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Books Book Reviews

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.

You can purchase The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Book Review: The Information Diet

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 11, 2012 @04:54PM (#39649477)

    My primary criticism of this book is that it was written 10 minutes at a time. The author even admits to this.

    This creates "chapters" which rarely are more than a page, I think there was even 2 "chapters" on a single page at one point (Dan Brown eat your heart out).

    He simply wrote the book in a blog format then tried collecting all of his "posts" into a single coherent book experience. He failed miserably in my opinion.

    The ideas were brief and failed any follow through. I kept reading waiting for him to actually give me "the diet". All I got out of it was I needed to reduce my consumption of bad information.

    Well no duh, that's why I stole the book in the first place, TELL ME HOW.

    In fact, while I was reading the book I kept saying to myself that I should self-publish my own ideas about information consumption and could make some money since clearly the available writing talent and content on the subject is thin.

    • That's interesting - I didn't really notice because I read it on my kindle. (The review copy I got came as a pdf and I used calibre to convert it and put it on my device.) I felt like it all flowed pretty well though. There can't be a literal diet because what will work for one person wont work for another at all. I think that the principles he describes help one to become more conscious in the decisions made about where information is found and how it is consumed. To me that had some value.

      I think your las

    • Well no duh, that's why I stole the book in the first place, TELL ME HOW.

      Well, for example by not reading his book. ;-)

  • by OzPeter ( 195038 ) on Wednesday April 11, 2012 @04:55PM (#39649493)

    You go to most restaurants in the US and the server up way more food than you would/should want to consume. Portion sizes are horrendously huge .. but that is the expectation - just look at what has happened to the "standard" soda size. Back 40 years, 12oz used to be King Sized, now days that is less than a small size.

    • by vlm ( 69642 )

      Go shopping more. Inflation is shrinking package sizes. My standard "half pound" can of snack almonds is now only 7 oz. Same 1/2 pound price, of course. Ice cream containers are shrinking at an almost visible velocity. What we used to call "two pound frozen dinners" are down to darn near 1.5 pounds now. Also see mini-cans of soda. I'm expecting to see cartons of eggs that only hold 10 eggs instead of a dozen pretty soon.

      Its becoming a problem for cooking. So the recipe suggests a 16 oz can of tomato

      • by doston ( 2372830 )

        Go shopping more. Inflation is shrinking package sizes. My standard "half pound" can of snack almonds is now only 7 oz. Same 1/2 pound price, of course. Ice cream containers are shrinking at an almost visible velocity. What we used to call "two pound frozen dinners" are down to darn near 1.5 pounds now. Also see mini-cans of soda. I'm expecting to see cartons of eggs that only hold 10 eggs instead of a dozen pretty soon.

        Its becoming a problem for cooking. So the recipe suggests a 16 oz can of tomatoes but the largest can I can now buy is 14 ounces. Hmm. Add about two shots of H2O to the recipe or what?

        Yeah noticed the same thing. Coffee beans used to come in 16 oz bags, now 12 oz...for the same price or more.

      • I'm expecting to see cartons of eggs that only hold 10 eggs instead of a dozen pretty soon.

        Grocery near my house sells eggs in six-packs. Which I find remarkably useful, because I don't use eggs enough to need 12 before they go south on me.

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          They have half-dozen cartons where I live, too. But I usually get the 18 egg cartons, eggs last a long time in the fridge.

    • Maybe I watch the wrong kind of TV series, but the impression I often get:

      • USA TV series: people eat at least once and episode, and it's not unusual if it's 3 times
      • British TV series: people drink, often, and a lot.

      I do notice that seeing people eat makes me hungry.

    • It sucks that it's hard to buy smaller portions out, too. Where's the option for two chicken strips and half the fries, rather than the insane four strips and a giant pile of fries? Assuming you can get a half order or share a single order, you'll likely pay extra, which sucks.

      Relatedly: pushing people toward the largest size with prices, on items with very large margins. Example: movie theater soda. Small? $5.00. Large, with twice the volume and unlimited refills? $5.25. It's bullshit.

      • Nobody became obese or developed diabetes or heart disease from eating too much lettuce (there are other consequences, to be sure). Any number of "chicken" strips is too many, and any amount of movie theatre soda is too much. Sure, technically, you could eat these in sufficiently moderate quantities to avoid their inherently toxic effects, but few do. Moreover, they are engineered to induce you to consume the maximum amount you can stomach/afford.

        Just opt out of the typical American garbage diet altogeth

        • You're right. Instead of the upsized all-you-can-choke-down soda and the swimming-in-trans-fat popcorn, I'll just step up to the salad bar at the movie theater.

          Wait. What?

          OTOH, you might appreciate the opportunity to segue into a screed about junk movies as well as junk food. You're welcome.

          • by PeanutButterBreath ( 1224570 ) on Wednesday April 11, 2012 @06:07PM (#39650269)

            You're right. Instead of the upsized all-you-can-choke-down soda and the swimming-in-trans-fat popcorn, I'll just step up to the salad bar at the movie theater.

            Wait. What?

