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.
Using Google's n-gram viewer, which searches the occurrences of a particular phrase in a corpus of English books from the past 150 years, Johnson points out that the term "information overload" became popular in the 1960s, surging 50 percent by 1980 and then again by 2000.
But, Johnson is careful to point out, the term itself is semantically broken:
The concept of information overload doesn't work, however, because as much as we'd like to equate our brains with iPods or hard drives, human beings are biological creatures, not mechanical ones. Our brains are as finite in capacity as our waistlines. While people may eat themselves into a heart attack, they don't actually die of overconsumption: we don't see many people taking their last bite at a fried chicken restaurant, overstepping their maximum capacity, and exploding. Nobody has a maximum amount of storage for fat, and it's unlikely that we have a maximum capacity for knowledge.
Yet we seem to want to solve the problem mechanically. Turn it the other way around and you see how absurd it is. Trying to deal with our relationship with information as though we are somehow digital machines is like trying to upgrade our computers by sitting them in fertilizer. We're looking at the problem through the wrong lens.
Johnson argues that instead of the lens of productivity and efficiency, which have become a false holy grail for our inbox zero-obsessed culture, we should consider this through the lens with which we assess what we consume biologically: health. Because the problem is now larger than a mere matter of getting things done:
It's a matter of health and survival. Information and power are inherently related. Our ability to process and communicate information is as much an evolutionary advantage as our opposable thumbs.
Still, Johnson cautions that we're wired to love certain kinds of information, most notably affirmation, so we seek out information that confirms, rather than challenges, our existing beliefs. (Cue in Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble.)
Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar -- the stuff that people crave -- media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they're right?
Ultimately, at the heart of The Information Diet lies an urgency to not only recognize, but also act upon, something we all intuit but have a hard time enacting:
Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.
To aid in that, Johnson has provided a toolkit of helpful (mostly) free software for a healthy information diet on the book's site, ranging from productivity apps to ad blockers to various setting hacks to make your favorite services and social web platforms more conducive to info-wellness.
Image: O'Reilly Media.
This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.