Author Interviews
5:00 am
Sat January 14, 2012

Is It Time For You To Go On An 'Information Diet'?

We're used to thinking of "obesity" in physical terms — unhealthful weight that clogs our arteries and strains our hearts. But there's also an obesity of information that clogs our eyes and our minds and our inboxes: unhealthful information deep-fried in our own preconceptions.

In The Information Diet, open-source-Internet activist Clay Johnson makes the case for more "conscious consumption" of news and information. Johnson, the founder of Blue State Digital, which provided the online strategy for the 2008 Obama campaign, talks with NPR's Scott Simon about ways to slim and stretch our minds.


Interview Highlights

On the similarities between eating food and consuming information

"Our bodies are wired to love salt, fat and sugar. ... Our minds are really wired to be affirmed and be told that we're right. ... Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they're right? Who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed? What we do is we tell our media that that's what we want to hear, and our media responds to that by telling us what it is that we want, and sometimes that isn't what's best for us."

On recognizing his own unhealthful media diet while working on Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign

"I noticed that because of our media diet, we were consuming everything that was great about Howard Dean. Even after that scream incident in Iowa, we still thought we could win and that we would make it, and we went on to New Hampshire and South Carolina thinking that victory was just around the corner. That was when I began to see that we can get a little delusional in the world of politics.

"It sort of culminated with me when I saw a guy holding a sign over his head in front of the White House a couple of years ago that said, 'Keep your government hands off my Medicare,' and another person in front of Walter Reed Army Hospital saying, 'Enlist here to die for Haliburton.'

"That's what made me start thinking: There's something going on here with our rhetoric, and there's something going on here with our media diets, where even the most highly informed of us can be ignorant."

On how more information can narrow, rather than widen horizons

"What choice gives us, what choice of information gives us, is the ability to misinform ourselves in all kinds of new ways. If you can have a discussion with someone next to you who says, 'I think X is correct,' and the other person says, 'I think Y is correct,' and then you can turn around to your mutual computers and then build a case for why you're both wrong — then all of a sudden, that synthesis that has really made ... democracy great starts going away. We lose our ability to synthesize when we can always prove ourselves right."

On why your "clicks have consequences"

"Just because your boss doesn't see you looking at that Kim Kardashian post on The Huffington Post doesn't mean that it's not without consequence. When you click on it, you're making it so that it's more visible to other people. That means an information diet is something that's of ethical consequence to you and others. ...

"When you go to The Huffington Post or many major media outlets right now, what they do is they'll come up with maybe 20 or 30, or maybe just two, different headlines for a particular story, and then when you click on that, that's a vote for one of those headlines. Over time, the headline with the most clicks wins and goes on the front page. And that's how we're making some editorial decisions now. ...

"A lot of AOL properties and other "content farms" ... who are trying to sort of commoditize the production of content, wake up in the morning and look on Google search trends. Google makes it publicly available what are the top things that people are searching for every moment. So, editorial decisions get made based on this information. It's really this idea of voting for — in very small, almost nontransparent, subconscious ways — for content that isn't very good for people."

On why fast-food companies aren't entirely to blame for unhealthful eating, and online communities aren't entirely to blame for unhealthful information consumption

"Obesity is a complicated problem. Obviously, obesity has to do with access, and obesity has to do with the economic conditions, but it sometimes also has to do with overeating, and the same thing happens with information. I think a lot of people don't have great access to information and good information, that's for sure, but also in the world of the Internet, we have almost universal access to everything that we need. And that means that we have to make empowered decisions and informed decisions about what it is that we're consuming. It's the only way to sort of 'live right' online."

On adapting Michael Pollan's famous food diet ("Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants") for information

"Seek. Not too much. Mostly facts. Eat low on the sort of 'information food chain,' and stick close to sources. If it's an article about a bill in Congress, or even at a statehouse somewhere, going deep and actually trying to read the bill itself is really, I think, advantageous. And it takes a little bit of time to pick up. Bills ... [and] house resolutions are not, the most entertaining things to read for most people. But getting to know what our legislative language is helps us, I think, become better citizens."

