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The Information Diet

During the first weekend of my information fast I read The Information Diet by Clay Johnson. I felt pretty sheepish when I came across this comment criticizing fasting:

For most, I think this will yield an unsuccessful outcome. By the end of the fast, you’ll be so eager to plug back in that — like a food fast — you’re likely to binge as soon as you get the chance.

Regardless I am sticking with my fast plan. My idea is to break my diet down and build it up from scratch, using the guidance from this nice little red book.

Johnson uses the metaphor of healthy eating to communicate his idea of the ills of “junk” information and information overconsumption. Much of the book relates his experience in the DC beltway, witnessing the FUD spread by the political information production-consumption machine.

The authour advocates battling information “obesity” and the three types of ignorance (agnotology, epistemic closure, filter failure) with an information diet consisting of low ads, information diversity, balance, a sense of humour and data literacy, which he defines as the abilities to:

  • search, filter and process data
  • produce data
  • synthesize data

These last two really struck home. As I mentioned in my Information Fast post, I find I am constantly consuming other people’s opinions without properly synthesizing them and coming up with my own. I don’t blog as much, and if I do it is rarely original.

I pine for the time when I was writing my Master’s thesis, when I was forced to think and write out of necessity. I would periodically come up for air and see what was going on in the outside world. It was difficult, but much more satisfying.

Johnson writes about the ability to focus, and coins the term “attention fitness”:

Attention is something that requires cognitive energy, and it’s something that we must build up. You don’t train for a marathon by sitting on a couch and you don’t help your attention span by giving in to the temptation of every distraction that comes across your eyeballs.

Recently I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on a (printed) book for any length of time. Most of my reading is done through audiobooks. It normally takes me 2 months to read a print book during which time I can finish about 4 audiobooks. Reading books has become difficult, a chore. At night I would rather sit back and listen to a book, or watch a TV show (passive consumption). Furthermore, I usually read four books simultaneously. This is a symptom of my SNS/Blogs/HN/etc.-media-overconsumption-induced ADD. I can barely remember any of the books I have read in the past year. My short term memory may be suffering too… I can’t remember. I need to get back to when reading was relaxing. But there is too much to read!

In the tech world, curation is all the rage. But Johnson warns against this:

… the information overload community tends to rely on technical filters — the equivalent of trying to lose weight by rearranging the shelves in your refrigerator. Tools tend to amplify existing behavior. The mistaken concept of information overload distracts us from paying attention to behavioral changes.

Rather than filtering the aggregated curators, it is better to gather your information from primary sources. Johnson uses the metaphor of an information trophic pyramid. Cut out “processed” information from the punditocracy and read the source material, consider it and synthesize it yourself. Being an “activist” Johnson encourages readers to seek out data catalogues of public information provided by federal, state and local governments. If your city doesn’t have one, lobby for one. You are paying for that data with your tax money.

I found Kelowna’s Open Data Catalogue, which I plan to take a look at and think about uses. It would be great to get some people together for the next Startup Weekend Okanagan and use this data to make something cool and useful. I wonder who is responsible for making this data available, and are representatives from the local tech community in touch with this person? I know who to ask.

Anyways, trophic pyramid. Consume lots from this category. It is healthy for you. With that said, I encourage you to read The Information Diet. Although it probably should be a long magazine article, it is short enough for you to finish in a weekend if you are willing to ignore Twitter for a couple of days. I am going to consider this book a lot over the coming weeks as I plan my own information diet.