Information Diet

What About Information Digestion?

information digestion dietAs I've previously mentioned, I finished reading The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption and, overall, I found it to be great read. Author Clay Johnson makes several excellent points throughout the book, essentially arguing that the problem is information over-consumption, not necessarily information overload. He uses health and nutrition as a metaphor, where we don't blame obesity on food overload but on food over-consumption, and that information over-consumption is the big problem for a variety of reasons. I do agree with Johnson, and I do agree with some of the solutions that he offers. One of those solutions is avoiding information and news sources that simply confirm our beliefs, typically sites and television shows that tell us that we are right instead of providing the facts or forcing us to challenge our notions or worldview. Another solution he advocates is a program called RescueTime, which monitors how you spend your time online and provides an accurate picture of your information consumption habits. From there, you can figure out what to cut and how to better spend that time that was typically wasted on mindless information consumption.

However, All that Is Only Half the Story

Limiting our information consumption and choosing the information we consume wisely are incredibly important. I don't disagree with that. I think the book falls short in what I'll call "information digestion," to keep with Johnson's health and nutrition metaphor. In regular health and nutrition, there's no reason to think about digestion. It's an involuntary bodily function that happens when it's supposed to, although eating the wrong things can mess with digestion and make it harder and more painful than it ought to be. However, with information consumption, we need to think about digestion too. We need to think about how we're interpreting the information, using it and acting upon it. We have to think about information digestion because it's not involuntary and how we digest information can change depending on our behaviors and attitudes.

Removing sources that just confirm our beliefs doesn't necessarily help because any news article or source can be interpreted as information that confirms our beliefs or that just presents one side of the story. For example, Huffington Post released survey findings earlier this month showing that only 36% of Americans have a lot of trust in that the information they get from scientists is reliable and accurate. Over 50% of Americans have a little bit of trust. With science journalists, 57% of Americans have a little bit of trust while 26% said that they don't trust science journalists at all to report on scientific studies accurately. These statistics make me wonder who these people would trust for information regarding scientific studies if they don't trust scientists or science journalists. I have a hard time believing that a politician or a lay person could report on scientific studies accurately or disseminate their contents reliably.

Hence, Our Need for Information Digestion

This is where information digestion needs to come in, as the source needs to be evaluated as well as the information the source is providing and what that information could mean or imply. Critical thinking needs to take place here, and we need to be willing to let information challenge our worldviews or what we believe. After all, it's still confirmation if we automatically write off the information because it came from a scientist or science journalist. It's also not good digestion if we approach the information with mistrust because it came from a scientist or science journalist because we might not necessarily take away anything valuable from that information. The idea of information digestion is a concept that merits an entire blog post on its own because it's a rather complicated concept. It's about recognizing when you have that bias, how to evaluate sources/information, and accepting the fact that you may not always be right or know everything. Not everyone wants to change their minds or admit that they are wrong.

Contributing to the Information Diet

i love the newsThere's a book I read about two years ago called, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. I remembered that I liked the book and found it informative, but after two years, I've forgotten the premise and main points. Since it's a short book, and since I've gotten back into the news business, I've borrowed it from the library to read it again. I think this is an important re-read as I am fulfilling the role of creating news and content for the consumption of others. I've already gone through the introduction, which refreshed memory that Information Diet makes the case that the consumption of news/information should be treated like how we ought to consume food. The over-consumption of food can lead to a variety of diseases, and the same can happen with a hyper-consumption of information in general, or in the over-consumption of the wrong information. As summarized in the introduction of the book:

If unhealthy information consumption creates bad information habits the way unhealthy eating creates food addictions, then what good is transparency?... You cannot simply flood the market with broccoli and hope that people stop eating french fries. If large numbers of people only seek out information that confirm their beliefs, then flooding the market with data from and about the government will not work as well as the theorists predict.

The overall point is that it's not enough to put the good information and the good news coverage out there. You need to change behaviors as well, probably concurrently as you put out the information that's part of a healthy information diet. A point that I'd like to make about this concept is that over-consumption can lead us to a point where we aren't filtering the information to come to a logical conclusion or to weigh various sides very well. It's much like choice overload, as the act of filtering information means that you are making choices about which information is most credible, most relevant, or even the most truthful. If you have too much choice, or too much information to go through, then it's easier not to choose or to settle on ideas that confirm your beliefs or affirm what you already know or think to be true. Or, even to choose not to read any information at all.

"We choose not to choose even when it goes against our best self interests," as Sheena Iyengar says in this speech below about why people chose, or don't choose, in the first place.

Commitment to Good News Coverage

As I get back into the news industry and assess trends, study what I'm doing, and watch what competitors are doing, I need to look for a way to contribute to the information buffet and to encourage a healthful information diet. I'm not one to do what everyone else is doing, so I need to figure out what's happening and then fill in what's missing. Curation and aggregation are hot right now, but I'm not much of a fan of either. Too easy to spread information that's just incorrect while creating a system where too few people are the actual news writers and creators. It also can lead to an echo chamber where something that's wrong is shared and repeated before it's corrected. Curation and aggregation involves sharing and repurposing what other people are doing. When there's too few people, certain topics will be missed simply because everything can't be covered. When there's an echo chamber, there's also an incentive to report things that do well in the echo chamber, versus topics that need to be said and covered. I wish I had the answer to everything now. Perhaps I'll have a few more once I finish re-reading the book and work in the industry a few more months or years.