            The theater I patronize has a full menu (including salads). It also serves beer and tickets are cheaper than at the megaplex. But even if you have no such option, can you really not go 2 hours without eating?

          • Or... you could take 6 months of weekly movie ticket money and just buy a projector and decent screen for your home instead. Then you can have whatever the heck you want for snacks as well as other perks like no annoying audience members texting or talking, no sticky floors, nobody's head in the way, and you can pause the movie while you take a bathroom or snack refill break. And after the initial investment it won't cost $30-$40 for 2 people to "go" to the movies any more.

      • by dwye ( 1127395 )

        Doggy bags, dude. They're not just for dogs, anymore (ignoring that they never were).

        I regularly buy MORE Chinese food for "dinner" so that I have a full lunch for the next day, rather than just enough to act as an appetizer for the full-sized lunch that I would otherwise then eat (who makes *half* a ham on rye sandwich?).

        BTW, buying movie theater soda -- you're too late to be worrying about portion size, you will go broke, first. And you will miss too much of the movie when you run to the restrooms, mid-

    • by ThorGod ( 456163 )

      Umm...the book is about information overload and not food overload.

    • by bdclary ( 663568 )
      I think this is due to the customer's perceived value of the meal and economies of scale (the incremental cost of putting more food on the plate diminishes as more is put on). People may be more likely to eat at your restaurant if they perceive you offer a better value than competitors (assuming that quality of food is the same). Example of the economies of scale can be found in the Cheeburger Cheeburger menu (Sanibel Island, FL location): http://cheeburger.snappyorder.com/order/menu.asp?restaurant=146 [snappyorder.com]
    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      You go to most restaurants in the US and they serve up way more food than you would/should want to consume.

      Two words: "doggie bag." I almost never leave a restaraunt empty handed, always leave with a go-box with enough leftovers for another full meal.

      just look at what has happened to the "standard" soda size

      Yeah, they used to have large, medium, and small. Now they have large, medium, and humungous. When I was a kid a small coke at McDonalds was 8 oz, medium 12 oz, large 16 oz. Now the "small" is 16 oz. The

  • by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Wednesday April 11, 2012 @04:58PM (#39649523) Journal
    Considering the size of the American diet industry, (and the size of Americans) one would have to conclude one or more of the following:
    1. Diets promote weight gain
    2. Nobody who needs to go on a diet actually does
    3. The diet industry is run by a bunch of con artists
    4. The diet industry is in cahoots with the food industry to produce an ever hungry, yet ever overweight cash cow
    5. Nobody in the industry understands what a diet really is
    • There are some other options, one of them being that diets fail to address the real problems that lead to weight gain.

      However, it seems this book is not about actual dieting, but about information processing.

    • "No matter how little I eat, I just don't lose weight!"

      Oh, yeah, I've heard of that. You've got one of those thyroid problems. You know, where it causes you to metabolize zero-point energy.

    • by judoguy ( 534886 )

      Considering the size of the American diet industry, (and the size of Americans) one would have to conclude one or more of the following:

      1. Diets promote weight gain - So true!
      2. Nobody who needs to go on a diet actually does - Disagree. Zillions of people are desperately trying to lose weight all the time. Many, many miserable people out there.
      3. The diet industry is run by a bunch of con artists - Or at least ignorant people
      4. The diet industry is in cahoots with the food industry to produce an ever hungry, yet ever overweight cash cow - Maybe
      5. Nobody in the industry understands what a diet really is - The sad part is that they probably do understand or at least have access to the science and they ignore it. It ain't a secret.
    • Most diets emphasize exercise, and studies now show exercise stimulates hunger. Thus people stay fat. Or they quit exercise but don't downsize their food intake (thus regaining what they lost).

      For me the most effective diet was simply continuing my normal lifestyle but eating half as much. (But you can't sell a book with just one sentence.)

      • I'm re-reading The Hacker's Diet [fourmilab.ch] in another tab. Excellent article. Exercise is basically pointless when it comes to weight loss; twelve hours of bicycling full out to burn off one measly pound of fat. Who has the time for that? It's far easier to just not eat that extra pound in the first place.
        • Cardio is basically pointless when it comes to weight loss (but still extremely beneficial to your general health!). 'Exercise' is a far too general term here. The way in which exercise can induce weight loss is by increasing your non-fatty tissue and subsequently your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). A couple of weeks of strength training can achieve that: http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Abstract/2001/04000/Effect_of_strength_training_on_resting_metabolic.5.aspx [lww.com].

          This graph [sciencelearn.org.nz] or Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] shows why increasin
        • I lost a ton of weight after I read the Hacker's Diet. (Found out about it here from a slashdot friend) I gained it all back later when I took my finger off the button and reverted to old eating habits. I have other friends that have done better.

