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Book Review: The Information Diet 102

stoolpigeon writes "It is a well known fact that the United States has an obesity problem. There are numerous causes that ultimately lead to an imbalance in the ratio between the number of calories taken in to the number of calories burned. The size of the American diet industry is another good indicator of how widespread the problem has become. Clay Johnson believes that the issues the U.S. has with food have become mirrored in how we consume information." Read below for the rest of stoolpigeon's review.
The Information Diet
author Clay A. Johnson
pages 160
publisher O'Reilly Media
rating 8/10
reviewer stoolpigeon
ISBN 978-1449304683
summary A Case for Conscious Consumption
Understanding, and buying into, this metaphor of information obesity is key to The Information Diet. Johnson is aware of this and the text never wanders far from the comparisons. He begins with an extensive telling of the physical obesity issue that plagues the United States and then always frames the rest of his work in nutritional/fitness terms. A few chapters are "Welcome to Information Obesity", "The Symptoms of Information Obesity", "Attentions Fitness" and "How to Consume." Readers who don't buy into the parallels are going to have a really hard time with the book. The comparison and prescriptions for behavior never wander far from the picture and so it's not something one can brush off early on and then ignore for the rest of the book. I think that Johnson is right, so I dug into the book, eager to see what he recommended.

I don't think that anyone would argue about the physical obesity problem. I think what readers may be skeptical about is this idea of information obesity. The premise that Johnson puts forward is that we have access to more information than ever before, much in the same way that developed nations have more food available than ever before. (I will let the reader continue to draw the parallels — this example should be enough to figure it out.) While we have more information than ever before, not all information is equal. Some information is good for us and some is not. Another problem is that we tend to seek certain kinds of information that can give us a skewed and inaccurate view of the world we live in. People have access to more information yet they become more ignorant.

Johnson is an activist. Much of his life has been about affecting change. He is very upfront about this and the book contains a large amount of biographical information. Of course this is because he must. Johnson is laying out an argument for digging past the fluff, the bias and finding ways to be informed by facts. But he has his own built in bias and internal spin that he must counter even as he encourages the reader to do the same. I think that for the most part he has managed to do this well, not necessarily by being completely objective but by being transparent. Some of his examples felt a little weak to me, but this is because I had such a different approach to the event, topic or people that he chose as examples. I think his underlying observations were correct, and his sharing freely about his background and default positions helped me to reconcile his main point with my reservations about the specific examples.

The first six chapters are part of the introduction section and lay out Johnson's case for the information obesity problem. The next four chapters are the actual "Information Diet". Here Johnson moves from describing the problem to full on advocacy. Always striving for objectivity Johnson is always quick to describe what science is out there to give light to his position. The problem is that there just isn't much of it out there. This means that the diet itself is a mix of what has seemed to work well for Johnson himself and some broad recommendations. This may be frustrating to anyone who is looking for hard and fast direction. It's not that Johnson doesn't give concrete suggestions, it's just that he can't claim any assurance that they will work for anyone but himself. That said, I think there is a good chance that many of his ideas about how we spend our time taking in information, how we find sources and tools as well as attitudes that may help seem to be good. I think that anyone who moves from being unaware of the issue to being intentional in how they take in information is better off by that change alone.

Working through this process of finding the "diet" that works for someone is something they may want to do with others. With this in mind, and I think reflecting Johnson's bent as an activist, there is an Information Diet web site with a blog, resources and information on things like events. It is tied into some social tools and so one is able to interact with other information dieters.

Unfortunately this site is at once a marketing tool for the book (hoped 'movement' I guess) and this reflects the constant tension that exists in the fact that Johnson is at once pushing for social change and seeking to profit at the same time. He is constantly in danger, while writing and in the external resources for the book, of violating the principles he is endorsing. A friend recently told me, "David Benatar, author of Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, which argues against procreation, dedicates this book to his parents." It's that appearance of contradiction that pops up here as well. I'm told to filter out more noise, seek out better information and twitter and if I like the idea here are the buttons to let the world know on Facebook, Twitter, g+ or email. It's not that this can't all be reconciled, it is just jarring. This is something that will drive skeptics nuts and I dinged my rating of the book for it, though I think the good outweighs the bad in this regard. Just because the site exists, I don't think that invalidates the thought and I don't have to go there. I feel I've benefited from the book alone.

The book is squarely aimed at an American audience. That's pretty clear from the get-go. Much of Johnson's life has been involved in American politics, the obesity metaphor works well for an American audience and so it makes sense that this would be the scope of the work. I think that is unfortunate because I believe there is a broader application for his ideas with regard to how information is processed and the explosion in the amount of information available. A person who is not an American could read the book and I am sure find some good things to take away but understanding many of the stories and examples would be difficult without some knowledge and understanding of American culture and recent history.

The third section of the book, "Social Obesity", Johnson returns to his enumeration of the ills caused by information obesity. The people who lose out due to poor information habits are not just the individuals but the society as a whole. Johnson invites readers to become a part of a "Vast Rational Conspiracy." I believe he is genuine in this call to action and that is what allows me to forgive some of the efforts around the book that look more self-serving. I believe he is truly trying to fuel a fundamental shift in discourse and knowledge in the United States. This also causes me to be more sympathetic about the geographical focus, though I think it is only fair that readers from other countries be warned. Johnson has created a call to action and he's starting with his home. I am sure he would love to see it spread and move beyond the borders of his native country. The skeptic would again see this happiness as a function of increased personal gain. I'm a little more optimistic, or maybe just a sucker.

This last section is the shortest. It includes a note to programmers that ought to at least be a bit of an ego boost, as they learn they are the new "scribes" of our age. Or having, as Johnson puts it, "...a better ability to figure out the world than anybody else." The appendix with further reading has some great pointers to good reading on-line and in books.

I've rated The Information Diet 8 of 10 because I think Johnson at moments loses the battle to not engage in the kind of objectivity that he advocates and because the book has such a regionally focused audience. That said, it has changed my behavior and I think that it has a positive place. In fact I've become an advocate for many of the ideas, even when I don't recommend the book itself. I recently ran into a barrage of emails from various co-workers advocating that we "turn off technology" because it is too distracting from real life. I found this to be rather annoying because there are always distractions and tech is also important and a force for better lives. The ideas in The Information Diet have given me options to offer people that let them gain control of the information sources in their life rather than giving up and just shutting them all off.

Will the The Information Diet have a great impact over time? I am really not sure. I think that it is definitely a precursor of things to come. Just by being published it will encourage others to copy it and I think we will see the parallel to physical diet and eating continue. But will Johnson finally achieve his goal of making the world a better place? Only time will tell, but I think it is a noble effort.

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Book Review: The Information Diet

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