On encouraging good habits

"The question is, can we make enough people go: 'Hey, you know what? I'm done. I'm done with the sensationalism of media. I'm done being taken advantage of by media companies so that I can have ads sold to me.' ... If we want to make media better, then we've got to start consuming better media."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Obesity is - forgive the expression - a huge problem in America. Not just obesity that leads to clogged arteries, straining hearts, split pants and fat-inflicted diseases, but an obesity of information that clogs our eyes and our inboxes; a lot of unhealthy information that's deep-fried in our own pre-conceptions. Clay Johnson, an open-source, Internet activist, and founder of Blue State Digital, which provided the online strategy for the 2008 Obama campaign, has a new, non-partisan book which recommends some ways to slim and stretch our minds: "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." Clay Johnson joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

CLAY JOHNSON: It's great to be here.

SIMON: And begin with the analogy, please, that you make between how Americans produce and eat food and how we consume information.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, our bodies are wired to love salt, fat and sugar. We love it because it tastes good. But you know our minds are really wired to be affirmed and be told that we're right. And that's the central premise of the information diet. It's really who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they're right. Who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed?

SIMON: You say some of this thinking began to develop when you worked for Howard Dean's presidential campaign.

JOHNSON: Sure. I noticed there that because of our media diets, we were consuming everything that was great about Howard Dean. Even after that scream incident in Iowa, we still thought we could win and that we would make it. And, you know, we went on to New Hampshire and South Carolina thinking that, you know, victory was just around the corner. And that's what made me started thinking, eh, there's something going on here with our media diets, where even the most highly informed of us can be ignorant.

SIMON: You say, which is a wonderful phrase, cliques have consequences.

JOHNSON: That's right. Just because your boss doesn't see you looking at that Kim Kardashian post doesn't mean that it's not without consequence. When you click on it you're making it so that it's more visible to other people. That means an information diet is something that's of ethical consequence to you and others.

SIMON: And explain to us, with your expertise in this world, how people in a sense tip their hand as to what they're searching and how it just winds up amplifying.

JOHNSON: Well, when you go to the Huffington Post or many major media outlets right now, what they do is they'll come up with maybe 20 or 30, or maybe just two, with different headlines for a particular story. And when you click on that, that's a vote for one of those headlines - the headline that you clicked on. Over time, the headline with the most clicks wins and goes on the front page.

The other interesting thing is a lot of AOL properties and other content farms are what they're called, who are trying to sort of commoditize the production of content - wake up in the morning and look on Google's search trends. Google makes it publicly available; what are the top things that people are searching every moment, so editorial decisions get made based on this information. It's really this idea of voting for - and very small almost nontransparent subconscious ways for content that isn't very good for people.

SIMON: Well, that's - and to return to the food analogy, you say that you don't want to necessarily blame the online communities or services any more than you want to blame Kentucky Fried Chicken for every instance of obesity because nobody is forced to go in there and buy a bucket of chicken.

JOHNSON: Right. Obesity is a complicated problem, right? And obviously, you know, obesity has to do with access. And obesity has to do with economic conditions. But it sometimes also has to do with overeating. And the same thing happens with information. I think a lot of people don't have great access to information and good information, that's for sure. But also in the world of the Internet, we have almost universal access to everything that we need. And that means that we have to make empowered decisions and informed decisions about what it is that we're consuming.

SIMON: You actually recommended information diet that is kind of the equivalent to Michael Pollan's famous food diet, which is: eat food not too much, mostly plants.

JOHNSON: That's right. It's, you know, seek not too much, mostly facts. Right? Eat low on these sorts of information food chain and stick close to sources. If it's an article on a bill in Congress or even, you know, a statehouse somewhere, going deep and actually trying to read the bill itself is really, I think, advantageous.

And it takes a little bit of time to pick up. Bills are not, you know, House resolutions are not the most entertaining things to read for most people. But getting to know what our legislative language is helps us, I think, become better citizens.

SIMON: But what if people like the junk and food diet?

JOHNSON: Well, what if people like Cheetos, right? The question is can we make enough people go, hey, you know what? And I'm done. I'm done with this sort of sensationalism of media. I'm done being taken advantage of by media companies so that I can have ads sold to me, and do sort of what Wal-Mart is doing with whole foods. Right?

So, Wal-Mart started realizing that it was losing high-end customers and going, gosh, you know, we've got to start carrying fresh fruits and vegetables in Wal-Mart stores, too. And now, now Wal-Mart is cutting its salt, fat and sugar content. And I think that that same thing can happen with information. If we want to make media better then we've got to start consuming better media.

SIMON: Clay Johnson, his new book, "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." Thanks so much.

JOHNSON: It was great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.