          The big eye opener there for me was realizing that I couldn't lose weight through exercise alone. Exercise isn't pointless, especially when counting calories. I would look at a run as a beer or an extra glass of milk. But before I read it I had been under the impres

      • YMMV. My anecdotal evidence is that exercise is the only thing that helps me reduce weight, and acts as an appetite suppressant for at least 3 hours afterward. So, in my case, daily moderately-strenuous aerobic exercise (45-60 continuous minutes in aerobic pulse rate) is the easiest way for me to lose weight, whereas calorie reduction seems to drive my body into anti-starvation survival mode and makes my metabolism more efficient and less likely to convert body mass to energy.
  • Clay Johnson believes that the issues the U.S. has with food, have become mirrored in how we consume information.

    So the theory is walmart shoppers read too much... and thats a problem... show me a link on peopleofwalmart of someone with an excessive quantity of books and I'll believe it...

    Did he write about fluff vs real literature? I believe the PC rallying cry in years past was against the western literature canon or some phrase like that, basically all the stuff I self educated myself with by reading and enjoying.

    Does his book encourage zen meditation practice? Maybe something along the lines of all the benefits

    • I don't think that having an excessive quantity of books would really fit into the problem he describes. The people of walmart folks probably may not read a lot of books (though they may - especially if you count Harlequin Romances or the Twilight series as books) but I bet they have a constant flow of information coming in via TV, Radio, email and the web. It's the electronic media that gets the most attention and so I don't think fluff vs real literature was a topic that was discussed so much.

      I don't reme

  • 1. Make up some silly theory about some problem without any research or proof.
    2. Say it has something to do with the Intertubes!
    3. Write a book
    4. ...
    5. Profit!!!1!
  • Ambiguous non-recommendation gets an 8. I guess the scale is some sorta inverse logarithmic?
    • The scale is in the guidelines for submitting reviews [slashdot.org]. 8 is "Very Good". Usually what I do is start mentally with a 10 and as I see issues I'll knock down the score. I can't remember if I've ever rated a book I've reviewed a 10. I'd have to go back and look and I'm too tired to do that now. I know I've read some 9s.

      I didn't mean to be ambiguous. Sorry about that. I think that it's a good book with potential to have an impact. But the issues I mentioned do exist and so I wouldn't feel right if I didn't menti

  • Seems pretty obvious to me -- don't waste your time consuming junk like FB/twitter posts. I usually do it once a day and focus the rest of my day more important stuff.

    Quoting another review: "He proposes conscious consumption of information which is not about consuming less, but developing a balanced and healthy habit just like when you go on diet..... The method describe there is very similar to the Pomodoro techinque, and there are plenty of great books on how to manage your tasks and stay focused (GTD,

  • This reminds me of my philosophy of science class. A scientific hypothesis must:
    -be concise
    -make *single* predictions given one set of inputs

    For instance, consider a hypothesis of how gravity works as "any object that is thrown up into the air will either: fly up continuously, fall down eventually, fly to the left, or fly to the right" This isn't a scientific hypothesis since (almost) every possible outcome from "throwing an object in the air" is predicted. There's no way for that hypothesis to be proven wr

  • The real issue really might be the type of info not the quantity. For diet, it's the type of calories that matter. I've started consuming lots of fat and reducing starch and other sugars without regard to total calorie count and my weight has dropped substantially and my health has improved as measured by lipid panels and my own athletic performance. Gotta be a an information analog. Plenty of junk out there on the intertubes along with good stuff.
  • If you can make people unable to stop consuming your product then you have a goldmine.

    Cigarette makers have officially nicotine to do that (they have more addictives but the law doesn't give a fsck)

    and food makers have sugar. Not cane sugar but fructose/sucrose, corn syrup/sugar and HFCS. And it's everywhere! (even in table salt!)

    Sugar The Bitter Truth
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM [youtube.com]

  • It seems that most of the information out there now tastes like despair.
    • nah- there's lots of positive and exciting stuff going on - you just need to find out about it. I read about 2 or 3 cool things a week that get me excited about the future. Lately a lot of it has to do with the advances in e-learning and how mobile phones are improving lives in developing countries.

  • There's a lot to be said for the "personalization" trend of places like Google and Facebook, where they shape all of your results according to what their algorithms think is most important to you. Can readers weigh in on how the consolidation of the internet has affected their own use of it?

    I've found that rather than randomly browsing the web at large to find any particularly interesting page, my needs are primarily met by Wikipedia, Google's suite of apps, Facebook, Slashdot, and YouTube. Between the f
  • The fattest man in the world is Keith Martin........he's British and lives in London, thank you very much!

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2100052/Worlds-fattest-man-Keith-Martin-lives-London-58-stone.html [dailymail.co.uk]

  • ...for some I'm sure, but the idea that you are what you read is faulty. An intelligent person can tell if what their reading is complete BS or not. As Americans we've come to distrust our own eyes in favor of a benevolent authority to tell us what to believe. We want our information catered to our world views so we're all nice and cozy. But a true intellectual reads everything and makes all their decisions on their own without any help from anyone. The author has basically taken the fad diet and applied i
  • Theory is that if something is good, more is better. Food and information alike

    There you go, I've said it in one line.
  • Ironically, this book is about 140 to 150 pages too long.

    Also, if this review was shorter, there might have been a chance that I would have read it.

Did you hear that two rabbits escaped from the zoo and so far they have only recaptured 116 of them?