do you get started on an information diet?

Being on an information diet doesn't mean taking in less, or going on a social media vacation -- it means consuming the right stuff. You won't find many obese people suffering from eating too much broccoli. The first thing I recommend is that you start measuring what it is you're taking in. That's the only way you can really be a conscious consumer of information.

Measure what you're taking in by keeping a journal of all your media intake. You can use a service like RescueTime.com for what you consume online, and keep a paper journal for the stuff you don't. I've never met someone who isn't shocked and transformed by simply looking at their intake in a conscious way. Take a look at what you're consuming, and make some decisions about what you want to be consuming.

The second thing you should consider is canceling your cable subscription. It's not just an  economic move: It will make your relationship with your television less passive. Channel surfing will become more difficult, as you will have to go through the process of selecting the show you want to watch, and when it's over, you'll have to repeat that process.

You can set your computer up to be useful to your diet too -- though a healthy information diet is really about habits, not about tools. An over reliance on software to manage this for you is like an over-reliance on your refrigerator to maintain your healthy diet. But there are some tools and preferences for a healthy information diet that you can set up and use to make your life easier.

Finally, consider producing more and consuming less. Schedule some time to produce, and make it part of your daily regimen. The production of information -- whether it be through blogging or keeping a journal, is just as important to conscious consumption as the initial consumption of it. Writing or other forms of production give us the ability to clarify our thoughts and positions. Open up your favorite calendar app, and schedule yourself some time to produce. And treat that time with the same level of priority you'd give to a doctor's appointment.

This is enough to get you started on a good information diet for 2012. And if you're interested in more tips and skills you can develop to have a healthier relationship with information, I'll humbly suggest you check out my book, The Information Diet, which is available on the Kindle now, and will be out in hardcover on January 18th.

Remember, our relationship with information is inherently social. That means that being selective with the information you take in doesn't just change your own life, it moves the media market towards being a better provider of information. The only way we turn our affirmation networks back into information networks is by changing our own demands. That, to me, is the only way we're going to survive 2012.

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Clay Johnson is the author of the book, The Information Diet. He was one of the founders of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama's online campaign for the presidency in 2008. After leaving Blue State, Johnson was the director of Sunlight Labs at the Sunlight Foundation.

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